This is my maternal grandfather. His name was Simon Sion Judah, but I knew him as Nana (pronounced Naa-naa. In many parts of India maternal grandparents are called Nana and Nanee; paternal grandparents are Dada and Dadi.) He came from Baghdad to India by ship as a boy of 14 and married my grandmother Rachel when he was 27.
I thought about him on Shavuot with its many luscious dairy specialties because among his various professions he was a cheesemaker. In fact, he was one of three incredible Jewish cheesemakers in Calcutta.
There were two kinds of cheese, called jibben in Arabic: plain, made into blocks; and plaited, or braided. Kosher vegetarian rennet was ordered from Bombay and added to whole buffalo milk so it would break up into lumps like cottage cheese. My mother remembers that the verandah of their home in Bentinck Street was lined with huge earthenware jars. After the milk was delivered and poured into the jars, he added the rennet and waited for the milk to curdle, Often he was so eager that he would wake up in the early part of the morning to see if it had curdled enough to produce soft curds. He drained the curds, put them into a large cheesecloth, twisted the cloth tightly, turned it over on a flat surface and placed a heavy brick on it. When the cheese solidified, he salted it, cut it into blocks and stored it in the cheese water ready to be purchased.
For plaited cheese, he sliced the plain cheese and cooked it in boiling water over the stove until it became elastic. When it cooled a little, he took it out and braided it. Customers came to his door to buy the cheese, which was not only relished plain, but also enjoyed in the filling of cheese sambusaks. You can still buy fresh cheese and cheese sambusaks at Nahoum’s, the Jewish bakery that continues to operate in Calcutta’s Newmarket. In the U.S., Syrian cheese, which is similar to jibben, is available in specialty Middle Eastern shops.
My grandfather passed away in London in 1976. Yehi Zichro Baruch.
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Rahel Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.