Indians may think of latkes, brisket and kugel when they think of Jewish food. But a Bene Israeli meal could include anything from moogachi usal to modaks: foods they share in common with coastal western Indians of all faiths.
Los Angeles-based chef and writer Kaumudi Marathé, author of The Essential Marathi Cookbook, and herself from the Kokanastha Brahmin community, ticks off the most characteristic ingredients of these cuisines. “Lots of rice, mango, coconut milk,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe any cuisine briefly, but if I absolutely had to, I’d say it’s like Maharastrian Kokanastha cuisine that conforms to Jewish dietary laws.”
Esther David, author of Book of Rachel, an Ahmedabad resident and a Bene Israeli, expands on the culture of kosher in these parts. After the loss of the holy books in the shipwreck, she says, “For long, we had an oral tradition, which included the dietary law which says, ‘Thou shalt not cook the lamb in its mother’s milk’. Indian Jews, and indeed Jews all over the world, do not cook meat dishes in yogurt or milk-based products.
“Yogurt and dairy products are not eaten immediately after eating meat dishes but after a few hours. Fish without scales, animals with cloven hooves and pork are taboo. Often, there are separate vessels for milk and meat. The slaughter of animals is done in a specific manner. So most Indian Jews prefer to be vegetarian and only eat meat dishes when they are slaughtered according to the law. Often, we also avoid eating beef to respect our Hindu neighbours,” says David.
The milk-meat taboo creates Bene Israeli food’s most distinct taste. Coconut milk, used in place of milk, is the key flavour, says David. So are kokum and Konkani fish masala. Marathé points out that Jewish chefs also found a way around using yogurt in marinades: Lemon juice or lime juice does the trick.
Seafood is loved. And “poha (beaten rice) is used by almost all Bene Israeli Jews for the ritual of Malida, made as an offering to Prophet Elijah, for wish fulfilment,” David says.
“For Shabath (Sabbath) prayers or Passover services or to break the Yom Kippur fast, we often make a sherbet of black currants in the absence of wine, especially in Gujarat, which is a dry state. For Jewish New Year, the fragrant rose-coloured chik-cha-halwa is a signature Bene Israeli dessert.”
SERVES 2 ‘THALIS’
10 tbsp wheat extract, or chik
7 litres coconut milk
14 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp vanilla essence
Edible colour, rose pink
If you wish to make your own wheat extract, soak whole wheat in water for three days, changing the water occasionally till the grain puffs up. Grind wheat in a hand-operated machine to a smooth paste, spread out on a plate and dry in the sun. When completely dry, break into pieces and store in jars. If using readymade chik, make a paste of chik with water and let it stand for 4 hours until the water surfaces. Remove the excess water. Mix coconut milk and sugar with the paste and cook on a slow fire, stirring continuously for 4 hours till the paste thickens and leaves the pan.
Add vanilla and colour, and cook for half an hour. Spread on a flat surface and when cool, cut into diamond shapes, decorate with almonds and eat fresh.
Recipe courtesy Esther David and her friend Julie Pingle, who caters to the Jewish community of Ahmedabad.