Jewish Indian Cuisine

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

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Cochin: The Black Jews

The Black Jews of Cochin are one of the three Jewish groups in that southwest city of India on the Arabian Sea. The other two are the so‑called White Jews and the manumitted or freed slaves. The Black and White Jews worshiped in different synagogues, the Whites in their famed old Paradesi synagogue. But it is the Black Jews that we are concerned with here.

Legend, hearsay, and community stories form an historical background to the origin of the Black Jews. Benjamin of Tudela, that peripatetic Spanish traveler (1170 C.E.), indicated that there were about 1,000 Jews in Cochin in his time. Other references attest to the antiquity of the Black Jews’ presence there.

The Portuguese and Dutch rule of the region from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century contributed to the establishment of Mattancheri, the Jewish quarter in Cochin, known today as it was then as Jew Town. This was not a ghetto but the part of town where the Jews gathered. There was no disparagement attached to the name.

The Jews of Cochin speak Malayalam, the Indian language of the region, and are engaged in trade and crafts. For instance, some years ago during one of my trips to Cochin, I met a Black Jewess called Zipporah, who sold bananas and eggs for a living.

The Jews of Cochin lived in a joint family system. It was conceived for the protection of the very young and very old, as in conservative Hindu families. There is a feeling of the caste system in their manner of doing this. My host said that his large family lived in one compound. The old grandmother held the money and distributed funds to family members when it was needed. There was no secrecy nor was advantage taken by any one member to obtain more money than was genuinely needed.

The dark skin and general physiognomy of the South Indians are also characteristic of the Jews of the region. “We are not bothered about our color,” one of the Jews said to me, since they identify with the Judaic way of life, not their appearance.

The cookery of the Black Jews (and that of the White Jews) is that of the Indians around them, except that the rules of meat and dairy dishes are observed and family differences and customs influence the seasonings.

The cooking is spicy with the emphasis on ginger, coriander, mustard seed, fresh and dry hot chili, fenugreek, cardamom and the ever‑present curry leaves. Since little meat or poultry is eaten in the intense heat and humidity of the climate, the food could almost be considered vegetarian. Yoghurt is a popular and common food.

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