THE TRIBUNE – Book Review by Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu
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 Muthalaly
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.”
HINDUSTAN TIMES – By Cherylann Mollan
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 food heritage.
THE 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 traditional feasts.
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)
Each community’s 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.
This 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.
“Bene 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 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 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.
Packed with recipes, traditional snippets, and peppered with pictures,
‘Bene 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.
A 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
I’ve 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.
We 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)
Esther 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 Jewish population.
THE NEW YORK TIMES – by Florence Fabricant (21st November, 2021)
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.
1. What 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 I knew.
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 these problems.
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 one.
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 begin?
1- Food 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?
2-Indian 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?
3-During 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.
It is important to mention here, that although many Indian Jews speak English, along with regional languages, they say their prayers in Hebrew.
All over India, whenever I met Indian Jews, we bonded like one big family.
4-In addition to your travels, were there any secondary sources you sought for research for this book?
4- I wrote about Jewish food, as it is made today; in India.