Jewish Indian Cuisine

India's three Jewish communities have unique histories and unique cuisines.

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The western coast of India, influenced by the monsoons and bathed in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, is home to the Bene Israel, a unique Jewish community.

The Bene Israel claim their ancestors left Galilee (Palestine) in 175 B.C.E. Their ship was wrecked in the Indian Ocean. Seven men and seven women were cast ashore on the Konkan peninsula, a spit of land south of what is now Bombay—and survived. Isolated for centuries, their descendants adopted the customs, names, dress, and foods of their Hindu neighbors. Their language then and now is Marathi.

They were oil pressers and agriculturalists in their villages. Their presence and origins were not known to the outside world, and for many years they apparently remained unaware of other groups of Jews in India. But by the middle of the 18th century they had contact with the Cochin Jews in the southwest and the Baghdadis who had come from Iraq and settled in Bombay.

All during their history, starting with the shipwreck, they clung to some fundamentals of Jewish tradition: the dietary laws, the Sabbath and holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Simchat Torah, among others.

Another theory of their origin is that they were an offshoot of the Yemenites, and we know they had been in touch with Jewish settlements in Yemen. The Yemenites themselves have documented the information that their men were familiar with the Jews of India (Bene Israel and Cochin) and traveled there to obtain Jewish wives.

Bombay, the Indian metropolis in western India, was acquired by the British East India Company in 1661 and was a magnet for trade. The Bene Israel moved from their villages in the Konkan region and established a permanent Jewish settlement in Bombay about 1750. It was at that time that they were able to return to traditional Judaism and fill in the gaps lost in their isolation. In addition to established educational and cultural institutions, they erected six synagogues.

In 1947, at the height of the community’s existence in Bombay, there were about 24,000 souls. Reduced to about 13,000 in 1969, the population has now declined to a small fraction of that number due to their emigration to Israel and England.

The cookery is characterized by the cooking of the Maharashtra people around them, the use of spices, the system of assembling the curries, the dietary laws, and customs of the original shipwrecked Bene Israel, who adopted the world around them and fitted it into a Judaic mold.

Coconut milk, hot chili, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander and garam masala are standard flavorings that are a hallmark of the cooking. They are, in fact, India’s.

Preparing for Passover, condiments are freshly ground in a general house cleaning. Matzah is baked for prayer rather than as a substitute for bread. Rice is not forbidden as it is in the Ashkenazi tradition. Familiar Judaic rituals and activities are no different from those of other Jewish communities of India. One year I celebrated Passover with a family who were reading the Haggadah translated into Marathi, while others at the Seder table read passages in Hebrew and English.

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Copeland Marks has written numerous cookbooks, including The Great Book of Couscous and The Exotic Kitchens of Peru.