It's been common for vegetarian Indian restaurants to obtain kosher certification for their kitchens, but what about serving actual Jewish food from India, kosher or not? That's one of the sidelines at Curry Hill newcomer Haldi ("Turmeric"). The place partakes of the new rush to explore regional Indian cuisines, a field so vast that dozens of new restaurants would be needed to do it adequately. Haldi's particular mission is to revel in the cooking of Bengal, India's easternmost region, which formerly included parts of Bangladesh. In doing so it partly focuses on the food of Calcutta, West Bengal's most populous city.
The Jews there are one of the three historic Hebrew communities of India: the Black Jews of Cochin (from the southern state of Kerala), the Bene Israel (from Bombay), and the Baghdadis of Calcutta. As Caludia Roden notes in The Book of Jewish Food (1996), "The Jews of India are an object of fascination to other Jews because of their Indianness and darkness of color." The Jews of Calcutta are the most recent arrivants, transplants from Iraq a little over 200 years ago, while other Indian-Jewish communities are medieval or of Biblical vintage; at one time the Baghdadis numbered 6000, but now constitute fewer than 3000. By the 20th century, they had developed a distinctive cuisine combining Middle Eastern and Indian elements.
Their cooking includes chicken soups, stews, and cutlets, matching poultry with raisins, nuts, and potatoes, but also with such Indian spices as cardamom, turmeric, ginger, and cloves. Coconut milk finds its way into a distinctive fish salad, and offal — especially beef, veal, or lamb brains and livers — are an important focus. In a Middle Eastern fashion stuffed vegetables like eggplant and tomatoes are frequently enjoyed. Altogether, Copeland Marks offers 27 recipes from the Jews of Calcutta in his book Sephardic Cooking (1992), and it seems likely that this volume is at least partly the source, in slightly altered form, of Haldi's recipes.
Retaining its Arabic name, bamia kuhta ($15.95) is a stew of tender, well-cooked lamb chunks and nearly intact okra pods, a classic Middle Eastern dish. Only, in the Calcutta version the sauce is rendered sweet and sour, and far more pungent, and there's a jolt of chile heat. Served with caradamom-dotted rice, the stew is memorably excellent.
Stranger is chicken makmura ($15.50), a quartet of raisin-shot balls of minced chicken lolling in a cryptic sauce of cashews that probably also contains sweetened condensed milk. The minced chicken balls are certainly related to Middle Eastern kofta; indeed Mavis Hyman's Indian-Jewish Cookbook (1992) calls a similar recipe koofta curry, but the extant recipes for makmura refer to a whole roasted chicken in cashew sauce, so Haldi's recipe seems something of a hybrid, but well worth trying.
In its opening days, Haldi apparently did a dish of chicken livers roasted in the tandoori oven attributed to the Calcutta Jews; no more. Instead there's a novel pair of potato-and-beet fritters in an oblong shape, crumbed and fried, served with a sweet red dipping sauce that owes something to Sriracha. Beets and spuds make an unexpectedly good combo when mashed together, and the fritters attain a striking purplish color.
Haldi is off to a good start, but there are dozens of other Jewish-Indian recipes waiting to be explored. From the Bene Israel, there is a green mango salad and puran poli: a chapatti stuffed with a sweet, cinnamon-y chick-pea puree. The Cochins have a simple Passover chicken curry called puzukku, and choraka: a mustard-laced saute of cauliflower and summer squash in tomato sauce. Curry Hill: Get busy! 102 Lexington Ave, 212-213-9615