The Surprising Landscape of Indian Jewish Cuisine

The arc in the food story of each of the five communities is a story factor. In Kolkata, the change in cuisine may have occurred soon after the arrival of Iraqi Jewish immigrants and the discovery of Indian spices. Author Sonal Ved, in his book Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? The story of the actual origin of “Indian” food says that when they arrived in the 1800s, they probably only knew ingredients such as chili and garlic. When they discovered the rest, it “gave birth to a whole new hybrid Jewish cuisine, which had preparations like wake (meaning “veined” in Hebrew and Arabic), rice balls flavored with garam masala; pantspancakes stuffed with beef 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 murgibraised chicken with potatoes.”

At the other end of the country, Mattancherry is a small town south of Kochi on the Kerala coast that is home to Jew Town, a hodgepodge of a few streets with shops selling antiques, spices, curios and local crafts, interspersed with cafes and restaurants. At the end of Synagogue Lane is the 17th-century Paradesi (Foreign) Synagogue, built with pitched tiled roofs, blue and white willow-patterned tiles, Belgian chandeliers, Jewish symbols, and four Torah scrolls.

Outside, the humid coastal air carries the aromas of spices, something Kerala has always had in abundance. As a trading community, the Jews of Malabar sensed an opportunity and came to control the local spice trade. Unsurprisingly, Malabari Jewish cuisine today is flavored with spices and tempered with coconut milk (an essential part of traditional Kerala cuisine), which works well with Jewish dietary laws. Here you will find Malabar Jews who eat tasty curries made with fish, chicken and vegetables, as well as sambhar (lentil and vegetable sauce), served with rice. There is also appam (rice hoppers), meen pollichathu (green fish curry), jewish fish kofta curry, coconut chicken curry; and pudding and payasam (sort of porridge) made from coconut milk. An unusual dish is pastelsomething like an empanada, stuffed with ground chicken.

In western India, home to Bene Israeli Jews, local influences are unmistakable. poha (beaten rice) is a familiar Maharashtrian staple used to prepare breakfast and snacks, but also finds a strong presence in local Jewish cuisine. The poha is washed and mixed with shredded coconut, an array of dried fruits and chopped seasonal fruits and nuts, and is an integral part of the malida (a local Jewish thanksgiving ceremony). But there are also unusual dishes like chik-cha-halwaa Bene Israel signature candy made by reducing wheat extract and coconut milk.

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