When my book ‘Bene Appetit – Cuisine of Indian Jews,’ was published by Harper Collins publishers, readers wanted to know, why I decided to write it.
My answer was very simple, that there are five thousand Jews in India, so when a community decreases in numbers, its traditional food becomes a memory. With this book, I have tried to preserve the heritage of Indian Jewish cuisine.
Because, food is memory, food is culture; food is connected with bonding of families and communities. Food is also part of our childhood.
The Jewish community, has been living in India since 75 CE, comprises a tiny but important part of the population. Over the years, its members have stuck to their dietary laws and have integrated Indian habits with their customs, leading to some unique ceremonies and rituals that have been passed down from one generation to another.
There are five Indian Jewish communities – the Bene Israelis of western India, the Bnei Menashe Jews of the Northeast India, the Bene Ephraims of Andhra Pradesh, the Baghdadi Jews of West Bengal and the Cochin Jews of Kerala. Despite living in different corners of India, they are still bound by a common thread of food and religion. However, with modernization and immigration, many of the traditions and recipes are fast being forgotten.
This narrative began like a journey to the five main centers, where Indian Jews live in different cities and states of India. This became a possibility, when I received the Hadassah Brandeis research award, U.S.A.
I used the word ‘Bene’ in the title of the book, as it means ‘Children of Israel’ in Hebrew.
Most Jews came to India, as they were fleeing from from persecution. They came to India through different routes and settled in different regions; choosing coastal areas.
It was fascinating to note that Indian Jews of these five regions have different facial characteristics. And, when I photographed them, they became like a kaleidoscopic collage of contrasts and colours. Yet, a common thread bonds them together, with their belief in Jewish traditions, rites, rituals, lifestyle and the dietary law. I also discovered; how Indian Jews preserve their food habits in a multi-cultural country like India, which has diverse food habits.
Like Jews of the diaspora, Indian Jews follow the dietary law, ‘Thou shall not cook the lamb in its mother’s milk.’ So, Jews do not mix milk with meat dishes and keep separate vessels for both. As yogurt is made with milk, ghee is clarified butter and used almost everyday in Indian homes, many Jews are vegetarians, because, kosher meat is rarely available; in the absence of a shohet.
Curries are often made with coconut milk, while Jews of Mizoram and Manipur make soupy curries with meat, chicken and vegetables.
Indian Jews have derived ways and means of using the correct regional ingredients to make festive food. Each community has a different culinary method, which is influenced by regional Indian cooking, along with a distant memory of their country of origin.
I observed, each community had a different way of following the dietary law and rules of kosher in their food habits. Yet there is a common thread, which links each Jewish community to the other. Indian Jews, follow the law, by not mixing dairy products with meat dishes. They have fish with scales and there is a taboo on pork. With meat dishes, they prefer to end their meals with fruit. And, as a substitute to dairy products; Indian Jews use coconut milk to make curries and sweet dishes.
Most Indian Jews live close to water-bodies, which influences their cuisine. They live around sea-shores, lakes and rivers and have a preference for fish and rice. Much before, Indian Jews took to the urban way of life and moved to cities; they were farmers and owned paddy fields, along with coconut, banana plantations, while the
Bene Israel Jews were oil-pressers, they did not work on Shabbath and were known as ‘Saturday-Oil-People. They settled in Maharashtra near the Arabian Sea. In Gujarat, they settled along rivers. Cochin Jews chose the Kerala coastline. While Baghdadi Jews, first arrived in coastal Surat in Gujarat, then moved to Mumbai and eventually settled in Kolkata, along the Hoogly River in west Bengal. Bene Ephraim Jews chose the seashores of Andhra Pradesh, while Bene Menashe Jews of Mizoram and Manipur chose lakes and mountains.
An important factor of Indian Jewish cuisine is that many festive and ceremonial foods are made by the women at home or at the synagogue, under the guidance of a woman who knows the recipes. For example, kosher wine is not available in India; so dried-grape-sherbet is made for Shabbath and festivals. Earlier, challah bread was available at a Jewish bakery in Kolkata for Baghdadi Jews and not available elsewhere. So, Indian Jews make flat bread or buy freshly baked white bread or buns. More recently, some women have learnt to bake their own challah bread. In the same way, for the Passover Seder, our women make flat-bread-matzo, haroset with dates and many other ceremonial foods.
Indian Jews are proficient in English and regional languages, but chant their prayers in Hebrew. And, since most Jews have immigrated to Israel, they celebrate festivals together at the synagogue or at a rented hall and eat together like one big family.