THE TRIBUNE – Book Review by Puneetinder Kaur
Esther David’s book showcases culinary heritage of Jews in India. Esther David’s latest book showcases
Jewish life in India. She traces the culinary heritage of this miniscule
community, the 5,000-odd members of which live in tiny pockets around the
country. Replete with recipes, historical snippets and peppered with
illustrations, ‘Bene Appetit’ is a quick, easy read and every bit as appetising
as its instructive contents. Following the opening notes on Jewish culture are
introductory chapters about the Jewish communities that call India home. The
author, herself a Jew, takes readers to the Bene Israel Jews of Western India,
to the Cochin Jews in Kerala, the Baghdadis in Kolkata, the Bene Ephraim of
Andhra Pradesh, and the Bnei Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram… Prominent
festivals and historically symbolic foods form an important component of the
book. We learn that apples dipped in honey, signifying a sweet year ahead, are
mandatory on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In Kerala, Yom Kippur (Day of
Atonement) is observed by consuming wheat flour halwa after a day of fasting.
Like elsewhere, Passover marks the exodus of Jews from Egypt. In Western India,
matzo, the unleavened bread carried across the Red Sea, has been replaced with
the bin-khameer-chi-bhakhri. A platter of assorted fruits edged with sweetened
poha, nuts and dried fruits, called malida, is another essential part of
celebrations. Scores of similar nuggets, with detailed recipes, are packed
between the covers of ‘Bene Appetit’. A delicious read.
THE HINDU – Book Review by Shonali
Author Esther David travels across India, collaborating with
Jewish communities to learn how to cook traditional, closely guarded recipes
for her new book – ‘Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of the Indian Jews’. Her latest book, Bene Appétit: The
Cuisine of the Indian Jews, published by HarperCollins, opens with the lines
“Food is memory. Food is culture. Food bonds families and communities.” Hence,
in the face of a rapidly fading collective memory of the Indian Jewish
experience, Esther decided it was time to travel across the country
to record their traditions…”All these communities found ways to adapt local recipes and ingredients,
in keeping with our dietary laws. Meat must be kosher and you cannot eat it
with dairy – so you cannot even put ghee on a chappati,” says Esther…To
record the recipes from each community, Esther travelled to
synagogues and Jewish homes across the country, starting with Machilipatnam,
Andhra Pradesh….“Everywhere people were really wonderful. There is a
fraternity, a family feeling. They were not only happy to cook these recipes
for me, but also to translate and write them down,”…. While most of the recipes
are simple, with tweaks, like using coconut milk instead of dairy in keeping
with Jewish dietary laws, the collection is also a fascinating account of a
diaspora that blended into India harmoniously, yet managed to retain a unique
identity…. Explaining why she decided to plunge into food writing, she says,
“My sources are beginning to forget some of the older recipes. Everyone is now
into quick cooking and fusion…. Our taste buds are forgetting our heritage.”
TIMES – By
Food, faith and
Jewish tradition: Esther David on her new book
See how local influences mingled with
ancient beliefs have resulted in morphed matzo bread and a feast of poha, among
other treats, in Bene Appetit. Esther David,
76, is an Indian Jew who grew up in a large joint family in Ahmedabad and made
a career as an art critic, columnist and visiting professor in art history at
CEPT University, before writing her first book at the age of 45. The Sahitya
Akademi awardee’s previous works include the novel Book of Rachel (about a lone
Jewish woman trying to preserve her community’s heritage in coastal
Maharashtra) and the non-fiction work, Ahmedabad: City with a
Past. David’s latest book, Bene Appetit, takes readers into the kitchens
of five Jewish communities across India — the Bene Israel Jews of western India,
the Cochin Jews of Kerala, the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata, the Bene Ephraim of
Andhra Pradesh and the Bnei Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram. Released by
HarperCollins in April, it explores the elements of faith and tradition that
have moulded Jewish cuisine in India, and documents how the dwindling community
(down to about 5,000 from about 50,000 in 1940) has found ways to preserve its
TELEGRAPH – Kolkata
(Pass on those jumping potatoes and celebrate Jewish diaspora delicacies. Jews in India and their food
practices have not had to face persecution. But modernization and the passing
of the old guard are fast eroding their unique culinary heritage.)
An itinerant people often leave behind more things than they can carry
with them. However, their stories and their food may end up sneaking into their
scant baggage and becoming significant markers of their identity in their
adopted homelands. In “Bene Appétit”, Esther David
curates a range of mouth-watering recipes that the Jewish diaspora has brought
to this country from their native Israel; having landed in the melting pot of
cultures that is India, these have now acquired flavours of their own.
Traditional Indian Jewish food is a dying art,” writes David, as she
emphasizes the need to transcribe these recipes from the kitchen to the page. Until
the 1940s, she notes, India was home to some 50,000 Jews, an aggregate that has
now dwindled to only about 5,000, tucked away in five disparate pockets —
certain regions in western India, Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Manipur
and Mizoram in the Northeast. In her quest to save the moribund culinary
practices, David ends up doing much more than merely collecting recipes — she
journeys across the land, chronicling the curious histories of different
Jewish communities, the sites that their members have come to inhabit in India,
as well elements of their cultures — attire, festivals, rituals, and
Besides providing a number of recipes of delectable dishes – the South
Indian “meen pollichathu”or green fish curry, the “chak-hao”or
black rice pudding of the Northeast, the “aloo makala” or “jumping
potatoes” brought to Calcutta by the Baghdadi Jews, among many others — and
their variations, David identifies authentic Jewish food joints that she
discovers on the road — be it the Jewish bakery in Calcutta or D’Samson’s Cold
Drinks near Alibaug.
David vividly captures soulful vignettes that characterize the places
she visits — the roadside “chai in clay pots” in Calcutta, the “idyllic”
seaside town of Alibaug, the “tall mountain tops amidst floating clouds”
in Mizoram. Interestingly, she chooses to use illustrations instead of
photographs to capture scenes and cuisines that she writes about, giving the
book a delightfully quaint appearance. In
spite of being a rather insular community, Indian Jews, David observes, seem to
have adapted to local cultures to a great extent — although idol worship is
prohibited in Judaism, many Bene Israel Jews in western India have happily
taken to worshipping posters of Prophet Elijah.
This confluence of cultures is also reflected in the cuisine, which forms
the crux of the book. David focuses on
the ‘dietary laws’ of Indian Jews that they adhere to rather strictly. For instance, at no cost can dairy products
and meat dishes come together — even their utensils are kept separate.
There is also a strict rule about which animals can be eaten and the “kosher”method
of slaughter. Yet, local flavours have seeped into these
traditional recipes, especially in the form of regional herbs and spices.
Jews in India and their food practices — unlike those of some other
minority communities in recent times — have not had to face persecution.
But modernization and the passing of the old guard are fast eroding their
unique culinary heritage. It is, therefore, all the more necessary to
document these traditions now — what better way to do this than to bring people
together around the dinner table ?
THE NOSHER – by Rachel Myerson and Varsha
Torgalkar (October 11, 2021)
traditional recipes are unique, aligning with Jewish dietary laws but also
influenced by locally available ingredients. These traditional recipes,
however, are becoming lost to a younger generation who adopt shortcuts. David, a
Bene Israel Jew, set out to document these disappearing recipes — and translate
them into English — in the hope that she will inspire all generations of Jews
to return to their roots.
was a mammoth task, involving travel across cities and villages, visiting
synagogues and meeting community members….David offers us a fascinating,
delicious glimpse into a world that is at once familiar and completely foriegn.
Appetit – The Cuisine of the Indian Jews” is a celebration of the breadth and intricacies
of Indian Jewish cuisine — and Judaism in general, while serving as a
cautionary tale, reminding its reader of the importance of preserving tradition
and of taking the time to learn the stories and practices of our ancestors.
THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS – by Anushree Madhavan (29-05-2021)
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
“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 jiggery 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 titbits 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…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.
EAST COAST DAILY
In Esther David’s book ‘Bene Appétit: The
Cuisine of the Indian Jews,’
Indian Jewish communities record their traditions
with recipes, widely examined, with heart-warming anecdotes and mouth-watering
recipes, Bene Appetit gives a holistic picture of a little-known community.
with recipes, traditional snippets, and peppered with pictures,
Appetit’ is a fast, simple read, and every part as appetizing as its
informative contents. Following the opening notes on Jewish culture are
opening sections about the Jewish communities that describe India home…. Like
elsewhere, Passover points to the emigration of Jews from Egypt. In Western
India, matzo, the unleavened bread brought across the Red Sea, has been
reinstated with the bin-khameer-chi-bhakri.
platter of assorted fruits edged with…sweetened poha, nuts and dried fruits,
called malida, is another necessary part of celebrations. Scores of similar
nuggets, with detailed recipes, are packed between the covers of ‘Bene
Appetit’. A delicious read…
SCROLL – by Vivek Menezes
been an enthusiastic fan of Esther David’s enviably light touch, and eye for
detail. Now aged 76, she’s still got it, as in this description of Fort Kochi:
“The entire evening had a magical feeling, as seagulls and other birds circled
above while the fish got caught in the Chinese nets. Hidden amidst the trees, along
the seashore, there were birds like coppersmith barbets and green bee-eaters.
watched in amazement as the vibrant blue of a kingfisher’s wing stood out
against the evening sky, amidst the cargo ships anchored along the coastline
with the sound of their horns and flickering lights.”
THE JERUSALEM POST – Israel (20th January, 2022)
David’s cookbook “Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews” won the council’s
award for food writing. A member of the tiny Bene Indian Jewish community,
David uses her book to explore the culinary practices of India’s 5,000-member
THE NEW YORK TIMES – by Florence Fabricant (21st November,
The Bene, the Bene Israel is a group of Jews in
India, said to have arrived there many centuries ago. Esther David, who is a
member of the community living in Ahmedabad, India, will discuss its food and
traditions in a virtual event for the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City.
Those food ways and customs have been preserved over time, as she describes in
her book “Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews.” There will be a pre-recorded
session with Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York
University, followed by a live conversation between Dr. Ray and the food writer
and New York Times contributor Joan Nathan.
TIMES OF INDIA – Interview by Surabhi Rawat
Indian Jews live a very secretive life: Esther
David on writing a book on Indian Jews’ recipes ‘Bene Appetit. India is a land of diverse cultures and
religions, and one such diminishing community is that of the Indian Jews with
less than five thousand Jewish people in the country. In her latest book ‘Bene
Appetit’, author-art critic-columnist-artist Esther David captures and gives
the readers a unique glimpse of the Bene Israel Jewish community of India and
their largely unknown cuisine. Esther David won the Sahitya Akademi Award for
English Literature in 2010 for her debut novel ‘The Book of Rachel’. An Indian
Jew herself, she documents the life and experiences of Jews in India through
her books. ‘Bene Appetit’, published by HarperCollins India, is Esther David’s
11th book which was released in 2021.
inspired you to write ‘Bene Appetit’?
1-Writing this book happened by chance. While
researching for all my fiction books based on Jewish themes, I came to the
conclusion that Indian Jews’ cuisine is least known to people. Jews came to
India when they were fleeing persecution in Israel and other countries; as they
began living in India their traditional cuisines were influenced by India. The
main base of Jewish food is the dietary laws. For instance: they say ‘Thou
shall not cook the lamb in its mother’s milk’, and so we cannot use dairy products
with non-vegetarian food items. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian food have to be
kept separately. To maintain this, Indian Jews discovered coconut milk which I
thought was very fascinating. There are five Jewish communities in India and
I’ve written about some of their popular recipes in my book ‘Bene Appetit’.
These dishes are cooked on special festivals, as each festival has a definite
food item associated with it. The festivals are based on an event from the
Bible which took place and so it’s more than 5800 years of Jewish history.
Also, I realised that Western Jewish food is more popular in the world because
of cinema and TV series. Their Jewish food is different (from ours) which
people know of, like the Challah bread or plaited bread but people don’t know
that Indian Jews also follow similar traditions and how! For instance, except
for the Kolkata Jewish community which has a Jewish bakery, the plaited bread
wasn’t available in India and we didn’t know how to bake it. We didn’t even
know that we needed to have Challah bread (since we can’t have leavened flour)!
Instead Indian Jews use chapati or bhakri and sprinkle it with salt for the
Shabbat prayers. I thought this was a big contrast between Indian and Western
Jews when it comes to their cuisine. Similarly in Europe, wine is very common
but here in India we don’t get Kosher wine. So instead we make a sharbat by
soaking black currant in water, and use it as a perfect substitute for Kosher
wine. Or, Khajur ka Sheera which is used for a festival is easily available in
the West but not in India and so we have to make everything from scratch. Over
the years, Indian Jewish food is becoming a dying art as most Indian Jews are
migrating to Israel and other Western countries. Most of us are not really
making these food items anymore or only have some oral memories of it. So I
thought this is a good time to start documenting these interesting recipes of
Indian Jewish food in my new book.
Also, in one of my previous novels- ‘The Book of
Rachel’- I had decided that each incident starts with a recipe which is
connected to the story and the emotion… Somehow, I’m fascinated by food.
2. While working on this book, did you too as an
Indian Jew discover anything new about your community’s food habits that you
didn’t know of earlier?
2. Yes! For
example, there are platters prepared during festivals or celebrations– this is
one of the Indian influences I noticed. Just like Prasad is served at festivals
in India, we have adopted it in a different way in our cuisine. We prepare a
big thali on occasions and add different kinds of food to it as an offering to
the festival or Prophet Elijah. After the prayers are said over the platter and
Prasad is distributed, then the main meal is served as a Thanksgiving. This I
thought was a very strong Indian influence.
Also, we can’t have dairy products with meat items
and so we can’t have most mithais with our meals. Only when there is Jain food,
we are okay with having mithais with it but even those we make on our own for
festivals. The biggest surprise that has come to me is how do you make a sweet
which follows the dietary laws of Jews, besides using a lot of fruits? So the
solution to it is Chik-Cha Halwa, which is wheat extract or chik with coconut
milk which is cooked for about 7-8 hours.
I noticed that the Indian Jews from North-east
India have very strong influences of their local cuisine on their food. They
make dishes like bamboo noodles, rice flour pancakes with honey, or smoked fish
in bamboo hollows, among others. They also use a lot of local food items like
ginger, chili, yams, roots and fermented meats in their cooking.
3. Which are your favourite Indian Jewish dishes
from this book?
3- From my area, the Bene Israel Jews of Western
India, I like Chik-Cha Halwa. Down south, I’m very fascinated with Fish Eggs
recipe and Chicken Curry with Gongura or Sorrel Leaves recipe, Dumplings made
by the Bengal Jews, and Chak-hao or Black Rice Pudding made by the Bnei Menashe
Jews of Manipur which was delicious and interesting! My table is no longer what
4. Talking of your previous novels and non-fiction
books, you mostly have Indian Jew characters and you mainly write about the
community. What does home, identity, and being an Indian Jew mean to you?
4- It is very conflicting as there is a
cross-cultural conflict that we experience. I think we Indian Jews live a very
secretive life. Most Jewish celebrations happen after 7 PM. On the streets we
all look like Indians, but the moment we enter a synagogue we wear the kippah
(the Jewish skull cap) and we pray, there are celebrations, etc. Even in our
homes, most festivals are celebrated after sunset, and so it’s like a
transformation that takes place in the evenings. These two conflicting
emotions– of being a Jew and an Indian- I find it very difficult. In my books
I write about Jewish themes to understand myself, where I come from, where I
belong, and yet at heart I’m an Indian.
5. ‘Bene Appetit’ is your 11th published book. You
have written fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, etc before. What do you
enjoy writing the most out of these?
5-Fiction- Jewish! You asked me about the
cross-cultural conflict– that interests me the most. Our community is getting
smaller and there would be problems. Our children go out for education, they
meet people of different communities, and they want to get married out of the
community– so how does the community handle all of this? In most of my books,
like ‘Bombay Brides’ or ‘Shalom India Housing Society’, I’m trying to solve
The second thing that interests me is how do the
Jews here accept Indian and Jewish life? How does it accept and deal with all
the social issues we face now as a very microscopic community? I’m not an
academician, scholar or researcher and I won’t be able to do justice to it. But
the only way I can deal with it is through stories and so fiction is liberating
in a way.
6. You are an artist, illustrator, sculptor and
writer. How do you express yourself the best?
6-Now it’s only through words and drawings, and
when I’m talking to people like you who understand. When I’m talking I feel
relieved… Drawing liberates me. I use some 50-60 pens of different types, and
I’m constantly thinking while drawing. Even in earlier books, I used to draw my
characters and then built the story around them. I visualize first and then
write, as that’s my art training.I have removed the word “block” from
my life. I’m continuously constructing– situations, characters, etc in my
mind. I usually work on two novels at the same time– a light novel and a heavy
7. And writing tips for aspiring writers?
7-Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing– there
is no other way! Also, a lot of young writers don’t want to rewrite or edit their
work, which I think is very important.
8. Lastly, any book recommendations?
8-I have a tendency to read about communities and
how they survive. I like the works of Orhan Pamuk, Ismat Chugtai, and Rushdie.
1- When did your journey of writing this book
and memory are connected in one way or another. Recently, I found an old bottle
of saffron and when I tried to open it, the fragrance spread all over the house
and brought back memories of my grandmother and how she hid it in a
coin-size-box in various places of the house, using it sparingly for some
dishes. And, when I was seven, she forced me to cut frills around the ‘Kippur
chi Puri,’ which is made to break the fast of Yom Kippur. So, in most of my
novels, which are based on Jewish life in India, these images often surfaced,
when I wanted to create a certain mood in my narrative, like using a recipe of
black sauce to create a dark mood. But, with time, these traditional recipes
disappeared from our table. Much later, when I was in Paris during the launch
of the French translation of one of my novels, I was invited for a Jewish New
Year dinner party. I was fascinated with the amazing variety of Jewish cuisine
of the west. I felt, it was different from Indian Jewish food. Soon after the
launch of my novel, a reception was planned for a small audience and I was
asked to make Indian Jewish food for the guests. I agreed and reached early
with the ingredients and as my host’s family helped me, I made Bene Israel Jewish
fish curry, coconut rice and black currant sherbet, which was appreciated.
Maybe, at that very moment, I started thinking about Indian Jewish cuisine,
which is not as popular as western Jewish cuisine. During this period, I
collected many unknown recipes from Julie Pingle, wife of the cantor Joseph
Samuel Pingle of the Magen Abraham Synagogue, Ahmedabad and for my next novel;
I started each chapter with a recipe.
2- You highlight that each Indian Jewish
community has a different culinary method, yet they are bonded by their
‘heritage of food.’ Can you briefly touch upon some commonalities?
Jewish communities follow the ‘Dietary Law,’ which says, “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. And, as a substitute to dairy products they use
coconut milk to make curries and sweets. With meat dishes, Indian Jews prefer
to end their meals with fruit and do not have milk based sweets, like ‘mithai.’ In accordance to the dietary law, Indian Jews
have fish with scales along with rice.
3- Dealing with different languages across
regions seems like it was quite a task for you. Were there any other challenges
you faced during your travels?
this journey, I had to deal with languages spoken in various regions. In
western India, Maharashtra and Gujarat, Bene Israel Jews speak in Marathi, but
having lived in Gujarat, I do not. But, the women were cooperative and helpful,
as they explained in Hindi or Gujarati, the finer points of traditional food.
Telugu is spoken in Andhra Pradesh, so my conversations with most Jewish women
were translated by Jaya Kumar into English. In Kochi, my Jewish friends spoke
both Malyalam and English. It was the same in Kolkata. In North-East India,
Mizoram and Manipur, although Yonathan, Tamar and Akiva spoke English, I
realized that I had to understand their ingredients and recipes. So, on my
return to Ahmedabad, I had to make innumerable phone calls and asked them to
send emails with photographs.
important to mention here, that although many Indian Jews speak English, along
with regional languages, they say their prayers in Hebrew.
over India, whenever I met Indian Jews, we bonded like one big family.
addition to your travels, were there any secondary sources you sought for
research for this book?
wrote about Jewish food, as it is made today; in India.