“Hanukkah is a happy festival for us,” points out author Esther David. Her book Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews released earlier this year. It features food practices and recipes from different Jewish communities of India. The one thread that binds them all is the dietary law of kosher which governs meat slaughter and preparation. For the eight-day festival of Hanukkah, which started on November 28, fried snacks take centerstage. These have religious and cultural significance related to the ‘miracle of oil.’
In the second century BCE, a small group of guerrilla Jewish warriors reclaimed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple from the Greeks. To mark the rededication of the temple, an oil lamp was lit. Mumbai-based Leora Pezarkar of the Bene Israeli community says, “The story goes that there was very little oil to keep the lamp burning. It had to be pressed which was a week-long affair, but the lamp stayed lit for eight days which is now celebrated as Hanukkah—the festival of light and miracles.”
Inevitably, oily fried food is symbolic. In the west, there are latkes (shredded potatoes deep fried like pakoras) and jam-stuffed donuts known as Sufganiyot. In India, there are samosas, pakodas and jalebis. On day one of Hanukkah, Ahmedabad-based David, lit her first candle on her Menorah, said her prayers and made potato tikkis with green chutney. She belongs to the Bene Israeli community and as a practicing Jew from Gujarat, vegetarian food forms the bulk of her cooking. “Our population has dwindled and now there are just 140 of us here. It can be difficult to get kosher meat,” she explains. The snacking is followed by a simple vegetable pulao and ends on a sweet note with gajar ka halwa. One can customise sweets to their personal tastes and preference. David says she brings home chikkis for Hanukkah which are associated with the harvest festival in Gujarat named Uttarayan. She shares, “Today, I had friends over who brought apple cake.”
Pezarkar who hails from Mumbai—a coastal city known for seafood like pomfret and bombil—says fried fish is also served on the table during Hanukkah. It is not necessary to have something fried on all eight days, and some households prefer to eat them only on the first and last day. Besides having pakoras, some families, she points out, also make a batch of saat padar which is a seven-layered deep fried snack.
Ofera Elias is a Bene Israeli Jew from Mumbai who married a Cochini Jew, and is now settled in Ernakulam in Kerla. On day one of Hanukah, her festive menu had onion and potato bhajiyas. In Kerala, she says, one can also make pazham pori (banana fritters) as a fried snack. Her husband is fond of seafood and fried fish is regular fare in their kitchen. There could be vermicelli payasam if she wants to make it. She says, “On the last day of Hanukkah, I want to do something different and fry potato vadas.”
The Telugu Jews, also known as Bene Ephraim, have a fried sweet snack purnalu that’s similar to donuts. Balls of refined flour are stuffed with a mixture of jaggery and powdered lentils, or custard, and fried. There’s a paste-y halwa-like dish named pakam made with daal, sweetened with jaggery or cane sugar, spiced with cloves and pepper and garnished with dry fruits. Andhra-style spicy mutton and chicken biryani along with fried fish and sambar form the main course. Jaykumar Jacob who belongs to this community says, “There are laddoos, pakodas and shallow-fried Ariselu. We are just very fond of snacks.”
In her book, Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews, David has written that the jews of Manipur, Bnei Mehashe, and Mizoram, Bnei Menashe, have samosas, vadas and besan pakoras along with potato chips. In Mizoram, there are biscuits, or cookies, and cakes. There’s rice and grape wine that accompany the snacks. But, she was surprised to find that they serve jam-filled donuts, just like the Sufganiyot, and pancakes with honey which is completely different from the food items of her Jewish-Gujarati home and encapsulate a western approach on the festive platter. “I have written in the book too that Jewish cuisine in India has been shaped by the ingredients and food practices of the region that they have settled in. While the Bene Israelis from the Konkan love their fish, in the northeast few dishes are borrowed from the west,” she notes.
Indian Jews are a diaspora community and over the years, their numbers have fallen. As per the 2001 census, the population of Jews in India stood at 4,650. Although a festival like Hanukkah is supposed to be celebrated at home, most family members have either migrated to Israel or are settled abroad. To bring people together, community spaces like the synagogue, celebrate Hanukkah with candle lighting, prayers and get the food catered. The first and eighth day garner maximum fanfare for most. “But I find all days beautiful.” shares David.