Different, different but same: tracing the food cultures around Passover, Easter and Ramadan
How three seemingly different communities in India combine diverse influences in their individual cuisines
Sometimes if you follow the lines that separate us, you may find out that they are actually tethers. It's what happened when we set off on an exploration of the food cultures surrounding three seemingly different festivals – the Jewish Passover, Lent, Good Friday and Easter celebrated by the Christians and the Muslim community's Ramadan and Eid. Celebrated across the globe, these festivals often fall on dates sharing a close proximity, barring Ramadan and Eid, which may vary depending on the dates of the Hijra (Muslim) calendar. Lent and Passover, on the other hand, are always around Spring, given that the latter is a shortened version of the Old English word lencten, which translates to 'spring season.' While the Passover – which is an eight-day festival – commemorates new beginnings and the onset of the agricultural festival.
This year, all three, however, will come and go in quick succession. Lent, which began 40 days ago, came to a close last night with Easter celebrations in full swing at Christian homes today. Passover, which began on March 27 ended this last Thursday. And Ramadan will kick off on a high note for Muslims across the World on April 12. While the shared history between the three Abrahamic religions is bound to lead to several cultural overlaps, in India, and especially in terms of food, all three communities are tied by intangible commonalities.
To begin with, while the mythological stories behind each of these festivals are vastly different and varied, there are common themes running through each of them, and perhaps even shared by other religions. For instance, the concepts of abstinence, devotion, prayers and repentance are as integral to the 40-day Lent as it is to the 30-day Ramadan. Similarly, the commemoration of sacrifice – be it that of the Israelites, which is significant to the Passover that celebrates the Exodus of the Jews from the Tenth Plague of Egypt and their road to freedom from slavery or that of Lent and Good Friday, which memorialise the sacrifice of Jesus. Throwing light on this, author, chef and podcaster Sadaf Hussain rightly points out, "Wherever there is fasting [which is common to Lent and Ramadan and in part replicated in the Passover, through the concept of Kosher] the food will have some similarities." What Hussain means is that from a nutritional and logical point, any community that is observing a fast is likely to end it with slow-burning, high-energy foods. "Why do we eat dates to break a fast or drink sharbat during iftar? It's because it has sugar, which the body needs after a long day of fasting," the Masterchef India star explains.
Hussain remembers growing up in Bihar, visiting friends for Christmas or Easter and sampling kulkul, a sweet, fried, shell-shaped goodie prevalent in Christian homes in Mangalore, Goa and Maharashtra. "It's very similar to khajoor [not to be confused with dates]," he adds, referring to a fried treat, akin to the kulkul, which can be found in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and the Terai region of Nepal. As it happens, in my Bengali-Muslim home, it's known as khurmi, which perhaps entered the family through my grandmother, who also happened to hail from Bihar. On an iftar spread, you won't be hard-pressed to find a samosa either, which in a Muslim home, would be typically stuffed with mutton kheema. Coincidentally, samosa's origin can be traced back to the Middle East and Central Asia, including Israel, where it is known as sambusaq and typically stuffed with mashed chickpeas, fried onion and spices.
Elaborating on the cross-cultural connects between these communities in India, history geek, chef and author, Tara Deshpande – who has had a keen interest in Jewish culture in India – shares that Indian Jews are largely either Baghdadi Jews (mostly living in Kolkata and Mumbai, including David Sasoon, who was the leader of the Jewish community in Mumbai) or Bene Israelis (who comprise a small part of Mumbai's demographics). "Baghdadi Jews have several recipes that have a direct influence of Iraqi food. The Bene Israeli cuisine, on the other hand, is a direct combination of Kosher principles and Maharashtrian influences. To give you an example, the malida, which is a ceremonial sweet dish made with flattened rice, dried fruits, nuts and coconut is akin to the sweet poha prevalent in many cultures in India, including Maharashtra. There's also the alberas which is a fish curry with coconut. They also do a dish called tchitarnee, which is a chicken curry with Maharashtrian influences in it," she adds.
Coconut – which is an all-star ingredient in all coastal Indian cuisines – not only finds its way into Indian-Jewish recipes, but also, in Christian staples. In home chef Alefiya Jane's household, for instance, Easter is often observed with chatch, which is prepared with sweet potatoes, tapioca pearls, jaggery, coconut milk and cardamom powder. "We make this during Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when we practice a fasting routine and don't cook anything major except for chatch. Easter, on the other hand, is a time to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the beginning of new life," Jane shares, which again, shares the same ethos with Passover. In her East Indian home, a typical Easter meal would have favourites, like pork vindaloo and sorpatel, duck moilee with fugias and handbreads. There's also the arroz fugath, which is made with rice and dried fruits, a farm-fresh green salad, buff potato chops and drumstick fugath, marzipan Easter eggs and cake. And while a pork roast could be found on an Easter spread, you won't ever find it for iftar, given that the meat is forbidden for Muslims. Interestingly, for Jews, too, pork isn't considered Kosher.
A common adage popular among food enthusiasts is the one iterated by American chef, cookbook author, teacher and television personality, James Beard, who said, "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." And I think I finally understand what he means.