Zimra's Bene Israel chutney. Photo: Tara Deshpande Tennebaum
“It’s Bene Israel, and not Bene Israeli.” That's the first thing Zimra says to me as she plucks tender branches off a curry leaf plant, fluttering happily in her balcony. Her husband Raymond Israel’s 1930’s ancestral home, once an art deco bungalow like many others in Pune, has been converted into apartments. Born Zimra David Samuel, she grew up in a conservative Jewish-Indian joint family in Mumbai. A medical professional, she moved back to India after 23 years in New York with her husband, also of Bene Israel descent. Raymond is an avid collector of antique Bollywood posters.
“What are we going to cook today?” I ask. I’ve driven in to Pune from Mumbai for a Bene Israel cooking lesson. The Bene Israel is the largest remaining ethnic Indian Jewish community in India.
“We are going to make Coconut Kadi and Alberas.”
“I was going to use Jewfish for the Alberas, but I found fabulous Dhara in the market today,” Zimra adds. I am surprised to hear her use the term Jewfish. In 2006, the American Fisheries Society changed the name of Jewfish, a mammoth grouper (Epinephelus itajara), fished off the Florida coast to Goliath Grouper, declaring the name pejorative.
But in India there has never been discrimination against the Jewish community so it’s possibly just a fish popular among the Shanwar Telis; the name local Marathis gave Bene Israels, who were in the oil-pressing business and didn’t work on the Sabbath.
Zimra points to the fish filets on the plate, “These are King threadfin Salmon. Bene Israel and Parsis love it. We also use Ghol.” A Google search shows that Jewfish is a common term used to describe Ghol or croaker in India.
Fish is an important staple in Jewish homes, even more so in India where kosher meat is not easily available. Conservative Jews follow Kashrut, dietary laws prescribed by the Torah that forbid the mixing of milk and meat in the same dish or in the same meal. Dishes are divided into meat, dairy and parve. Parve includes fish and eggs and can be consumed with milk or meat. For meat to be kosher, it must be slaughtered by a kosher butcher, salted and leached off all blood. For fish to be kosher it must have easily visible scales and fins. Consequently, shellfish and Mori (shark) are not kosher.
Before the cooking lesson begins, we visit Ohel David, called Lal Devl or Red Temple by local Maharashtrians. This imposing synagogue is the largest in Asia outside Israel, and was built by Baghdadi Jewish businessman David Sassoon in 1885. Like synagogues the world over today, this one too has police security, the tragic fall-out of a 2011 Pakistani terrorist attack on the Mumbai Chabad House.
The Israels worship at the smaller, Succath Shelomo built in 1921 for the Bene Israel community. Ken Blady, author of Jewish Communities in Exotic Places alludes to the snobbery of the Baghdadi Jews who discouraged worshipping alongside Bene Israels. The Baghdadi Jewish community, enabled by the charismatic David Sassoon who made millions exporting opium to China and dealing real estate all over the world (it is said he owned half of Shanghai!), became influential in Mumbai and Calcutta.
The origin of the Baghdadi Jews in India is defined but relatively new, the first came in the mid 1700’s while that of the Bene Israel (Sons of Israel) is far older but continues to be debated. Some hypothesize they are a lost tribe who came to India from Israel through Western Asia. The lost tribes were 10 of the 12 tribes expelled from ancient Israel after the Neo-Assyrian invasion in 722 BCE. Others posit they were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast while fleeing the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes circa 175 BCE.
Bene Israels speak Marathi and often bear Marathi surnames like Shapurkar and Walaskar. While visiting the Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad, the cantor showed me the 10 commandments displayed in Hebrew and Marathi.
Until colonial powers began to drift to Indian shores, the Bene Israels were cut off from mainstream Judaism.
Indian Jewish communities have declined drastically as many immigrated to Israel in the 50’s and 60’s. It is the Bene Israels who largely keep the Jewish history of India alive. This is best exemplified in their cooking. Bene Israel cuisine is a wonderful fusion of Jewish, Hindu and Muslim culinary techniques. It differs vastly from Baghdadi Jewish food, which is a fusion of Middle Eastern Muslim and Indian traditions.
The Bene Israels prepare kosher kadis and desserts by replacing milk with coconut milk, so plentifully available in the Konkan. They use parched rice and local dried fruits to make Malida, their version of the Marathi poha, served for special prayers to the Prophet Elijah and cracked wheat or lapshe to prepare Chik Halwa with jaggery, a local molasses. Chik is the liquid extracted by grinding lapshe.
Zimra elaborates that when a curry is prepared from coconut or yogurt it is called kadi, but when it is made with mutton or chicken, the Bene Israels call it kanji. Her coconut kadi is a cross between a Solachi kadi (a beverage of coconut milk spiked with mangosteen) and a Malwani fish curry.
Fish is an important staple in Jewish homes. Photo: Tara Deshpande Tennebaum
I watch as she gives phodni - an important culinary technique in Indian cooking also called tadka. This involves ‘tempering’ spices in hot oil to release their flavours. In go fresh green chilies, dried red chilies, curry leaves, onions, ginger and garlic followed by a can of coconut milk.
“While we use many ingredients similar to the Konkanis, Bene Israels don’t use hinga,” Zimra explains. Hing or asafoetida is India’s most foul-smelling spice (in Turkey it is called Devil’s Shit) used plentifully in Gujarat and Maharashtra to imitate the flavours of garlic and onions, ingredients proscribed to Jains and religious Hindus.
“You can add potatoes to this or fish or just eat it plain with rice,” Zimra says about her kadi. It is however Zimra’s delicious green chutney that is really unique. Prepared by grinding green coriander leaves with lavangi chilies, much like traditional Hindu chutney, she adds green mango as a souring agent, dates for sweetness and the surprise ingredient, walnuts. And what you have is not quite a Muhamrah and not quite chutney.
The Alberas is a classic Bene Israel preparation. Ras is a thin gravy akin to the Konkan rassas, found in dishes like Patal Bhaji. “Bene Israel Alberas is always layered. Onions, then vegetables, then fish," Zimra says as she sautés onions and red chilies in a skillet and tops them with finely sliced potato rings. “This will cook first for 10 minutes and then I’ll add the sliced tomatoes and fish and a little water.”
While the potato cooks, Raymond shows me a 1958 Bimal Roy movie poster titled Yehudi starring Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari. Yehudi is an exonym employed in India for by Jewish communities to include all the Indian-Jewish communities Cochin, Ephraim, Bnei Menashe, Baghdadi and Bene Israel.
“So many Jews were pioneers in the Hindi film industry,” he opines. The early 1900s were a seminal period for Bollywood, a time when her secular roots were firmly established. Jews like Bunny Reuben, Esther aka Promila, Solomon Moses, David Cherulkar, Ruby Meyers better known as Sulochana, Nadira and Ramala Devi were well-known personalities.
Zimra uses a spatula to spoon the fragrant strata onto my plate. “You can eat this with rice or phulkas,” she says. “Do you have a recipe for sweet puri, Zimra?” I ask. This seven-layered, unleavened bread stuffed with dried fruits is legendary in the Bene Israel community.
“Yes somewhere. She replies offhandedly. If dishes are easy to make they remain in a community's repertoire. Others fade. Who has time now?”
As I tuck into the Alberas, I can’t help but wonder with only 4000 Jews left in India, who will stir India’s cosmopot. I hope India doesn’t lose one of her most unique flavours.
Bene Israel kadi is typically prepared using coconut milk. Photo: Tara Deshpande Tennebaum
Recipe for Fish Alberas
½ kg grouper/perch/croaker/ steaks
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp salt
100 grams red onion peeled and sliced into thin rings
125 grams cooking potatoes, washed peeled and sliced in thin rounds
200 grams red plum tomatoes washed and sliced into thin rounds
2 dried Kashmiri red chilies, stalks removed
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp ginger root peeled and julienned
6 cloves of garlic slightly smashed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1. Sprinkle turmeric, salt and red chili powder over the fish fillets. Reserve.
2. Heat oil in a large non-stick pan (about 10 inches wide and 2-3 inches deep) on a medium flame.
3. Add cumin seeds and Kashmiri chilies sauté one minute.
4. Add onions, ginger root, garlic cloves, ¼ tsp salt and sauté 30 seconds. Layer the top with half the tomatoes. Sprinkle with a little salt.
5. Then add the potatoes, sprinkle with a little more salt, cover and let cook on a slow flame about 6-7 minutes.
6. Layer the fish over the tomatoes. Layer the top with remaining tomatoes. Add ¼ cup of water.
7. Cover and cook on a slow flame until the fish is cooked. Serve warm with phulkas or boiled rice.
Recipe for Coconut Kadi
400 ml coconut milk
1 tbsp rice flour
2 tbsp vegetable or coconut oil
8-10 fresh green curry leaves
2-3 Indian green chilies
1 tsp black mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
3-4 cloves of garlic, smashed
½ ts p turmeric (optional)
4-5 dried kokum or mangosteen fruit soaked in warm water
1. Mix the rice flour and turmeric into the coconut milk.
2. Heat oil in a medium-sized saucepan on a high flame.
3. Add mustard, cumin and red chilies and sauté for 1 minute. Add green chilies, curry leaves and garlic. Cook another 1 minute. Stir in a cup of water.
4. Add the coconut milk and cook on a low flame until it simmers.
5. Serve with plain boiled rice.
Recipe for Zimra's Bene Israel Chutney
2 cups coriander leaves with an inch of stalks
1-2 Indian green chilies or to taste
100 grams walnuts
1/2 tbsp date concentrate or jaggery
2 inch piece of green mango (kayri)
1/2 tsp salt, more for taste
Grind all the ingredients to a smooth paste. Taste for salt and sweetness. Adjust. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container.