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Inside the kitchens of India's Bene Israeli community

An upcoming talk focuses on the food and customs of the community, ranging from the 'naaral halwa' made during the Jewish new year to the 'malida', a festive staple

An archival image of women from the community putting together a platter of 'malida'. Photo: courtesy Leora Pezarkar
An archival image of women from the community putting together a platter of 'malida'. Photo: courtesy Leora Pezarkar

These days 27-year-old Leora Pezarkar is busy preparing for an in-depth online talk on the history, food and customs of the tiny Bene Israeli community that resides in various pockets of the country. This 1.5-hour-long session is to take place on 3 August as part of Mythopia’s ongoing The Culture Series. Pezarkar, who hails from the community, decided to delve into its fascinating history in 2017 while working on a dissertation during her masters in heritage management from Ahmedabad. It is believed that the Bene Israeli Jews came to India nearly 2,000 years ago to escape persecution. “There are a lot of different dates. Some older members of the community peg it at 2,200 years while some records show that the community reached India between 2nd century BC and 6th century CE. So, no one can specify a date with authority," says Pezarkar. However, this can be said with certainty that the community landed in Raigad on the western coast of India following an unfortunate shipwreck. And over time, the members moved to different parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat, enmeshing themselves within the local culture.

“Today, majority of the community resides in Mumbai and Thane. There are quite a number of families in Ahmedabad and a few in Pune and Raigad," she says. Over time, the food and customs of the Bene Israeli Jews has taken on coastal flavours typical to the Konkan region. The fare relies heavily on coconut, rice, chicken and fish. “Kadhwe vaal and moong is commonly used. We too have something like the coconut karanji, which is made by various communities residing in this region. One of the dishes heavily inspired by the coast features rice, fermented with toddy. I think the communities from the region such as Koli, Agaris, Konkani Muslims and Bene Israeli Jews might have shared food wisdom over time," explains Pezarkar.

Coconut karanjis. Photo: courtesy Leora Pezarkar
Coconut karanjis. Photo: courtesy Leora Pezarkar

However, even while incorporating regional influences, the community is quite strict about following kosher dietary laws. Hence you will never find meat and milk mixed in a Bene Israeli kitchen. “So, butter chicken, for instance, is a complete no-no for us," she adds. The cuisine is extremely curry-oriented. These soupy curries are traditionally scooped up with rice bhakri. “We only have fish such as paplet (pomfret), which has fins and scales. And prawns and crabs are prohibited under the kosher laws," explains Pezarkar.

The community celebrates all the Jewish occasions such as the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Passover. However, a slight difference lies in the kind of food that is whipped up for these special events. The New Year is incomplete without the naaral halwa—a tradition that has been passed down through generations. “It is like an heirloom grandmother’s recipe, featuring strained and diluted coconut milk. Today, of course, people add all sorts of things, ranging from essence to dry fruits. But the original is a very simple dish," says Pezarkar. Then there is the malida, made with poha, grated coconut, sugar, dry fruits and an odd number of fresh fruits. It is usually put together on auspicious occasions, like before a wedding. “The Seder platter for the Passover draws from the Old Testament. But the meal also features rice bhakri and curries made with fresh spices. For those eight days, we don’t use dry spices. All ingredients are fresh," she says.

As Pezarkar continues her study of food, collecting oral histories from within the community, she comes across stories that have not been chronicled before. “Queen Esther, who was the wife of a Persian king, saved the Jews from the evil advisor of the king. We believe that God helped the Jews in disguise. So, to celebrate that, we make a puran poli, with the sweet stuffing symbolising that help from God. This analogy may or may not be true. But it shows how food and customs are so inextricably linked together," she adds.

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