Tales from India’s kosher kitchens: Celebrating Indo-Jewish cuisine
On the eighth day, when it was all over, Flower Silliman would treat herself to Calcutta’s choicest street foods. Giving her company were friends, relatives and others from the city’s fabled Baghdadi Jewish community – which numbers fewer than 20 today.
“Kachoris, samosas, luchis… everything forbidden was relished on this day,” says the 86-year-old, harking to when the metro was a kaleidoscope of ethnicities. “Bengali, Anglo Indian, Armenian, Parsi and Muslim dishes are part of our daily fare. So long as they are kosher.”
It’s three days down, five to go before the festival of Pesach or Passover wraps up. Until then, India’s six Jewish communities – the Baghdadis, Bene Israelis, Cochin Jews (Malabaris and Paradesis), Bnei Menashe and Bene Ephraim – avoid chametz, or that which is derived from five grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye. A signature food is unleavened matzah, the only bread permitted in this eight-day phase. Matzah, along with five other offerings, are essentials in the Passover Seder (ritual feast).
The Seder plate is a medley of tradition and symbolism. Maror or bitter herbs allegorise the Abrahamic narrative of the struggle of Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Charoset (sweet brown syrup or mixture) represents mortar, used by Hebrews to build the pyramids, while karpas or boiled vegetable dipped in salt water signifies the tears shed in doing so. Beitzah (hard-boiled egg) and zeroah (roasted lamb shank bone or chicken) are reminders of Pesach sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Kicking off and accompanying this Seder is customary Kiddush (grape wine).
Jewish food is often depicted as borscht, challah bread, matzah balls in soup, gefilte fish (fish fillet ground and poached with matzah, onion, eggs and spices in fish stock) and little else.
But of the many fitting replies, there’s none more exemplary than Indian Jewish cuisine.
To an outsider, Kashrut or Jewish dietary laws dictating what’s kosher (fit for consumption) is highly restrictive: pig, game, reptiles, shellfish and fish without scales are forbidden. Meat and dairy can’t be mixed (separate utensils are used for the two). So no meat marinated and gravied in yoghurt, and meat cooked in ghee or butter. Milk-based desserts can only be had 3-6 hours after non-vegetarian fare. And meat must conform to shechita, the religious, humane framework for slaughter (akin to halal in Islam).
To acknowledge the diversity and versatility of Indian Jewish cuisine is to acknowledge constraints that inspired culinary creativity.
“Anglo Indians make delightful puddings and custards, which we can’t have after (non-vegetarian) dinner since they contain milk. So we make ours with coconut milk. They turn out better than the originals,” laughs Silliman, who’s authored Three Cups of Flower, the canon of Calcutta Jewish recipes.
Take aloo makallah, hilbe and roast chicken. This Calcutta Sabbath specialty is a twist on aloo bhaaja and poshto. It’s utterly minimalist, but the technique – from choosing perfect spuds and frying at the right temperature – ensures that potatoes, oil and salt are the only ingredients needed for golden-brown comfort food with innards so fluffy, they ‘jump’ when sliced open. Which is why aloo makallah is dubbed ‘Jumping Potatoes’. Taking this dish a notch higher is hilbe, a green chutney made from methi seeds.
Sesame seeds, dates and Arab confectionaries figure prominently in Baghdadi Jewish cooking since the lineage goes back to Iraq, Yemen and Syria. So while Bengalis are frontrunners in milk-based desserts, Baghdadis aren’t the poorer for the sweet stuff. Mavis Hyman’s Indo-Jewish Cooking is a goldmine of non-dairy treats like baba khudrassi (nougat cake) and mulfoof (pistachio/mixed nut strudels flavoured with rose water). Hyman’s and Silliman’s recipes are available on the Recalling Jewish Calcutta website, jewishcalcutta.in.
“Dairy is a stepchild in Jewish kitchens,” Silliman underlines. “The only difference between Calcutta and Bombay Baghdadi food is the latter has more meat because of access to a shochet (Jewish butcher).”
Bombay, Bene and beyond
Nissim Moses, who left for Israel 50 years ago, remembers Byculla like it was yesterday. The neighbourhood was once home to several kosher bakeries and butcher shops, says the founding president of the Bene Israel Heritage Museum and Genealogical Research Center. The establishments decayed into oblivion after the 1960s, when Indian Jews emigrated en masse to Israel.
“But we still cook the way we used to,” adds Moses, whose mother won Israel’s Kitchen Queen contest in 1970. Her recipes, and his too, are chronicled in the five-part The Heritage of Bene Israel in India.
Bombay is home to the majority of Indian Jews, of which Bene Israelis number around 4,500. Their dishes imbibe from Konkan and other regional cuisines, an influence seen in Passover too. Charoset, the brown date syrup, becomes ‘shira’, which Moses makes with dates, a host of dry fruits, Kiddush, grape juice and red wine. Their naaral (coconut) halwa, a Rosh Hashanah staple – along with mutton roast – once took 4-5 hours to cook. “Now people follow the 45 minute recipe and use corn flour,” he tut-tuts.
On Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, Bene Israelis break their fast with painstakingly-made saat padder puris (seven-layered puris) with a rich, gooey dry fruit and elaichi mixture. But if there’s anything quintessentially-Bene Israeli, it’s malida.
“We hold the patent for it,” jokes Sharon Galsurkar, an educator in ORT, the non-profit Jewish organisation. Until a year ago, he also ran India’s only kosher bakery in Byculla (now shut).
This sweet poha, placed on a thali with five fruits, is a ceremonial offering “made on auspicious occasions to honour Prophet Elijah, and sometimes by people who want something and use it to blackmail god,” Galsurkar chuckles.
Meanwhile, roughly 3,300 km away in Manipur, Aharon Vaiphei has just prepared Seder the Bnei Menashe way. Like other Indian Jewish cuisines, their fare is an amalgam of regional influences. Instead of shank bone for Passover, the Bnei Menashe prepare a traditional rooster dish, kalchuh kut ahsa mepoh.
Their diet comprises a cluster of greens uncommon in mainland India: lemon basil, arrowhead, water spinach, jonglha (bitter bean), garden cress and meriandra dianthera (Bengal sage). Fermented soy and bamboo dishes and anthom (rice beer) are fixtures. “And malchame –steamed vegetables or fish with lots of red chillies. Singju, a salad with finely-chopped banana stem, cabbage, beans, ginger, chillies and other seasonal vegetables is a favourite,” says the coordinator of NGO Shavei Israel.
Kashrut in Kochi
Anyone familiar with Kerala cuisine knows how treasured appam is. The story goes that appam was a gift bestowed by Syrian Christians. But there’s another version claiming appam is in fact a Cochinim (Cochin Jew) invention.
“This is true, especially for kallappam (appam fermented with toddy). It originated in Jew Town and spread to other parts of Cochin,” says Dr. Essie Sassoon, author of Spice & Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews.
Food history is rife with claims, counter-claims and lack of data. But whether or not the Cochinim invented appams is immaterial when one considers other culinary contributions.
Many Cochinim, comprised of two groups – Malabaris (first Jews to touch Indian shores; believed to have arrived from the court of king Solomon) and Paradesis (‘white Jews’ from Spain and Portugal) – moved to Israeli settlements like Nevatim and Mesilat Zion. Sassoon herself has been in Ashkelon for 43 years, but her Malayalee roots – endearing lilt and all – remain.
“When they first went to Israel, they got a food shock,” says Bala Menon, co-author of Spice & Kosher… “They found Ashkenazi (originating from East Europe) food served there bland. Coconut and spices were hard to get, but not anymore.”
Eliahu Bezalel is credited with this turnaround. The pioneering horticulturist and Cochini Jew, awarded by the Israeli and Indian governments, made the Negev desert bloom with an array of produce.
But Essie Sassoon still checks in on her ancestral home every two years. “Making matzah was a joyous affair. We’d go to the mill, make it kosher and powder wheat there,” she says wistfully. “The whole community would gather to make bread – men kneaded and women baked. Everyone sang hymns while doing so.”
Malabari and Paradesi food is nearly similar, but for the latter having richer vegetarian fare and the Malabaris, a greater variety of fish delicacies, Menon points out. Famous dishes include chuttulli meen (filleted salmon grilled in roasted shallot paste), hubba – similar to Arabic kibbeh (dalia, onion and minced meat croquettes) – ispethi or stewed beef and the Rosh Hashanah specialty, Cochin Jewish cake.
But pastel is the jewel in the Cochinim crown. Reminiscent of empanadas, this Paradesi Jewish staple is Dr. Essie Sassoon’s favourite. “At every function, we make around 500 of these and they disappear within 30 minutes,” she laughs.
A country once home to 30,000 Jews before Israel’s formation now has an estimated 5,000 from the community, not including Bnei Menashe, whose population Aharon Vaiphei pegs at 7,000. Even if the figures are correct, the Indian Jewish population stands at 12,000 – five times lower than that of the Parsis.
Debates rage about what ‘secularism’ entails. But as we see and saw, we forget that our greatest testament to tolerance is our culinary heritage – cuisines birthed by people who made India a home away from home.
In their dwindling numbers, we find ourselves all the poorer of this legacy.