The surprising landscape of Indian Jewish food
The arc in the food story of each of the five communities is a factor of history. In Kolkata, the change in cuisine possibly happened soon after the Iraqi Jewish immigrants arrived and discovered Indian spices. Author Sonal Ved, in her book Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? The Story of Where “Indian” Food Really Came From, says when they arrived in the 1800s, they probably knew only such ingredients as chilli and garlic. When they discovered the rest, it “gave rise to a whole new hybrid Jewish cuisine, which had preparations like arook (meaning “veined” in Hebrew and Arabic), rice balls flavoured with garam masala; pantras, beef-stuffed pancakes sprinkled with turmeric, ginger and garam masala; hanse mukhmura, a duck-based dish where the meat is cooked with almonds, raisins, bay leaf, tamarind paste and ginger root; and aloo-m-kalla murgi, pot-roasted chicken with potatoes.”
At the other end of the country, Mattancherry is a tiny locality south of Kochi on the Kerala coast that’s home to Jew Town, a mishmash of a few streets with shops selling antiques, spices, knickknacks and local handicrafts, interspersed with cafes and eateries. At the end of Synagogue Lane is the 17th-Century Paradesi (foreign) Synagogue, built with sloped tiled roofs, blue and white willow-patterned tiles, Belgian chandeliers, Jewish symbols and four scrolls of the Torah.
Outside, the humid coastal air carries the aromas of spices, something that Kerala has always had in abundance. As a trading community, the Malabar Jews sensed an opportunity and ended up controlling the local spice trade. Unsurprisingly, Malabari Jewish cuisine today is redolent with spices and tempered with coconut milk (an essential part of traditional Kerala cuisine), which works well with Jewish dietary laws. Here you’ll find Malabar Jews eating flavoursome curries made with fish, chicken and vegetables, as well as sambhar (lentil and vegetable gravy), eaten with rice. There are also appam (rice hoppers), meen pollichathu (green fish curry), Jewish fish kofta curry, chicken in coconut curry; and puddings and payasam (a kind of porridge) made coconut milk. An unusual dish is pastel, something similar to an empanada, stuffed with minced chicken.
In western India, home to the Bene Israeli Jews, the local influences are unmistakable. Poha (beaten rice) is a familiar Maharashtrian staple used to make breakfast and snacks, but also finds a strong presence in local Jewish food. The poha is washed and mixed with grated coconut, an array of dry fruits and nuts and chopped seasonal fruit, and forms an integral part of the malida (a local Jewish thanksgiving ceremony). But there are also unusual dishes such as chik-cha-halwa, a signature Bene Israeli sweet made by reducing wheat extract and coconut milk.