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The snack for Christmas in Kolkata
A few notes on fruitcake (also known as plum cake)
Hello, Snackers. It’s sugary, it’s dense, it’s so easy to mock that jokes about it are a full-on TV trope. It’s fruitcake! But here’s a story about it that you may not know.
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Kolkata, India, especially New Market. Here’s a map!
Fruitcake in Kolkata is pretty much your standard fruitcake—a dense dessert flecked with fruit, soaked in rum (here the preference is Old Monk brand), flavored with cloves and nutmeg, and topped with chopped nuts—but it’s the story that makes it stand out.
The tale of this iconic Kolkatan Christmastime treat centers on a Jewish bakery in New Market, a shopping area whose name belies the fact that it’s been around since 1874. The bakery is right in the middle of the market—just look for the red storefront with a long sign across the top its gold letters spelling out “Nahoum & Sons Confectionary.” Inside, there are counters topped with white marble and glass cases displaying a seemingly endless variety of baked goods: chocolate cake and custard-filled doughnuts; chicken patties and garlic bread; macaroons and marzipan. Come December, Nahoum’s is especially popular for Kolkata residents in search of a local seasonal tradition: fruitcake.
Christmas is a national holiday in India, where it’s also known as Boro Din (“big day” in Hindi), a day of celebration that is often more secular than not. (Of course, there are plenty of people who get into it for the official baby-born-in-Bethlehem reasons: as writer Naresh Fernandes told NPR, about two percent of Indians are Christian, but “that's 2 percent of the population of one billion. So that is quite a lot of people for whom December 25th is very important.”) Still, the day’s festivities have a broad appeal and purpose, not contingent on beliefs or background—and fruitcake, a vestige of the long era of British colonialism, has a similarly diverse and uncategorizable popularity. In a 2014 piece for NPR’s food blog, The Salt, Sandip Roy wrote:
Cake knows no religion. At Nahoum and Sons, the city's only Jewish bakery, a lady who gave her name only as Mrs. Maxwell waits in a long line as her grandson plays with a toy pistol. … At Sheik Nuruddin's storefront bakery, there's a photograph of Mecca on the wall. But in December, you can rent his oven and his bakers for your own Christmas cake. The wood-fired oven turns out seven cakes an hour, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., says Nuruddin.
Nahoum & Sons was founded in 1902 by Baghdadi Jews, part of a community that had begun immigrating to Kolkata in the early 1800s and by the time the bakery opened numbered somewhere between 1,800 and 4,000 people, depending on your sources. (Here’s more about the Baghdadi Jews of India; it’s an interesting history!) There are plenty of other places to get fruitcake, including Flury’s, a tearoom in the British style, which “stays open all night on Christmas Eve,” but it’s Nahoum’s that has the longest lines, the most acclaim, the biggest reputation.
The bakery is still run by the Nahoum family—as of 2015, the owner was Isaac Nahoum, the grandson of the founder—and that continuity helps maintain a nostalgic, heritage-driven reputation, an essential part of the fruitcake’s appeal. In fact, resistance to change is part of the bakery’s own story, embodied in its old-fashioned treats and even its specific way of doing things: they don’t use any preservatives, giving their products a shorter shelf life than those of some competitors, and when one writer visited the shop in 2015, the manager insisted the cash register be included in the photos accompanying the story because the machine itself was on the cusp of turning 100 years old.
If you aren’t able to get to Nahoum’s, here’s a version of their recipe.
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Will you like it?
If fruitcake isn’t your thing, there are a TON of food options in New Market (again, check out the map). Here are a couple that caught my eye and made me hungry:
Here’s a video
Take a tour of New Market, including a visit to Nahoum & Sons near the end:
In the next few weeks, we’ll have posts on the history of candies that light up in your mouth, pizza rolls, Jell-O shots, and much more. Stay tuned!