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A tale of two Passovers

How an American girl's celebration of a ritual feast in Mumbai, far away from her home in New York, puts Jewish history and food traditions in perspective

The ‘Seder’ plate. Photo: iStockphoto
The ‘Seder’ plate. Photo: iStockphoto

My grandmother genuinely believed that serving someone bad food, not enough food, or no food at all indicated a high level of hatred for that person. Growing up Jewish, food was not only the locus point of family interaction, but a part of the sacred rituals of our religion. While Jews worship in synagogues or temples, many of our fundamental rituals and holidays are celebrated at home with celebratory meals full of prayers and symbols, objects and dishes that are an essential part of our cultural and religious tradition.

For example, the Kiddush, a prayer thanking God for wine, the fruit of the vine, precedes most Jewish ceremonies, right from Friday night Shabbat services and meals, to funerals. For the Jewish New Year, which falls around September or October, the day starts in the synagogue but ends at home. I remember baking a honey cake year after year to try and find the perfect recipe that would give us the perfectly sweet New Year that the dish symbolizes. We would toast each other with wine as we recited the Kiddush prayer and then gorge on generous slices of different versions of my honey cake each year.

Given Judaism’s overlapping definition as both a religion and a culture, albeit coloured by regional differences that infuse the food and accent the Hebrew, it makes sense that eating and prayer would be so deeply intertwined that symbolism would extend from the synagogue on to the plate. In my house, my grandmother made the traditional dishes of East European Jews, heavy comforting roasts of meat, while my mother loved trying out the lighter herb- and spice-laced food of the Spanish and Middle-Eastern Jewry. We grew up loving both, for the way they taste, and the way they make us feel. So food is an essential part of how I think about Jewish holidays, both in the sense of religious practice and enjoyment. While my Punjabi husband was literally weaned on chicken curries and biryanis, comfort and culture for me, especially when it comes to Judaism, mean chicken soup with matzo balls and my grandmother’s preparation of brisket. This food is part of a historical tradition where Jewish immigrants who could afford nothing else managed to rustle up a meal with these simple matzo flour dumplings, along with the cheapest cuts of beef. The brisket gradually transformed into an unofficial signature dish in our household that was lovingly prepared, the tough meat achingly soft and tender in my grandmother’s magical hands.

The ‘Seder’ ceremony follows a set of steps, like reciting blessings, drinking from the ritual wine cup and telling stories of the Exodus. The ‘Haggadah’ guides participants through the ceremony. Photo: Alamy.

One of our most important holidays is Passover, an eight-day celebration of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. And this April marked the second time I’ve spent this holiday in Mumbai, after moving to the city from New York in 2015. Of the many Jewish holidays I grew up celebrating, Passover has always been my favourite, and it is celebrated entirely at home, rather than in the synagogue. I have grown up helping my mother and grandmother prepare chicken stock, fruit mixes and desserts for the Passover meal, where every element represents a particular aspect of the history of our people—like the haroset, a mixture of fruits and spices symbolizing the cement with which Jewish slaves built structures for their Egyptian overlords in ancient times.

Since my grandmother died, the onus has fallen on my mother and me. Year after year, we cook side by side, like Jews have done before us for thousands of years, chopping and cooking our way into this legacy. To be abroad when Passover came used to feel like a piece of my heart was outside my body. The only respite I felt was when I prepared a Seder.

Seder, meaning order, refers to the long and ceremonial Passover feast that is held in a specific codified order of rituals and marks the beginning of this holiday. The table is covered with symbols of the Biblical story of the Exodus, all of which are edible. The meal itself includes a discussion of the story of the holiday, an intellectual inquiry into the meaning of the symbols and how they resonate throughout history, and an expression of gratitude for the comforts of the present. The centrepiece of the meal is matzo, a large flat tasteless cracker made of flour and water, a symbol of the speed with which the Israelites fled Egypt, the land of their bondage, and crossed the Red Sea, unable to wait for their bread rise. For eight days ever since, Jews who celebrate this holiday abstain from all leavened products, anything made of wheat that rises or expands—right from pasta to pumpernickel.

To be abroad when Passover came used to feel like a piece of my heart was outside my body. The only respite I felt was when I prepared a ‘Seder’.-

The holiday is by and large a celebratory event. And while we eat the bread of affliction, as we call matzo, we also douse ourselves with wine. Traditionally, you must consume at least four cups before the meal is even served! And so we gorge ourselves on food and open the door to Elijah, the long dead prophet who is believed to visit every household during Passover, invisibly sipping the wine laid out for him, sort of like a boozy Santa Claus. Many families honour this tradition by having a new friend or acquaintance over at their Seder.

The challenges of preparing this meal have, like many things I’ve encountered in India, been pretty tough. Last year, I had travelled to the US a few weeks before Passover began, and was able to bring back important supplies like matzo and horseradish sauce, a bitter chutney-style condiment that is a traditional accompaniment for the holiday.

In honour of my grandmother’s childhood in Persia, which had a significant influence on her cooking style, I made a meal after the style of the Sephardic Jews, who were originally from the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Central Asia. Jews in these countries had to find substitutes for their traditional ingredients and the resulting cuisine featured tagines, rich rice-based dishes and a variety of Middle- Eastern ingredients like bitter lemons, cloves, marinated vegetables, and salads. Coincidentally, many Indian Jews also had Sephardic origins, so my Passover feast seemed like a fitting enough tribute to all these mixed influences.

A ‘matzo’ ball soup. Photo: iStockphoto

Passover coincides with the Parsi Nowruz on occasion, so I made a Persian New Year’s rice, bright with dill, coriander, green onions and parsley, its base crisp and golden with butter. There was a brined chicken rubbed with spices like coriander, cinnamon and fennel. I used seasonal vegetables like carrots which I then roasted with cumin and honey. All this was served up after the matzo-ball soup, which would be received politely—even if not with the same devotion it receives back home—by my Indian guests. The matzo ball with its dense texture and bland flavours might be hard to love immediately, but the fact that they tried it at all was enough for me.

I was nervous about sharing my holiday with a group, worried that they might find it boring or silly—I was the lone Jew at the table. But my fears were unfounded. My friends were gracious and kind and they sportingly shared copies of the translated Haggadah, the book used to guide participants through the Seder rituals, explaining the meanings of each symbol and the Passover story itself. It was a Seder totally unlike any I had grown up eating, but it fit, somehow.

In Mumbai, it would have felt strange to make a Jewish meal like the ones back home in New York. Going with what was locally available made sense; the flavours were different but the sentiments were not. My guests asked questions, compared the story of the Jewish people to their own life experiences, and enjoyed themselves. My Seder was a success and I knew my grandmother would have been proud.

This year, however, I ran into a problem. I wasn’t travelling to the US around Passover this year and couldn’t pick up matzo. Moreover, the first two days of Passover, when the Seders are usually held, fell on a Monday and a Tuesday, automatically eliminating many guests who worked late on weekdays. Great, I thought. No guests, no matzo, no family. Suddenly, everything felt alien and insurmountable. That “where do I even start" feeling is so strong, so pervasive, that I wondered how anyone ever did it, how people came to new places and figured out anything without sinking into despair.

But despair doesn’t feed you. So you have to find something else that does.

For centuries, Jews had made their own matzo, without relying on store-bought variants. And I decided that was exactly what I would do. A quick Google search led to a recipe, reached out to a few people and found some acquaintances who were available on a Tuesday night. I brined another chicken and sprinkled it with advieh, a Persian spice mix with ground rose petals, something I had snagged from Dubai, in what I felt was my very own re-engineered Silk Road trade. Needless to say, my home-made matzo was superior to the store-bought stuff, and it made a pretty decent matzo ball. My chicken stock was ready and my Seder plate, although missing its traditional items, was crowned with fresh and local substitutes. Instead of horseradish, I had green onions, which I had heard many Sephardic Jews had used as a replacement centuries earlier. For haroset, I used a locally sourced dried fruit nut concoction. It didn’t look like the Seder plate I had grown up with, but at least I had done exactly what my ancestors had done before me.

Just like them, I had come to a new place, discovered local substitutes for my traditional Passover feast, but retained the core. We had a meal, we had matzo, and we had people. That’s a Seder right there.

And next year, when I can’t find something else essential, I’ll figure that out too.

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