The Cochini Jewish Cuisine
By Bala Menon
The Cochinim (as the Jews from Cochin are called in Israel) was/is the tiniest and most ancient of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. They trace their history on the lush, monsoon-swept Malabar coast in south-western India to 2000 years ago, landing there as sailors in King Solomon’s fleets to purchase spices, animals, and precious metals. Their songs and traditions tell of settlements in places like Paloor and Cranganore after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 BCE, although recorded history begins from 1000 CE.
The community lives on in Israel today and still adheres to its famed Cochini cuisine, songs, the Judeo-Malayalam language and other cultural facets. There are flourishing Cochini moshavim (settlements) – Nevatim and Shahar in the south, Aviezer, Mesilat Zion and Taoz near Jerusalem and Kfar Yuval in the far north. Sizeable numbers of Cochinis live in Binyamina, Petah Tikva, Rishon Le Zion, Ashdod, Jerusalem, and Haifa.
Food is a major part of the Cochin Jewish story. Ruby Daniels and Dr. Barbara Johnson mention names of some early 20th century Cochini dishes in their book Ruby of Cochin: A Jewish Woman Remembers. Dr. Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg, who wrote the definitive anthropological book The Last Jews of Cochin: Identity in a Hindu India, included some recipes collected in Cochin in the 1980s.
Aromas, colours, flavours
Kerala cuisine, shaped by its maritime history, is different from what is considered fine Indian cuisine, mainly the creamy curries and vigorous breads of north India. The Malabar spice trade was for many centuries controlled by the Jews and they incorporated the spices into their cuisine. These included pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, asafoetida, red and green chillies, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg and mace. The dishes were infused with the magic of curry leaves, tamarind pulp and coconut, creating a piquant cooking style. A long coastline teeming with some of the finest edible fishes in the world contributed to great seafood medleys.
Many of the items were common among the Jews, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims who lived in proximity for centuries in the Kingdom of Cochin.
The staple food of Cochinis remains unpolished/parboiled rice, which takes on many incarnations throughout the day. Items like the dosa, idli, appam and puttu continue to be eaten with relish in Cochini households/restaurants throughout Israel as it is done in homes across Kerala. One of the distinctive rice delicacies is the Cochin Jewish coconut rice. It is prepared by adding thinly shredded coconut flesh and spices to cooked rice or cooking the rice in coconut milk and then adding spices to unleash a delightful aroma and an unforgettable flavour.
Jewish dietary laws
Kosher is the Hebrew word for ‘fit’. Kashrut is the Hebrew word for keeping kosher. Jewish cuisine owes its ingenuity and originality to Kashrut: the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy, the ban on pork and fishes with no fins and scales (this means no seafood like shrimps and lobsters, scallops, crabs etc.).
In Cochin, the Jewish housewife found that coconut milk was the ideal alternative to milk to use with meat. Gelatin was never used; instead, food starch and tapioca became binding agents. One of the major commandments of kosher law is: “You shall not boil a kid in the mother’s milk”. Cochinis observe a waiting period of six hours after meat is consumed before ingesting a dairy product or anything containing milk.
Dr. Katz (Florida International University) and Goldberg first visited Cochin in1984 and later lived in Jew Town, (1986-87), embedding themselves into the Mattancherry Jewish community and getting enamoured with the food. “Kerala was always where spices were grown, so they had the freshest, most wonderful, pungent spicing,” says Katz. “I love Cochini food very much and what we experienced some 26 years ago is now part of our lifestyle here in Miami.”
After the mass immigration in the early 1950s, the Cochinis got their first-ever food shock. Israel was reeling under an austerity program and food was rationed. Immigrants received Ashkenazi staples that the Cochinis hated. Rachel Sopher from Moshav Taoz recalls how her parents hated black olives. “They had never seen it. They called it sheep droppings..!” There was also margarine, unknown to the Cochinis, and other strange items.
In old Cochin, Passover (in April) dominated the religious life of the Jews and preparations for the festival began the day after Purim (in March). There was an obsession with cleaning as the taboo of chametz (forbidden food) took on a dinosaur-like life of its own. The forbidden grains were wheat, spelt, barley, oat, and rye.
Retired gynaecologist, Dr. Essie Sassoon, from Ashkelon in Israel, reminisces: “If there was an unopened bottle of whiskey, it was stored in a room called hamaz muri (chametz room) or sold to a non-Jew and bought back after Passover. Utensils were made kosher by holding them with tongs and immersing them in boiling water. Milk and meat were not cooked in the same vessel in a 24-hour period.” No food was eaten outside of the home.
Apart from the matzah, an unleavened bread, the Passover Seder (ceremonial meal) for the eight-day festival contains six symbolic foods: 1. Maror: Lettuce is used as the maror (bitter herb). 2. Charoset: A sweet, brown, pebbly mixture made with dates, representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt. 3. Karpas: Celery dipped in vinegar. 4. Z’roa: Roasted shank bone, symbolizing the korban Pesach (Pesach sacrifice). In Cochin, a roast chicken wing (kai oram in Malayalam) was used. 5. Beitzah: A roasted egg, symbolizing the korban chagigah (festival sacrifice).
Appam is one of Kerala’s principal breakfast dishes. A fermented flatbread, made with rice, it originated in Jewish homes in Cochin and was popularized by the Syrian Christians.
The Kubbah (or Kubba) meaning ‘ball’ in Arabic, is a dish of bulghur, onions, spices and ground meat that originated in Baghdad. It became popular in Cochin around the 17th century. Queenie Hallegua of Mattancherry, Cochin, describes it as “chicken or fish minced, encased in rice flour and cooked in gravy made with vegetables like okra and gourd.” It is served with the fabled Resaya Pulav (turmeric rice).
The Pastel has been a favourite for the Cochinis for several hundred years. The Cochini pastel was mentioned by Shlomo Reinman in the 1850s in his book Masa’oth Shlomo b’Kogin. Reinman was a merchant from Galicia in northwest Spain, who came to Cochin in the 1840s. Pastel is a Portuguese word for a crisp pastry with assorted fillings. In Israel, the pastel’s cousin, the bureka is made with phyllo dough, filled with vegetables, meats or cheese and garnished with sesame seeds. In Cochini homes, burekas are always dairy (with cheese), while cheese is never added to pastels.
Three major dishes on the Cochini menu are the ellegal made with chicken, the red beef curry, both with strong coriander flavour and the chuttulli meen (pan fried fish with shallot paste). There is also the Cochin Jewish cutlet, “like the schnitzel…Thin chicken breasts dipped in eggs and mixed in crumbs and deep-fried,” says Hallegua.
The Motta Salada is a sweet made with egg yolk and served at weddings and bar mitzvahs (coming of age rituals – 13 for boys and 12 for girls). Kerala Muslims make a similar dish called Mutta Mala or Egg Garland on festive occasions.
The Cochin Jewish Cake is a jewel in the community’s culinary repertoire. A Rosh Hashanah specialty, it’s a rich batter of semolina, eggs, sugar, ghee, nuts and raisins. Other ancient sweets include the sharkkara ada (coconut cooked in jaggery, placed in rice dough and steamed in banana leaf), used to break the 24 hour Fast of Ab, and the churullappam or mutta kuzhalappam, a coconut and sugar-filled crepe. This is similar to the padhar of the Bene Israelis of Mumbai.
The achappam is a crunchy, flower-shaped snack, similar to the Swedish rosettes called Struva. For Cochin Jews, as with most Jews, the ‘halwa’ remains the best kosher dessert, because it is parve (containing no meat or dairy). Halwah, dervied from the Arabic ‘alw’ for ‘sweet’, is popular during Rosh Hashanah and is made with semolina. It is distributed among neighbours and friends, like the mishloah manot, the exchange of treats on Purim. A special sweet during the blessings of new fruits (Brakot) on Rosh Hashanah is a jewel-like preparation called the Meruba made with pears or green apples.
Much-anticipated treats at Hanukkah and the day before Yom Kippur are the unniyappams or neyappams. These delicious, golden-brown, rice/banana dumplings with a hint of cardamom are deep-fried in butter. Kerala Hindus make them as offerings to temples. The unniyappams are made in a cast-iron pan called appakkara, similar to Danish pans called aebleskiver used to make apple pancakes. Greek Jews have a look-alike pan with seven wells for making bimuelo, the fried dough for Hanukkah celebrations.
During Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the Cochinis fast for 27 hours. This fast is broken with a wheat pudding called Ural, akin to the halwa. Shavuot (Pentecost) is the day on which G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai 3,300 years ago, after children were named guarantors. In Kerala, children clustered together in the synagogue to enjoy a shower of tiny baked or fried sweet rice balls called chukunda.
A drink called ‘Mooli’ is served in houses observing bereavement. Ruby Daniel wrote: “If there is a house where someone had died, they served a hot drink…Coriander seeds and cumin seeds are boiled together in water and a little cardamom, cloves and cinnamon are added; then it is served hot with sugar.” (Daniel & Johnson: 165).
Ora Farchy, born and raised in Moshav Shahar in southern Israel and now living in Houston where she is a Hebrew teacher, says: “It has been a long journey for us Cochinis. Although physical Cochin has receded from us when we consider concepts of time and space, the food has remained with us and, I think, will remain part of our consciousness and identity forever.”
Young Avithal Elias, a Cochini Jewish student at Technion in Haifa, expresses this sentiment plaintively. One of her recent posts on social media said: “I miss puttu, idiyappam, appam, porotta, kadala kari, coconut chamanthi, fish curry, fish fry, unniyappam, murukku, banana chips, coconut curry, stew, pachadi, kichidi, manga achaar, chambakka, chakkapazham, upillita pala sambahavangal, sadhya, palada payasam, dosa…I miss you My KOCHI !! Love U always.” Truly, a far cry from the the cholent, kishke, and gefilte fish that are considered authentic Jewish food by the Ashkenazis from Europe and others round the world.
Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, Religions of South Asia, Routledge, New York, 2006
Reinman, Shlomo, Masa’oth Shlomo b’Kogin.
Ruby Daniel & Barbara Johnson, Ruby of Cochin: A Jewish Woman Remembers
Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Identity in a Hindu India
Bala Menon is a journalist, artist, blogger, historian, and storyteller. He has worked in newspapers in India and the Middle East and publishing firms in Toronto, where he lives. Co-authored a book on the culinary history of the Jews of Cochin in 2013. Now working on two non-fiction books. Blog: http://jewsofcochin.blogspot.ca
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.