Dwithiya Raghavan cooks whole meals from an evocative novel on the Bene Israeli community of Danda, Maharashtra, and forges an intimate connection with a community she has never met.
Books and food — both have the ability to transport me to unknown lands, introduce me to cultures I long to experience, and people that I would love to sit down and chat with. Book of Rachel, a novel by Esther David, does all this and more. It tells the story of Rachel Dandekar, a tenacious and spirited Bene Israeli Jewish woman fighting to protect her beloved synagogue in Danda, Maharashtra, taking the reader on a journey of discovery of the cuisine and practices of the Bene Israeli Jewish community.
The Bene Israeli Jews came to India over 2000 years ago, fleeing Greek persecution in Israel. After a shipwreck near Alibaug, in Raigadh district, Maharashtra, they settled in the region, eventually moving to other cities for their livelihood. The community embraced their new home by assuming names that indicated their place of residence, adding the suffix ‘kar’ to their village names. Many of the Hebrew prayer books were lost in the shipwreck, so oral tradition played a key role in the passing down of religious customs and practices. However, during the Dutch and British occupation, emphasis was placed on religious education, and Bene Israeli prayer books were documented in Marathi. Today, the Bene Israelis are dispersed across India in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal, Manipur and Mizoram. Although widespread, the community is now dwindling in population, with fewer than 5000 at last count.
David’s Book of Rachel offers insight into the cuisine of the Bene Israeli Jews who still live in Alibaug; a wonderful amalgamation of Jewish traditions, combined with the practices and produce of the western region of India. Coconut and coconut milk are ubiquitous in the Bene Israeli cuisine; there is also liberal use of kokum as a souring agent, and fish is the primary source of protein in their meals.
Each chapter of the novel begins with a recipe from the community; from the simple, everyday chay or tea, to the celebratory Seder platter cooked for Passover. Interestingly, Jewish dietary law demands that the vessel in which chay is made in is stored separately, so that the flavour of tea remains pure. Through her recipes and anecdotes, David paints a vivid picture: the table set for Seder, decorated with candles and flowers, the best tableware, and an array of dishes prepared to celebrate Jewish freedom from slavery.
Reading about Rachel, her family, friends and adversaries, one learns her love for fried fish with fiery red chilli, how her daughter Zephra slurps curry from the fish alberas like soup, and that it is necessary to take long walks after a meal of peethal, because it has a tendency to cause flatulence. It was fascinating to observe how Bene Israeli cuisine adopted staples from Maharashtra, such as rice, without which their meals are never complete. At the same time, they also held on to their traditional recipes like the kanavali, a semolina cake that is prepared a day in advance so that it can be be had for dinner on Sabbath, the day of rest, where the Jews abstain from all work, including cooking.
Each time I read a recipe, and followed the characters in their experience of the cuisine, I felt the need to cook these dishes myself. And that is how I began to cook with Rachel. As I cooked my way through each of the dishes, I went back to read the chapter again, this time with a plate or bowl of food in hand, to truly taste what I was reading.
I must confess, cooking from the book was an unsettling experience in some ways — in a time when recipe books are illustrated with glossy step-by-step photos, Book of Rachel is unique in that it does not have any photos. And unlike modern cookbooks, quantities of ingredients are mentioned as part of the recipe, and not in a separate ingredient list, like we have come to expect. However, as I cooked more and more from the book, I realised the beauty of these recipes lay in asking the reader to draw on instinct; a sense of smell and taste, to lead the way. It made cooking a process that engages the senses, and one that is truly immersive.
I share here three recipes from the book; they are easy to whip up and serve as a small window into the fascinating cuisine and traditions of the Bene Israelis.
Recipe for Fish Alberas
Fish alberas is a fresh green colour that makes you feel warm, like ‘sleeping under a quilt on a winter morning.’ The curry is fragrant from fresh herbs, and has a sharp tang from kokum, mellowed by the subtle sweetness of coconut milk. In Book of Rachel, Esther writes that ‘the fish is the symbol of protection, because she does not have eyelids, and her eyes are always open and watchful, placed on both sides of her head. A fish is portrayed on the ornamental sign seen in Jewish homes, the hamsas, for protection and good luck.’
1 large pomfret (about 500 g)
6 cloves garlic
½ inch piece ginger
Small bunch coriander leaves
10 mint leaves
2 green chillies
5 curry leaves
1 cup coconut milk
½ cup water
1 potato, peeled and chopped into six pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
A pinch of turmeric powder
½ tsp cumin powder
2 tbsp oil
4 wet leaves or 8 dry leaves kokum
Salt to taste
Clean the pomfret, remove the teeth, leave the eyes and chop the tail ends. Cut the fish into six or seven pieces, salt and set aside.
For the masala, grind together the garlic, ginger, coriander, mint, green chillies and tomato with very little water till you get a smooth paste.
Heat the oil in a pan wide-mouthed pan and splutter the curry leaves. Add the onions and cook till transparent.
Pour the masala mix into the pan and cook on a slow flame till the oil is absorbed.
Add the coconut milk, water, turmeric and cumin powder. Put the potato into the masala and let cook for a few minutes.
Add the fish and cook on a slow heat. When the fish is almost cooked, add the kokum leaves and continue to cook till the gravy thickens.
Recipe for Kanavali
The subtle sweetness and softness of semolina in the kanavali, punctuated with the crunch from dry fruits, keeps you going back for more. ‘If made on Friday afternoon, kanavali or Sabbath cake is a wholesome meal for the Sabbath.’
250 g semolina
2 tbsp butter, ghee or vegetable oil
400 ml coconut milk
2 tbsp sugar
6 crushed cardamom seeds
10 blanched almonds
Brown the semolina with the ghee in a pan and set aside.
Heat the coconut milk in another dish on a low flame and add the sugar and a pinch of salt.
Add the browned semolina into the pan with the coconut milk and stir continuously till all the liquid is absorbed. This happens quite quickly.
Now add the crushed cardamom, almonds and raisins, cover and cook for five more minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a greased pie plate and bake in a 170 deg C oven for 10 minutes, till golden brown.
Once cooled, cut into diamond shaped pieces and serve.
Recipe for Sown Kadhi
Sown kadhi is a ‘cloudy pink, like the sea changing colour under the morning sky’ curry best eaten by pouring over a mound of hot rice. The combination of the sour kokum and the rich coconut milk brings everything into perfect balance. As Esther writes, ‘If sown kadhi is the queen of curries, then coconut is the king of Jewish cuisine. According to Jewish dietary law, lamb should not be cooked in its mothers’ milk. So, instead of dairy products, coconut milk works as a perfect substitute for milk in Bene Israeli cuisine.’
300 ml diluted coconut milk
200 ml water
4 wet leaves or 8 dry leaves kokum
1 tbsp uncooked rice
1 tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin powder
Salt to taste
Soak the rice in half a cup of water for an hour and grind to a smooth paste.
Soak the kokum in a bowl of water for a few minutes till the residue settles in the bowl. Remove the kokum from the water, wash and set aside.
Pour the coconut milk and water in a deep bottomed pan and heat on a low flame. Add salt, chilli, turmeric and cumin powder to the coconut milk. Bring to a boil stirring continuously.
Add the kokum and rice paste to the coconut milk and boil for five more minutes, continuing to stir.
Dwithiya Raghavan and Sarojini Dantapalli are passionate about food cultures and techniques, excited by unique flavours and ingredients and willing to try almost anything in the quest for a delicious plate of food. Dwithiya writes and Sarojini creates illustrations to document their adventures, on their blog And We Stir.
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