A Taste of Community

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Vritti Bansal's picture
Vritti Bansal
September 11, 2020
Food Practices, Religion and Lifestyle in the Indian-Jewish Community

The idea that food can evoke memory is not just Proustian, but rooted in reality. French writer Marcel Proust has played with the concept of food triggering memories in his seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time. A piece of madeleine dipped in tea reminds the protagonist of a specific childhood memory, and other memories follow. It shows that food has the power to stimulate involuntary memory, and also contributes to shaping identity.

This dissertation will study the culinary lives of the Indian-Jewish community to argue that cultural memory is linked with religious identity through taste. It will study cultural memory, religious identity, the Indian-Jewish community, and taste in detail, and also the intersection between the four. It also will include a section about digital media, wherein a section of the research will have been published online and findings will have been recorded.  

To begin with, the dissertation will establish a definition for cultural memory. Then, it will discuss how religious identity is expressed. Religious festivals and feasts will form a major part of the “taste” component, talking about how selected recipes and ingredients contribute to forming Indian-Jewish identity. The origins of the Indian-Jewish community will be discussed, along with how the community thrives through food. 

The Indian-Jewish community is only a small part of the larger Jewish community, which is divided by geographical origin into Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrachi. After the genocide during the Second World War, the Jewish community dwindled to the extent that only a few thousand of them remain in particular countries/cities in the world. A once-large community is now fragmented and struggles to coalesce, even for religious purposes. Synagogues have shut down because the ten men required for a minyan (congregation) aren’t always present. 

Occasions when Jews convene without constraint, however, are festivals like Passover or the weekly holiday Shabbat. Food practices bring the community together. These practices are part of Jewish cultural memory. Jews remember their rituals and how to celebrate. These have been passed on in the form of tradition. 

Cultural memory is transmitted among marginalised communities in a constant struggle for survival1. One night, Jeanette Rodriguez discussed her interest in the Holocaust with her father at the dinner table. The suggestion came up that, being bilingual and bicultural, she identified with a group that yearned to maintain its culture. On hearing this, her father revealed that their family had Jewish roots. Once she was told this, she felt a sense of peace since she could make connections with Jewish habits she had noticed in her family, like wearing the yarmulke etc. Another experience of cultural memory led to Ted Forteir’s work. During his fieldwork in the Columbia Plateau, he observed, more than once, the connections made by the Indian people to their ancestors. Despite over two centuries of external influences, these people retained their core “Indian” identity. This was lived as rituals, the telling of stories of kin, and an outlook that resisted a Eurocentric view of the world. 

1.0 Cultural Memory

In the Rodriguez family, cultural memory is a serendipitous discovery of a dormant cultural/religious memory of the past that surfaced in the author’s consciousness2. The mediating link between personal memory and the collective memory of one’s past may be a word, an image, a person, or some specific, concrete thing that makes this otherness erupt in one’s consciousness and demands one’s attention. This otherness is cultural memory3. This dissertation will argue that the mediating link can be food, a feast or a meal and in sensory terms, taste.

It would be helpful to establish a concrete definition for cultural memory: 

Cultural memory is the faculty that allows us to build a narrative picture of the past and through this process develop an image and an identity for ourselves. If you want to belong to a community, you must follow the rules of how and what to remember.4

“Cultural memory” indicates a field of interdisciplinary research spanning the humanities and social sciences concerned with the complex interconnections between memory, culture and identity: the study of cultural memory is centrally concerned with the relationship between the past and the present and, crucially, with the ways in which individuals, groups and societies remember, rework, bury or forget aspects of the past in order to make sense of, repair or reconstruct the present.5

The way we remember the past has a deep impact on how we continue to live. Narrative helps a culture organise and amalgamate its understanding of reality. Hinchman and Hinchman say: “Narratives are what constitute community. They explain a group to itself, legitimate its deeds and aspirations, and provide important benchmarks for nonmembers trying to understand the group’s cultural identity”6.

It is important to consider “who remembers”: it could be culture, society or people. Memory can also be a survival mechanism. An important example of this is the Bene Israeli community, who are Indian-Jews. They survived a shipwreck and thrived based on what they remembered of their religion and culture. Recalling religious practices like Shabbat, etc. helped them carry on their traditions. 

In Cultural Memory: Resistance, Faith and Identity, the authors highlight that culture is ideational, performance and material. 

Performance encompasses embodied behaviours. In culture being material, artifacts and symbolisations become a source for identity: language, food, clothing, music, and the organisation of space.7

1.2 Jewish Cultural Memory

In Remembering the Fish and Making a Tsimmes: Jewish Food, Jewish Identity, and Jewish Memory, Elliott Horowitz talks about how Jewish memory is constructed through Jewish food.

Joan Nathan records a fascinating gastro-ethnographic detail, and its bitter-sweet capacity for rekindling memory:

Every year before Passover we would make gefilte fish together, with me taking notes and she, carefully, cooking, remembering every gesture from her childhood. At one point each year, she would put carrots in the eyes of one of the fish and raisins in the nose. Then she would sigh. We all knew why she sighed. She was remembering her mother who did exactly the same thing. Her mother died in the Belzec Death Camp.8

1.3 Tradition

In the Salem Press Encyclopedia, Janine Ungvarsky defines tradition as a belief, practice, or way of behaving or acting that is shared and passed down through generations. While new traditions can be created at any time, traditions are those beliefs and practices that are repeated and shared until they become an established part of the family or culture9.

Tradition can also be considered the “handing over” of a certain idea, custom or ritual. It is important to consider whether this handing over is an authentic development of tradition or corrupting the tradition. 

There is a great difference between tradition and culture, although the two are related. Is tradition the same as cultural memory? This is debatable. 

Culture may refer to customs, spiritual beliefs, food, language and other aspects that define a group of people and make them distinct from others, while the word “tradition” can be used to refer to a specific part of the culture of a group. Each culture has many traditions that contribute to the group’s identity. Traditions are given a lot of importance and respect, and if disregarded, can result in ostracization and criticism. However, traditions can always change.

Tradition also shapes the religious beliefs of cultures. A religious tradition is a belief that is passed down through generations but is not part of the written scriptures or holy texts used by a religious group10


2.0 Religious Identity

The religious beliefs that one follows and on the basis of which he/she leads her life can be called religious identity. Critical to the retaining of one’s cultural identity, and assuming survival, are language, religious practices, and the maintenance of the principles regarding everyday life11. This dissertation will discuss the role of food in maintaining Indian-Jewish identity.

In The Lies That Bind, Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that at the heart of religious life across space and time are matters other than creed12. It can be further argued that food (or the sense of taste) can be the heart of religious life, especially in the Indian-Jewish community. Food choices reflect group identity. It can also be said that food or eating or taste is an expression of identity.

Having an identity can give you a sense of how you fit into the social world13. A further crucial aspect of what identities offer is that they give you reasons for doing things14. For instance, the way Indian-Jewish people cook or prepare their food is a reason for their Indian-Jewishness. While it has been a matter of debate whether Jews are a religion or a race, Indian-Jews are certainly an ethnic group. They can also be considered diaspora. 

Cultural identity, however, is not restricted by the specific foods one associates with a given ethnic or racial group. The proper use of food and behaviors connected with civilised eating habits, also known as manners or etiquette is an expression of group membership.15 Manners, etiquette or eating habits include rituals and rituals are integral to Jewishness. Good examples of Jewish rituals are Passover, Shabbat and Hanukkah.

2.1 Jewish identity

Passover, Shabbat and Hanukkah contribute to Jewish religious identity. Once identities exist, people tend to form a picture of a typical member of the group; stereotypes develop16. Books and TV shows are good examples of this. Jews are almost always portrayed in a certain way. 

For thousands of years, prayers, rituals, sacred texts, dietary laws, and other regulations have played a central role in defining a Jewish community and distinguishing it from the people among whom the Jews have lived17. The matter becomes about who is included and who is excluded. Abstract beliefs mean very little if you lack a direct relationship to traditions of practice, conventions of interpretation, communities of worship18.

Is the word “Jewish” used to represent ethnicity, or religion, or both interchangeably? Kwame Anthony Appiah distinguishes between belief, practice and community. But each interpenetrates the others in an obvious way. The declaration of a belief is a form of practice19.

There is a persistent connection between eating and Jewish identity in all its various manifestations. Jews are what they eat.20

When it comes to kashrut or Jewish dietary laws, the Torah has relevant passages that outline rules or list specific foods. For instance, the fish that Jews eat must have scales. However, there are fish that have different kinds of scales. The scales of swordfish morph with age; sturgeon have ganoid scales, which can’t be removed without tearing the skin. Rabbinic authorities disagree about the status of these fish21.

Studies of medieval Jewish food traditions frequently focus on their religious dimensions: the myths, rituals, and spiritual experiences associated with eating, as well as interaction with the surrounding Christian and Muslim religious traditions22.

On the issue of kashrut and rituals, Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus notes:

A few contemporary Jewish food historians simply identify what Jews eat with the Jewish dietary laws. The Jewish dietary laws—kashrut—prescribe what Jews ought to eat, but not all, or even most, Jews keep kosher. Moreover, Jewish kosher laws are not the only Jewish food prescriptions. There are rules of Jewish food ethics and etiquette, blessings and other rituals that one should perform at the table, and foods and drinks for different holidays on the Jewish calendar that have little to do with the kashrut.23

David Kraemer interprets modern Jews eating non-kosher food in this way: New York Jews consider food from Chinese restaurants “safe” because prohibited items like pork and seafood are chopped/diced so finely in it that it is hardly discernible. This is seen as a “halakhic decision”, one of “transgressive eating”.

However, despite this cultural richness, there don’t seem to exist any “Jewish restaurants”. There are kosher restaurants and even restaurants that claim to serve “Sephardic cuisine” (like Casa Mazal in Cordoba), but none that explicitly identify themselves as “Jewish”. 

Identity is not a passive experience. Like the act of eating, it is an active social practice. What made food “Jewish” was not so much where it came from but rather whether or not a rabbinic Jew controlled its preparation at a crucial juncture24.

In the 1990s, kashrut’s rhetorical function in cookbooks mirrors Jewish “obsessions about history and memory conflicts about diasporic and homeland identities; Jewish continuity and authenticity; the resurgence in America of a conservative religiosity and of a desire among American Jews to reconnect with “traditional” Jewish practices; and the proliferation of gastronomically diverse as well as international cookery stories within the American cookbook genre. Buying the kosher-branded Jewish cookbooks is a way to perform contemporary Jewish identity.25

In biblical Israel, the pork prohibition did not really differentiate Israelites from their neighbors, who did not eat that much pork. Only in the Romanized Mediterranean world, when pork consumption was so ubiquitous that “pig was meat,” did Jewish abhorrence of eating pork become a significant cultural marker distinguishing Jews from non-Jews.26

It is always possible to identify something in the eating practices of Jews in a given place and period that distinguishes them from their neighbors—and from Jews in other places and periods as well27.

Humans are inclined to create new religious communities and also define their own community in contrast to others. Differences exile followers from in-groups. Kwame Anthony Appiah tells an old joke about a Jewish man who was shipwrecked on a deserted island: the man manages to build three buildings over the years. After he’s discovered, he is asked by the rescuers what those buildings are. “This is my house. This is the synagogue I go to. And this,” he says finally, “this is the synagogue I don’t go to.”28


3.0 The Indian-Jewish community, its lifestyle and food

According to Zygmunt Bauman, “community” always has a positive connotation unlike “society” and “company”. Company can be “bad”, so can society, but community is always positive. The idea of community is related to the search for belonging in the insecure conditions of modernity29. Communities have been based on ethnicity, religion, class or politics30

Every religion can be said to have three dimensions: there’s a body of belief, there’s what you do--call that practice, and there’s who you do it with--call that community, or fellowship31. We might define a community as a group of people who eat with each other32.

Rabbi Romiel Daniel belongs to the Bene Israeli community, which is the largest of the five Indian-Jewish communities that exist. He lived in India for 25 years and is now the President of the Indian Jewish congregation of the USA. He has been conducting services for the Indian-Jewish community in New York and informed me in great detail about the Indian-Jewish community in an interview. 

There are five types of Indian-Jewish communities: the Jews of Cochin, Baghdadi Jews, the Bene Israeli, the Bene Menashe and the Bene Ephraim. The Jews of Cochin came to India around 175 BCE. They decided to leave the Kingdom of Judah, since they were being oppressed by the Greeks. They went to the South-Western part of India, Crangalore, and settled there almost 2000 years ago. The second group (Baghdadi Jews) arrived in 1492 which came after the spanish inquisition. They set up in Cochin in 1556. Another group came at about the same time, near Bombay. There was a shipwreck; they settled in villages near the Konkan. When the British set up the British Army, many jews moved to Bombay from the villages. They still have a cemetary in Nowgaon. In 1790, Baghdadi church groups came in from Iraq. They came down to Surat, settled there for seven years and then moved to Calcutta to the East coast because they were doing business with China. Another group came in the 1830s, including a very famous family called the Sassoon family. The Gateway of India was financed by this family. The Sassoon family, being a prominent Baghdadi family, set up a synagogue in Bombay and Pune, and also in Beijing. 

In 175 BCE also came the Bene Israelis. It is alleged (via oral history) that there had been a shipwreck on the western coast of India, i.e. the Konkan strip around 2200 years ago. This ship came from Northern Palestine in order to avoid persecution. The ship was found wrecked near the Khanderi Islands. A lot of things like prayer books and scriptures were lost in the shipwreck. However, the men and women who survived continued the practices of Shema, Shabbat, kosher and circumcision. This is what they remembered. They adopted the local culture including food, clothing and language (Marathi). They took up local professions like farming and oil pressing. David Rahabi identified the Shanivar Telis as Jews based on their dietary practices. The women picked kosher fish (with scales and fin) when presented with two types. 1796 saw the construction of the first Bene Israeli synagogue.

There were two entrants in Cochin, in 1492 and 1497: Jews from Spain and Portugal (called the Pardesi jews) respectively. The Bene Menashe (meaning sons of Jacob) were not practicing Jews but in 1964 one of their sages came up with the idea that they have a Jewish background. More than 7000 of them are settled in Mizoram and Manipur in the North East. They started practicing Judaism in a very orthodox way. Some migrated to Israel. Two of them have actually become orthodox rabbis in Israel. They have 19 different places of worship. On Saturdays, they have a tough time because they have to walk to the synagogue and climb mountains to get to places of worship. They are attacked by tribes. “They are the most observant jews I know of,” says Rabbi Daniel.

There’s another group which is not as prominent, in Andhra Pradesh, called the Bene Ephraim. They haven’t been fully accepted by Israel or by Jews in India. They are making attempts at being accepted. They have been practicing Judaism since the 1970s, and there are only 200-250 of them now. They became more prominent in the 1990s, when people started knowing about them.

“There are no Cochini Jews left except for a couple of families. They migrated to Israel and England,” says Rabbi Daniel.

“The number of Jews in India is less than 3000,” he adds. “The Bene Israeli community mixes very easily with the local population.” Bene Israelis are very orthodox jews. The synagogue was always the main meeting place of the community. Most people find it difficult to go to services because they are working. 

There were 30,000 Bene Israelis at the time of independence. There are 200-250 of them in the US. Most of them are in Israel (around 80,000). There are 56 Bene Israeli synagogues in Israel. “They’re doing quite well,” adds Rabbi Daniel.

3.1 The role of women

Education for women in India was very restricted. Women were only allowed to become teachers and nurses whereas other women were not even studying. They pass on their rituals to the next generation. They would have kirtans where they would enact stories from the Torah, so the less educated could get a feel of the Torah, Abraham and Moses etc. Rabbi Daniel’s mother used to lead such kirtans and she taught her family how to acquaint themselves with the Torah. 

Women decided what would be required to be done for festivals and food. “One of the big Jewish festivals is Passover, which lasts for eight days. The Passover seder depicts what happened during the Exodus. Special foods had to be prepared for it,” informs Rabbi Daniel. The most important aspect of Passover is to consume unleavened bread. It symbolises the speed at which the Hebrews were forced to leave Egypt in that they did not have time for the dough to rise. There were no kosher stores in India, so Rabbi Daniel’s mother used to prepare unleavened bread for the whole week. During the time of Passover, chapatis had to be made out of rice and not wheat. 

3.2 Culinary practices

In India, the Passover eating apparatus is called a malida plate (malida means confectionery). Parched rice is used, to which sugar and water is added. Fruits are included, which were predominant in Israel. This signifies the blessings of the patriarchs of Abraham, Moses and Jacob, and is not done by any other Indian community. Puran, another Indian-Jewish festival, is the story of the Jewish population being saved from the Persians in 335 BC. This festival is celebrated close to Holi and talks about the victory of good over evil, weak over strong and that God is always there to help. Puran poli (flatbread sweetened with a stuffing of jaggery and lentils) is cooked during this time. 

The influence of Mumbai has had a tremendous impact on the culinary practices and food of the Indian-Jewish community. Due to proximity to the Konkan coast, a lot of food was influenced by the use of coconut and coconut milk. Friday evenings were extremely special. The best foods were reserved for Shabbat. As per Jewish law, it is not allowed to mix milk with meat. Coconut milk is different and is allowed. Since normal milk comes from the cow, it cannot be used for the preparation of any Jewish food. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to put yoghurt on the table even in a container, so as to avoid its proximity to meat. Rabbi Daniel goes on to explain how the curries were influenced by Indian cooking. “Even the rice used coconut milk. Fish dishes were influenced a lot by coconut milk. This separated a lot of Indian Jews from other Indians.” 

This is how the Indian-Jewish community comes together through food. When asked about what pushed the community apart, Rabbi Daniel answered with “political influences”. He went to explain that some of the Bene Israelis are very egoistic, and that they believe they know everything. “If a synagogue is built in one place, you can be sure that another one will come up soon after.” The first synagogue in India was built in 1796 in Israel Galli (the name of the street is used with a lot of pride and respect). This was called the old synagogue. A new synagogue was built 400 yards away. People attend services and there’s not much of a division; people help each other to a large extent. 

In the dialogue of faith and culture, food is quite central. Foods which are prepared by the Jews in India typically reflect the foods which are part of where the Indian community has been. Indian-Jewish food is also influenced by what the Hindus eat. Biryani comes from Muslims, and Indian Jews also make it; where Muslims use curd, the Jews don’t. Curries are spiced similar to what would be done by Maharashtrian meat-eaters. Influences from Mumbai and Pune are prominent. Vegetarian meals are influenced by Maharashtrian cuisine too. In Kerala, the food is extremely spicy. 

When asked about what foods are Indian and what foods are Jewish, Rabbi Daniel says: “It depends on the community.” In the west, most of the Jewish community is Ashkenazi. “Where we come from is Mizrachi,” adds Rabbi Daniel. The foods are totally different. Ashkenazis would have stuffed cabbage (beef rolled in cabbage leaves), roast chicken, mashed potatoes, matzo ball soup, etc. “In India, we don’t eat much beef. What we have is still Indianised. Ashkenazi food is baked or boiled; they would have a brisket or roast chicken. They never have rice on the table.”

3.3 The food of the Bene Israelis

Leora Pezarkar, a Jewish academic, made an online presentation about the food and customs of the Bene Israeli community. In it, she talked about how Kosher is Herbew for “fit” or “appropriate” and describes the food that is suitable for a Jew to eat. Milk and meat are never mixed together. The Bene Israelis practice kosher slaughter, cooking and consumption of meat and maintenance of the kosher kitchen. With regards to Kosher slaughter, the throat of the animal has to be slit in a way that is least painful for the animal and drains all the blood. 

Fish, meat, rice, curry, eggs and a select variety of vegetables are staples. Dried fish (especially bombil) is very popular. Spices are used heavily and there is also the use of local ingredients like coconut, coconut milk, kokum, raw mango and legumes. Toor dal is the only dal eaten in a Bene Israeli household. Regular meals include mutton curry, kadhi, bhaat, chawli, macchi and bombil curry. Mutton and chicken were prepared for elaborate family get-togethers or festive meals. Coconut milk is an important part of the cuisine, used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Since the Passover meal consists of unleavened bread, rice bhakris (rotis) are made then. Rosh Hashanah sees the preparation of traditional halwa. Different families meet and exchange halwas. There is also symbolic food: like fish (which symbolises the abundance of Jews in the world), apple with honey (in the hope of a sweeter year ahead), pomegranate (shows unity, that the community is still one cluster), etc. 

Shabbat meals are also very important. Families make cakes and sweets before Shabbat. Grape juice and wine are also present. Kanavali, made with semolina and coconut milk (also called Shabbat cake) has become rare now. Festive sweets like karanji and sandan (made with rice flour, coconut milk and fermented with toddy) are common. 

The Bene Israelis break the Yom Kippur fast with sweet puris (karanji), which is a flaky pastry casing filled with semolina, sugar, poppy seeds, nuts and sultanas. It is customary to visit friends and family between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and exchange halwa and puris. 

“Evolution and changing ingredients are part of the Bene Israeli food tradition,” says Leora Pezarkar. Wine has prominent mentions in the Torah. Hand crushing black grapes after boiling them in water is how traditional Bene Israeli grape juice wine is made. Malida is made before an auspicious occasion, like that of marriage. It is offered along with prayers to the Prophet Elijah.

Malida is prepared with poha (rice flakes), along with dried fruits and coconut, and plated with an odd number of fresh fruits and flowers. There are different types of malida, too: Vanaspaticha malida (offered on the day of Tu B’Shvat) and Pozpeer cha malida (associated with a “Peer” from the village of Pezari, offered in the month of Paush).

In Rachael Rukmini Israel’s book The Jews of India: Their Story, Bene Israeli recipes include kiddush (unfermented raisin juice prepared for Shabbat prayers and the Seder service), hamotsi (khakda or unleavened bread), malida, halwa, puris and birda, whereas Baghdadi recipes include aloo makhalla, marak and mahasha (stuffed tomatoes). 

3.4 The food of the Cochin Jews

Food is a big part of the story of the Cochin Jews or Cochinim (as they are called in Israel). Cochinim is the smallest community of the diaspora. They landed on the Malabar Coast in search of spices, etc. 

The community lives on in Israel today and still adheres to its famed Cochini cuisine, songs, the Judeo-Malayalam language and other cultural facets33. The cuisine of Kerala is vastly different from North Indian fare. For many centuries, the Malabar spice trade was controlled by Jews; they included these spices in their food habits. Examples are red and green chillies, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, etc.

The cooking style became piquant, with the addition of coconut, curry leaves and tamarind. Proximity to the coast made it possible to incorporate fine fish (as per the laws of kosher). The staple food was unpolished rice, which also manifested as dosa, idli, appam and puttu. These continue to be eaten in homes across Israel just as they are in Kerala. Cochin Jewish coconut rice is a delicacy, made by cooking rice in coconut milk and adding spices, or shredding coconut over cooked rice and adding spices. 

It was in Cochin that the importance of coconut milk as an alternative to regular milk was discovered, so that it could be used with meat. The Cochinim wait at least six hours after they eat meat to consume dairy. 

For Passover, six symbolic foods are essential: 1. Maror: Lettuce is used as the maror (bitter herb). 2. Charoset: A sweet, brown, pebbly mixture made with dates, representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt. 3. Karpas: Celery dipped in vinegar. 4. Z’roa: Roasted shank bone, symbolizing the korban Pesach (Pesach sacrifice). In Cochin, a roast chicken wing (kai oram in Malayalam) was used. 5. Beitzah: A roasted egg, symbolizing the korban chagigah (festival sacrifice)34.

Signature foods include appam (fermented flatbread prepared with rice flour) for breakfast. Appam was a product of Cochini Jewish homes and made popular by the Syrian Christians. Kubbah, made with ground meat, bulgar, onions and spices, became popular in the 17th century in Cochin. It is usually served with turmeric rice. 

The pastel has been a Cochini favourite too. Pastel is Portuguse for crisp pastry, filled with different ingredients. Bureka, pastel’s cousin, is ubiquitous in Israel. It is made with filo dough, filled with meat, cheese or vegetables, garnished with sesame seeds. Cochini homes prepare bureka with cheese, while pastels never use cheese. 

Main dishes from the Cochini menu include red beef curry, ellegal (made with chicken), and chuttulli meen (fish, pan-fried with onion paste). The Cochin Jewish cutlet is also popular; it’s like a schnitzel, made by dipping chicken breast in eggs and crumbs and then deep frying. 

Motta salada is a sweet made with egg yolk and served at weddings and bar mitzvahs; Kerala Muslims make a similar dish called Mutta mala (or egg garland) on festive occasions.35

The Cochin Jewish cake is a very important part of the community’s culinary traditions. A specialty, it’s made for Rosh Hashanah: a rich batter of semolina, eggs, sugar, ghee (clarified butter), nuts and raisins. It’s recipe is similar to the Bene Israeli kanavali. Other ancient sweets include the sharkkara ada (coconut cooked in jaggery, placed in rice dough and steamed in a banana leaf); this is similar to the padhar of the Bene Israelis36.

As is the case with most Jews, halwa is the best kosher dessert for Cochin Jews as it uses no dairy or meat. Rice and banana dumplings with cardamom powder called unniyappam are eaten the day before Yom Kippur. Hindus in Kerala prepare them to offer to temples. The Cochinis fast for 27 hours on Yom Kippur. They break the fast with ural, which is a wheat pudding similar to halwa. In Kerala, children cluster together in the synagogue to enjoy a shower of tiny baked or fried sweet rice balls called chukunda37.

Mooli is a drink served in homes where someone has died. It’s a hot drink made by boiling coriander and cumin seeds in water and adding cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. 

Ora Farchy, born and raised in Moshav Shahar in southern Israel and now living in Houston

where she is a Hebrew teacher, says: “Although physical Cochin has receded from us when we consider concepts of time and space, the food has remained with us and, I think, will remain part of our consciousness and identity forever.”38

3.5 The food of the Baghdadi Jews

The cooking of the Baghdadis is a hybrid. They added Indian flavours to Iraqi and Syrian dishes. The Baghdadis adapted English food like bread pudding and adopted Indian food like puris etc. During the time of the Second World War, The Baghdadi community in Calcutta was doubled with a number of Jews who had fled Rangoon and they brought along new cooking styles. Freed Cochini slaves came to cook in Baghdadi households in Calcutta and Mumbai. Later, they were replaced by cooks of other religions. These “Jewish cooks” were in demand; they weren’t Jews but Muslims who had worked in Jewish homes and had an expertise in traditional Jewish cuisine. These cooks created Baghdadi cuisine, which is a unique hybrid of Bengali (Calcutta), Maharashtrian (Mumbai), Cochin and Middle Eastern styles; they married hot and spicy with sweet and sour flavours.

Calcutta had no facilities for kosher slaughter. So, Baghdadi Jews got the chance to eat meat only on special occasions, when slaughterers came from Mumbai. For this reason, they were good at preparing vegetables, chicken and fish. The Jews adopted the Bengalis’ passion for freshwater fish and dislike for saltwater fish. Breads like chapatis and parathas were made by servants. Desserts weren’t really part of the menu, but Baghdadi Jews ate sweetmeats flavoured with cardamom and rosewater, and exchanged them on Jewish holidays. Ready-to-eat Indian sweets were bought. Nahoum and Sons, an old Jewish bakery, is still popular in Calcutta. 

3.6 How the Indian-Jewish community comes together with other communities, and threats to its cultural identity

When talking about faith, Rabbi Daniel’s concern is mainly the Torah. He says that none of the Jews have ever discriminated against someone else saying he/she is a Christian, Parsi, or Muslim. The Rabbi used to go to a catholic school, which was attended by children from all faiths: Hindus, Muslims, etc. Everyone would enjoy Christmas equally. Neighbours would send over sweets (like kalkal, dipped in sugar water). Muslims would only make lamb and not goat for Eid. They would send it over to the Rabbi’s Jewish household, made especially without milk. Hindus would pass on puran poli and puris. There was quite a close connection between people living in the same apartment buildings. “At that time, things were easier; it is different now,” says the Rabbi. “Cultural differences weren’t pushed onto us. At the same time, we had to keep our religion. On Friday evening, we could never tell our parents that we would not be home.”

Globally, there are the Ashkenazi (from Germany), Sephardic (from Spain and Portugal) and Mizrachi (from the Middle East) Jews. There is a divide between these communities in the Western World. In India, everyone is Misrachi. The Bene Israel community is fairly united. Ceremonies get the community together. People get together and enjoy themselves on any holiday, besides the regular Shabbat. They have common roots, culturally, religiously and possibly genetically.

Despite all the traditions and customs that bring Indian Jews together, there is a tremendous amount of threat to their cultural identity. Indian-Jews have to maintain their identity, being 3000 among 350 million. To maintain the identity of such a small community amidst such a large community is not easy. No inter-community marriages happened before, and people were migrating to Israel. People who stayed behind in India started getting married to other communities. Now, it has become far more frequent. Jewish identity is becoming less dominant now compared to the 1960s. Parental influence is not as rigid as it used to be. Rabbi Daniel recounts “At one time if I told my father I wouldn’t be home on Friday evening, I wouldn’t get away with it.” Inter-community marriages are hurting the community. In India, there is a possibility that Jewish identity will become more diluted as time goes by. The Bene Israeli community in Israel is at 80,000 in number and thriving. There is also a large Jewish population in the USA. Possibilities of getting married within the Jewish faith are much more likely. It is easier to find a Jewish mate or spouse in these places. Jewish faith is not being lost in the USA.


4.0 Taste

In Religion as Embodied Taste: Using Food to Rethink Religion, Benjamin E. Zeller discusses concepts such as the place of the senses within reli­gious experience, the relation of memory to experience and the mediation of culture. Taste can be defined as something that is considered pleasing, and that one is used to. 

Religion, in this way of thinking, occupies a realm somewhere between a habit, a pattern of consumption, a preference, and an attachment.  

Taste triggers memory, and when these remembered experiences combine with the experiences of the senses, they provide a powerful foundation for religious identity.

Taste means not only the embodied sensual experience that emerges in the mouth and mind, but also the patterns engendered by those embodied and sense-based experiences as lived out within a network of memories, past experiences, and surrounding culture.39

4.1 How is cultural memory shaped through taste? How is taste constructed? 

Memories related to the senses or constructed by the senses are an important part of personal recollections. Aspects of autobiographical narratives are remembered through memories associated with taste, sight, smell, sound, and touch. Our understandings of self are interrelated to these senses and food experiences have great association with them40.

Flavour has the ability to take us back in time. This is how taste is constructed. Taste and flavour can sometimes be used interchangeably. 

4.2 Recipes

Cooking and recipes can be considered an important component of “taste”. Indian-Jewish cuisine is distinct from regular Indian food and also Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish food. The recipes below give an idea of the dishes that are common and the ingredients used in Indian-Jewish cooking (they have been sourced from The Jews of India: Their Story by Rachael Rukmini Israel). 

The three recipes below are part of Bene Israeli cuisine:


Served at Eliyahu Hanavi thanksgiving prayers.

Ingredients: 100g flattened rice (poha), 10g powdered sugar, ½ a fresh coconut (grated), almonds and pistachios, a handful of sultanas, powdered seeds of 3-4 cardamom pods, and washed rose petals. 

Method: Wash pressed rice in a colander and let it drain. Mix sugar and grated coconut. Add blanched and chopped almonds and chopped pistachios, washed sultanas, add pressed rice. Lastly add cardamom and decorate with rose petals. 



Prepared at the time of Rosh Hashanah.

Ingredients: 3 fresh coconuts, ½ kg fine rice flour, ¼ kg wheat flour, ¼ kg jaggery or sugar, powdered cardamom seeds, a little saffron, 1dsp poppy seed (cuscus), almonds and pistachios cleaned and sliced.

Method: Scrape the coconut and extract the juice thrice. Add the rice flour, wheat flour and jaggery (or sugar) and mix well. Place on the fire and keep stirring well all the time until it is thick and sets on a plate when tested. When nearly done, add cardamom powder and saffron. When ready, pour into thalis and sprinkle poppy seeds, almonds and pistachios on top. When cool, cut into squares or diamonds. 



Prepared just before Yom Kippur and served when the fast is broken. 

Ingredients: 350g self-raising flour, 1kg ghee (or unsalted butter), ¼ tsp salt, ½ cup milk, water as required, 100g cornflour, 10 almonds, 10 pistachio nuts, 15 sultanas, 50g poppy seeds, 5 cardamom pods, 200g roasted semolina, 100g ground sugar, a pinch of saffron.

Method: For the dough, take the self-raising flour in a bowl, and add 2tsp ghee and salt to it. Knead it with milk (add water if needed). Let it stand for two hours. Make 5 balls of the dough and roll into large, thin chapatis. For the paste, heat 3tbsp ghee in a flat dish and gradually add ⅔ cup cornflour to it, beating it all the while. Put a small ball in cold water. If it floats, the paste is ready. For the filling, heat 2tbsp of ghee in a dekshi (pot) and fry crushed almonds and pistachios, sultanas, poppy seeds and powdered cardamom seeds on a low fire. Add the roasted semolina, stir it well and remove from the fire. When cool, add the sugar and saffron.

To make the puris, apply paste to each of the five chapatis only on one side. Place the five chapatis one on top of the other with the paste side uppermost. Roll them up together. Cut the roll horizontally and then across in 3cm thick pieces. Press each piece between the palms of your hands and roll it into a round puri. Turn the puri upside down. Place a tbsp of the filling in the middle and fold the puri. Press the sides together and cut the edges with a serrated roller cutter. Heat all the remaining ghee in a kadhai (heavy pan) and deep fry the puris to a light golden brown colour on a low fire. While frying, keep on putting the hot ghee on the puri so that the layers of the pastry are clearly seen. Drain well on paper, cool, and pack each puri in greaseproof paper. The crust is like flaky pastry. 


The three recipes below are part of Baghdadi Jewish cuisine:


Aloo Makhalla

For Makhalla: 

Ingredients: Oil, a chicken (in 6 to 8 pieces), 2 onions (sliced), 1 piece ginger and 4 pods garlic (ground together) or 3 tsp garlic-ginger paste, 3 cloves, 2 cardamom pods, 1 stick cinnamon, 1 bay leaf (tej patta), haldi powder (turmeric), salt to taste, water. 

Method: Put 2 tbsp oil in a deep pan. Add chicken pieces, sliced onion, ground and whole spices, haldi powder and salt. Add 1 cup water and cook on a slow fire with the pan covered. When the water is almost dry, brown the chicken pieces. If the chicken is still uncooked, add some more water and continue to cook on a slow fire until the chicken meat is tender. Heat before serving if necessary.

For aloo:

Ingredients: 1 kg potatoes (these must be old crop not new and preferably all of equal shape and medium size), water, salt to taste, haldi powder, oil. 

Method: Peel potatoes. Prepare a deep pan half full with water, add salt and haldi and mix thoroughly. The water should turn a strong yellow colour (mix more haldi if necessary). Add potatoes and allow them to soak in the haldi water for about 15 minutes. Remove potatoes from the water and prick with a fork 10 to 12 times, to the depth of about 1.25cm. Leave the potatoes to drain in a colander. 

First cooking: Put sufficient oil in a deep pan to completely cover all the potatoes. Heat oil thoroughly and start cooking the potatoes on a very high fire until slightly crisp, then reduce heat and continue cooking, stirring potatoes occasionally until golden brown. Set aside with potatoes still in the oil. 

Final cooking: Before serving, put the pan on a high fire again and allow to cook until potatoes are reddish brown and crisp on the surface and soft inside. Remove pan from fire and place it in a basin of water, stirring until oil cools. Then drain well and serve warm. 



Ingredients: Oil, chicken cut in pieces or ½ kg mutton, masala (ground together), 3 onions minces, 1” piece of ginger, 10 pods garlic, salt, haldi (turmeric), water, 2 tomatoes (chopped), 2 potatoes (cubed), 1 bunch coriander (chopped).

Method: Put oil in pan. Add chicken/mutton, masala and 2 cups of water. Cook on medium heat till water dries. Then fry well till brown. Add water according to gravy as desired. Add chopped tomatoes and potatoes. Cook on a low flame until potatoes are cooked. Add coriander just a few minutes before removing from the flame. Serve hot. 


Mahasha (stuffed tomatoes)

Ingredients: 12 fat tomatoes, 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp lemon juice; For meat stuffing: ½ kg minced meat, ½ onion, 4 level tbsp raw, well-washed rice, 1 level tsp salt, a pinch of white pepper, ½ level tsp allspice, a little water.

Method: Mix all the ingredients for the meat stuffing with a little water. Slice a lid off the tomatoes and hollow them out. Salt the shells lightly. Fill them with the meat mixture and replace the lids. Put them in an ovenproof dish and sprinkle them with olive oil and lemon juice. Cover with foil and bake in an oven at 190 degrees for 45 minutes.




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  2. Rodríguez, Jeanette; Fortier, Ted. “Cultural Memory: Resistance, Faith and Identity”. University of Texas Press, 2007, p.xii.

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  7. Rodríguez, Jeanette; Fortier, Ted. “Cultural Memory: Resistance, Faith and Identity”. University of Texas Press, 2007, p107.

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  12. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Lies That Bind”. Profile Books, Great Britain, 2018, p.xiv-xv.

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  19. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Lies That Bind”. Profile Books, Great Britain, 2018, p39.

  20. Brumberg-Kraus, Jonathan. “Bread from Heaven, Bread from the Earth: Recent Trends in Jewish Food History”. Writing Food History: A Global Perspective, 2012, p121.

  21. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Lies That Bind”. Profile Books, Great Britain, 2018, p47.

  22. Brumberg-Kraus, Jonathan. “Bread from Heaven, Bread from the Earth: Recent Trends in Jewish Food History”. Writing Food History: A Global Perspective, 2012, p124.

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  28. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Lies That Bind”. Profile Books, Great Britain, 2018, p41.

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  30. Delanty, Gerard. “Community”. Routledge, 2003, p2.

  31. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Lies That Bind”. Profile Books, Great Britain, 2018, p36.

  32. Brumberg-Kraus, Jonathan. “Bread from Heaven, Bread from the Earth: Recent Trends in Jewish Food History”. Writing Food History: A Global Perspective, 2012, p126. 

  33. Aafreedi, Navras J. “Indian Jewry”. Cafe Dissensus, p21.

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  36. Aafreedi, Navras J. “Indian Jewry”. Cafe Dissensus, p23-24.

  37. Aafreedi, Navras J. “Indian Jewry”. Cafe Dissensus, p24.

  38. Aafreedi, Navras J. “Indian Jewry”. Cafe Dissensus, p24.

  39. Zeller, Benjamin E. Religion as Embodied Taste: Using Food to Rethink Religion. Body and Religion, Equinox Publishing, 2017.

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