A Punch Line In The U.S., Christmas Fruitcake Is Big In Calcutta : The Salt Seen as indestructible in the West, fruitcakes are indispensable in the bustling Hindu city. Bakers of all faiths have the ovens running round the clock to feed Calcutta's appetite for the cakes.

A Punch Line In The U.S., Christmas Fruitcake Is Big In Calcutta

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/371706930/373038485" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Here in the United States, there is a certain holiday delicacy that could be best described as a mixed blessing. The traditional, extremely heavy fruitcakes studded with neon bright candied fruit is more likely to be a punchline than a favorite treat. But in India, Commentator Sandip Roy says the fruitcake is held in much higher regard.

SANDIP ROY, BYLINE: Denzil Saldanha is over 80 but far from retired.

DENZIL SALDANHA: (Talking on the phone) Hello, ah, Mr. Bellide (ph). Hi, give me your bread order.

ROY: He takes orders, surrounded by workers, cutting slices of fruitcake with thick almond icing.

DENZIL SALDANHA: (Talking on the phone) Hi, make your order chocolate? Chocolate walnut?

ROY: This family bakery is making 600,000 pounds of cake this Christmas. Denzil's daughter Debra, who gave up banking to join the family business, says customers appreciate that it's all made to order.

DEBRA SALDANHA: They get the smell of hot cakes coming out of the oven and literally wafting in the air.

DENZIL SALDANHA: There's raisins, there's plums, cashews, peel - lemon peel, red peel, white preserves.

ROY: And the most famous Indian rum.

DENZIL SALDANHA: Pepper mixed with Old Monk.

ROY: The British are long gone, but they left behind the fruitcake. The West jokes about indestructible fruitcakes as the gift that keeps on giving, but Calcutta embraces it.


ROY: Flurys, a legendary European-style tea room, stays open all night on Christmas Eve, says manager Rajeev Khanna.

RAJEEV KHANNA: It's a plum cake which has been marinated just like week of November. Dundees. Rum and raisin. Mince pie.

ROY: Here in Calcutta, Christmas is simply called Boro Din, or Big Day. And it's universal.

DEBRA SALDANHA: I guess Christmas is celebrated by everybody, irrespective of whatever religion they belong to.

ROY: Cake knows no religion. At Nahoum, 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.

MRS. MAXWELL: Nothing beats Nahoum. You buy the same plum cake from somewhere else at a much higher price. And you buy one from - yeah, you may just find the difference.

ROY: At Sheik Nuruddins' 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 shop turns out seven cakes an hour, 18 hours a day.

SHEIK NURUDDIN: (Foreign language spoken).

ROY: At Christmas, these small bakeries give customers what the big chains can't, a personalized, homemade feeling. Saldanhas will open even on Christmas Day, for that last-minute, desperate walk-in.

DEBRA SALDANHA: You can't say no because people come in, and you can't send them back disappointed - there's such a sad face.

ROY: Jewish bakeries and Muslim bakers in a predominantly Hindu city, baking Christmas cakes around the clock. You could call it a triumph of capitalism. Or a slice of peace and goodwill for all. With almond icing.

GREENE: Commentator Sandip Roy is the author of the upcoming novel "Don't Let Him Know." He's also a senior editor with firstpost.com in India. And if you want more than fruitcake, you can find more Christmas food traditions from around the globe at our food blog, "The Salt." That's at npr.org.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.