Passover a spicy affair for Toronto’s Indian Jews
She hovers over the pot of sizzling grease and throws in pinches of cumin, turmeric, hot chili seeds — and the room fills with spicy steam.
Miriam Daniels, 56, is preparing a dish that might sound, to many Jews, like a contradiction in terms: glatt kosher lamb curry — for Passover.
“I like it spicy,” she says. “It’s our favourite at the seder.”
When most other Toronto Jews might serve brisket or turkey to crown the ritual meals of the eight-day holiday, which begins Friday, Daniel’s family will dine on something a little more, well, exotic.
That’s because she’s an Indian Jew, descended from a little-known community that traces their roots back to a ship that washed upon the shores of India’s western coast more than 2,000 years ago. Today, Toronto is home to a growing number of “Bene Israel” families.
And they do things a little differently: They wear saris on special occasions, sing blessings and prayers to tunes based on Sephardic melodies and scratch their heads during Chanukah because December’s festival of lights was added to the Jewish calendar long after their ship set sail.
They also consider their versions of Indian curry, which don’t mix milk and meat, “traditional” Jewish food and, like their Sephardic brethren who hail from Iraq and Yemen, they eat rice — sometimes making special rice-flour chapatis — on Passover.
Ashkenazi Jews (eastern European) will swap the grain, along with bread, wheat, yeast and pastas, for matzo, those thin, crackly sheets of unleavened bread. It’s eaten to commemorate the Jews’ rushed exit from slavery in Egypt — they left before their baking bread had a chance to rise.
For Daniels, omitting rice would be sacrilege — because it’s contrary to what she grew up with in Kehimkar, a tiny village in India’s Maharashtra province (her community is separate and distinct from the better-known Jewish community in Cochin in southern India.)
Like many Jews around the globe, Daniels was part of an observant family who kept the Sabbath and tried to eat according to Jewish law. But unlike her cohorts in other countries, her community didn’t have access to many kosher products.
Especially for Passover.
Dietary staples, such as milk, butter, cheese and sugar, which need to be properly blessed for the holiday, were impossible to come by. So, the Jews went without them for the week.
Indian Jews decided the safest thing to do to keep kosher on Passover was to focus on fresh foods and steer clear of dried beans and legumes, which are common in Indian cuisine.
Rice was permissible only if it was pure — Jews would sit and sift, by hand, through each grain, throwing out specs of barley or other impurities (Today, Jews have to check the rice, sifting through it three times for it to be considered kosher for Passover).
Everything else they made from scratch, including matzo.
Ann Samson, a founding member of Toronto’s Congregation BINA, which holds prayer services that follow the traditions of the Indian Jewry, remembers how the preparations started months in advance. Each year, community volunteers, which included Iraqi, Persian and Yemenite Jews as well, would erect special ovens near the local Jewish day school in her neighbourhood of Byculla in Mumbai. Families would put in their orders, she says. “And then we’d fill our baskets.”
Sinnora Moses, 47, who left India 15 years ago, says her family, along with others, would even make their own “Kiddush” wine, which is vital for saying prayers at the Seder. They would pick and crush wild black currants by hand and boil them down. Daniels’ relatives would bury their barrels underground for six months to ferment in a cool, dry place.
When Israel gained independence in 1948, India’s Jewish population, which had about 30,000 members scattered across the country, began to dwindle, with many moving to the new Jewish state.
That’s when Daniels’ community began to shrink. And in 1966, her family immigrated to Canada as well. Though thrilled to be among a larger community of Jews, Daniels had some struggles. Dark skinned, she didn’t look like Toronto Jewry and her faith was often met with skepticism. “Did you convert?” she recalls being asked. “I had to explain myself a lot.”
Food was another story. In the 1960s, Toronto wasn’t yet such a cosmopolitan city, so Daniels’ family had to travel to Gerrard St. for spices, such as the cumin and turmeric in her lamb curry.
But Passover products were easy to find. And over the years, especially since her mother died in 2013, boxed matzo replaced the homemade rice-flour chapatis she ate as a child. Though she grows nostalgic for the taste, she hasn’t attempted to make the delicate flatbreads.
That’s why the lamb curry has become even more significant for preserving her personal heritage.
Daniels presides over the simmering pot on this recent March day in her niece Tanya Hyams’ Passover kitchen — a tiny but fully equipped kitchen in the basement of her Thornhill home, which has been properly koshered — cleaned and cleared of all “chametz,” yeast and wheat — for the holiday.
Hyams, 31, a mother of two, also has an entire cupboard of kosher-for-Passover spices, plates, cups, cutlery — you name it. She’s been making good use of her second kitchen for weeks, cooking and getting a head start on her holiday meals. A fridge nearby is filled with kosher-for-Passover biryani, “green curry chicken” and “garam masala beef.”
With that, the curry is ready. Daniels opens the lid on the pot and breathes in the fragrant steam.
“You can’t be afraid of spice,” she says, issuing a challenge to her Ashkenazi cohorts: “They should try every different type of flavour. If you don’t experiment, you don’t know!”
Miriam’s Spicy Passover Lamb Curry
Miriam Daniels likes spice. That’s why her kosher-for-Passover lamb curry — what she serves as the crowning main dish at her Seder, the eight-day holiday’s ritual meal — calls for an entire red hot chili pepper and a heaping teaspoon of red pepper flakes. But you can dial it back if your family can’t stand the heat. Daniels uses kosher stewing lamb (find it at Magen Meats in Thornhill), but you don’t have to. She serves this dish on rice. It’s also delicious plain. And, of course, with matzo.
3 tbsp (45 mL) vegetable oil
1 lb (454 g) boneless lamb shoulder, cut in 1-inch (2.5-cm) cubes
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped cilantro leaves
1-inch (2.5-cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled, minced
6 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
1 medium tomato, diced
1 hot red chili, stemmed, seeded if desired, minced
1/2 tsp (2 mL) each: ground turmeric, ground cumin, red pepper flakes, table salt, garam masala (spice blend)
1/4 tsp (1 mL) black pepper
2 medium Yukon Gold or yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled, cut into 2-inch (5-cm) cubes
Cooked basmati rice (optional), for serving
In large pot over medium-high heat, heat oil. Add lamb. Cook, stirring, until browned all over, about 5 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer lamb to plate.
Add onion to pot. Cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Add cilantro, ginger, garlic and tomato. Cook until tomato releases liquid, about 2 minutes. Add fresh chili pepper, turmeric, cumin, red pepper flakes, salt, garam masala and black pepper. Stir 1 minute. Add reserved lamb to pot with potatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer until meat is cooked through and tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
If desired, serve curry over rice.
Makes 4 servings.