‘Despite regional influences, Jewish food observes a strict dietary law’

When a community decreases in numbers, its traditional food becomes a memory and it is to ensure that this memory prevails that award winning author Esther David set out to chronicle the dietary habits of the 5,000-odd Jews residing in five areas of the country � down from a peak of about 30,000 in the 1940s � discovering that despite 2,000 years having passed since the community first arrived in India, their food might have imbibed regional influences but observes a strict dietary law to this day.

“Despite living in different corners of India, they are still bound by the common threads of food and religion. In India, Jewish food has some regional influences, but is made with a difference, as they observe a strict Jewish dietary law, of not mixing meat with dairy products.

“To keep this Law, Indian Jews use coconut milk in their non-vegetarian dishes, so as not to use dairy products. Sometimes, they make rice pudding with coconut milk instead of milk. And, instead of milk-based Indian sweets, they end their meals with fruit. All over India Jews make grape-juice sherbet for Shabath prayers or other festivals,” David told IANS in an interview of her book “Bene Appetit � The Cuisine of Indian Jews” (HarperCollins).

“Separate dishes are kept in Jewish kitchens for milk and meat. They prefer a good meal of fish with rice, and also make curries with red or green masala. They avoid applying ghee on chapattis, when meat dishes are made, to keep the dietary law, as ghee is a dairy product. Jews follow the Dietary Law, which says, ‘Thou shall not cook the lamb in its mother’s milk.’

“Unlike western countries, some ingredients are not available to make Jewish food, so local regional substitutes are added to some recipes. Indian Jews are a mini-microscopic community of India; and with each emigration to Israel or other western countries; they are decreasing in numbers, so some traditional foods are forgotten. Yet, while travelling, I discovered there was always someone; who remembered a recipe and gave it to me,” David explained.

The book grew out of her previous writings about the Jewish experience of growing up in India and understanding herself and her roots. Her first novel was an abstract exploration about how the community has preserved its Jewish heritage in a multi-cultural country like India.

“Then, I was only writing about my community, the Bene Israel Jews of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Alibaug, where we had first landed after a shipwreck, some two thousand years back. Sometimes, I included Baghdadi Jews in my narrative, as they had first landed in Surat, Gujarat and then moved on to Mumbai and eventually settled in Kolkata. I also knew that Cochin Jews were briefly connected with the Bene Israel Jews, when we lived in Alibaug. Later, some Bene Israel Jews stayed on in Alibaug, while others moved to Mumbai, Pune and then Ahmedabad, Gujarat,” David said.

For a better understanding, she often went to the Magen Abraham Synagogue of Ahmedabad “and was at a loss, as our family was not religious and often, I did not understand the rites, rituals, traditions and Hebrew prayers connected with most Jewish festivals. So, I approached the cantor of our synagogue, Joseph Samuel Pingle, fondly known as Johny bhai, to explain the intricacies of Jewish life”, she added.

“Once, while explaining the food prepared for a certain festival, he called his wife Julie to provide more detailed information.

“Julie is from Mumbai and known for her expertise at making traditional Jewish cuisine. These brought back memories of the time, when we lived as a joint family in a big haveli-type�house in the old city of Ahmedabad, where Shabath prayers were held and traditional Jewish food was cooked every day and special dishes were made for festivals.

“This thought stayed with me; somewhere at the back of my mind, even as I continued to work on my novels; and started including food, when I wrote about a certain occasion, event or festival. In fact, in one of my novels, each chapter began with a Indian-Jewish-recipe,” David, whose novel, “Book of Rachel”, received the Sahitya Akademi Award for English literature in 2010, elaborated.

As her novels became known and she met many people at conferences or wrote to her, or when her books were translated in French and Hebrew, everybody wanted to know “How is Indian Jewish food different from western Jewish food?” Soon after, she received a project from the Hadassah Brandeis Research Institute, USA, to document Bene Israel Jews of Gujarat, followed by another project to study the cuisine of Indian Jews.

“In totality, it was helpful as I understood my community better, as I visited homes, attended every possible event, and had long conversations with community members, I understood the life-style of Indian Jews,” receiving in-depth information from Cochin Jews, Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata, Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh, and Bnei Menashe Jews of Mizoram/Manipur, along with Bene Israel Jews of Alibaug/Gujarat. This formed the basis for “Bene Appetit”.

There is also a sampling of recipes from each of the five regions: Fish Alberas (Western India), Jewish Fried Chicken (Cochin), Arook – Minced Meat or Mashed Fish (Kolkata), Biryani (Andhra Pradesh) and Fish Cooked In Bamboo Hollow/Fish With Mustard Leaves (Manipur/Mizoram).

How much does Jewish food retain its original character or is there a degree of assimilation into the Indian palette?

“In daily life, food may have regional influences, with a universal taste for fast-foods and street-food, yet for festivals, Indian Jews make great efforts to make traditional recipes, as each festival or event has to be celebrated with certain ritualistic foods,” David said.

How much of commonality is there between the Jewish food of the five regions in which the community resides?

“It is interesting to note here that besides regional influences, each Indian Jewish community makes some recipes, which are similar to their country of origin, from where they fled due to persecution; and came to settle down in India. As we always say, India is the only country in the world where Jews have never been persecuted and have the freedom to follow their religion,” David concluded.