CHENNAI: Food is a memory for Sahitya Akademi awardee Esther David. Of family members assembling at one place, women in the household cooking together and a large table filled with Indian Jewish delicacies. “Food is also all those different flavours that used to come from the kitchen. We make a sweet puri where the dough is made with coconut milk and jaggery and it goes with a spicy curry. These combinations of flavours you will not understand if you haven’t tasted it,” says Esther.
While she offers such tidbits on Indian Jewish cuisine from Ahmedabad over a phone call, with her book Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews, she takes readers on a gastronomic journey of recipes from five Jewish communities across India Bene Israel Jews of western India, the Cochin Jews of Kerala, the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata, the Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh and the Bnei Menashe Jews of Manipur and Mizoram. The book walks us through their dietary law, festivals, recipes, and how each of their cuisines is influenced by Indian cuisine.
Esther’s books The Book of Esther, Book of Rachel, Shalom India Housing Society, to name a few — have revolved around the Indian Jewish community. The juxtaposition of the plot and her recipes builds a rousing appetite for the story and the tummy. “It was never conscious. In one story, I used a popular recipe by Indian Jews, a black pepper sauce to create a dark moment between the characters.
Likewise, I use food to take the plot ahead,” she offers. One question and several years of research led Esther to write this book. “I attend a lot of literary conferences meant for Jewish writers. At one such conference, in France, I was asked ‘Is there something called Indian Jewish cuisine?’ And this made me more curious,” she says.
So from 2017 to 2019, Esther travelled, meeting members of the different communities. Starting from Alibaug in Maharashtra where the community was said to be formed after a shipwreck 2,000 years ago Esther travelled to Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh, Kochi, Kolkata, Imphal and Aizawl, where she was treated to a variety of dishes.
Cook, eat, repeat
Her guide through all these years of research was Julie Joseph Pingle wife of the cantor of the Ahmedabad synagogue Joseph Samuel Pingle who Esther says, “knows all the traditional dishes.” After returning from her trips, Esther would recreate the dishes with her help. “When I started writing I realised that one has to be so particular and really make it to know how a recipe tastes.
Without knowing how it tastes, you can’t write about it. My sources sent me photos of many recipes with details, or the person who gave me the information translated the recipes to English. Some recipes have a regional touch but always eaten following dietary laws. Some recipes have subtle influences of the country where Jews came to India from like Israel, Middle East, Far East and Spain,” she shares.
While the book reveals some closely-guarded recipes like chik-cha-halva, rose biscuits, jumping potatoes, Jewish biryani, pakoda curry and many more, it is hard not to notice that most of the recipes have an Indian influence too. And what’s more, they have even adopted some famous Indian dishes like puran poli and meen pollichathu into their cuisine. “We make dumplings.
Some Jewish communities in India are not a fan of it as it is bland, but it is very popular in the west. So, we add Indian elements to it. The same goes for sweets too. The recipes may look similar to Indian dishes, but there are subtle differences. You’ll find the use of coconut milk, tamarind, poppy seeds…which appear similar to Indian dishes but they are not,” she says.
It is hard for Esther to pick out a favourite dish, but two recipes stay etched in her memory for different reasons. “In the synagogue in Machilipatnam, where I was the host family’s guest, they made fish eggs. This is a delicacy and it is only made for special guests, so I was deeply touched. I was reminded of my childhood when we ate fish eggs, but now they are rare.
This dish is a form of respect given to a person. And the other favourite is the black rice pudding chak-hao. I was amazed. I am not very much into sweets but in this case I was carried away. The whole idea of black rice and coconut milk cooking for hours, and the play of colours as the black rice slowly turns deep purple… the memory is very close to me,” she details. “When a community decreases in number, its traditional food becomes a memory,” writes Esther in her book. But what she also heartily notes is that the elders and the youngsters of the Indian Jewish families she met are trying hard to preserve every last bit of their culture and cuisine.
Laws of Indian Jewish cuisine
The vessels for milk dishes and meat dishes are different. You can’t use one for the other for at least five hours after the first use.
Since Indian Jews often have roti or paratha with their curries, they make sure to not add ghee on top of the breads as their dietary law does not permit the mixing of dairy and meat.
In accordance with the dietary law, Indian Jews substitute milk with coconut milk while having a non-vegetarian meal.
On the bookshelf
Book: Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews
Pages: 199, Price: Rs 399
Publisher: Harper Collins India