Bene Appétit: The Cui­sine of Indi­an Jews

By – January 18, 2022

In her new book of recipes, Esther David presents the cui­sine of India’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, Bene Israel. Once a thriv­ing pop­u­la­tion, the Jews of India have dwin­dled to about five thou­sand peo­ple scat­tered over sev­er­al com­mu­ni­ties on the sub­con­ti­nent. David, a nov­el­ist and Bene Israel Jew, trav­eled to all the com­mu­ni­ties in India in an effort to pre­serve their culi­nary tra­di­tions before they disappear.

Bene Appétit is valu­able for the pic­ture it paints of the var­i­ous Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, as well as for doc­u­ment­ing their recipes. David start­ed with the largest pop­u­la­tion in the Mum­bai area and then ven­tured to rur­al cen­ters in the south and remote vil­lages in the northeast.

Rich with the fla­vors of India — gin­ger, saf­fron, coconut, chilies, cur­ries, chut­neys — Indi­an Jew­ish cui­sine reflects the food of India but also observes the laws of kashrut; for exam­ple, coconut milk is sub­sti­tut­ed for dairy prod­ucts. In place of kosher wine, home­made grape juice — Shab­bat Sher­bet — is used for kid­dush. Instead of chal­lah, cha­p­atis, or a flat bread, is found on Shab­bat tables through­out India.

Veg­eta­bles play a large role in a cul­ture with a strong veg­e­tar­i­an tra­di­tion. Most of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties are near the coasts, so fish is a favored ingre­di­ent. Kosher meat is not wide­ly avail­able, and the com­mu­ni­ties often fall back on their elders to pre­pare meat rit­u­al­ly. Dessert usu­al­ly con­sists of fruit. Many Indi­an homes do not have ovens, so a great deal of the cook­ing takes place on a stove top.

In Andhra Pradesh, in the south, the Hanukkah treat is a sweet ball of pow­dered rice. The Cochin Jews pre­pare an inter­est­ing vari­a­tion of rai­ta, called pacha­di, with chilies and cur­ry leaves. The Bene Israel Jews, in a sur­pris­ing depar­ture from Jew­ish prac­tice, hold a cer­e­mo­ny of thanks­giv­ing—mal­i­da—to hon­or the prophet Eli­jah. For the mal­i­da cer­e­mo­ny, a bowl of damp­ened rice flakes is mixed with sug­ar, coconut, nuts, and spices, accom­pa­nied by plates of var­ied fruits.

This is an engag­ing book, marked by David’s delight in her dis­cov­er­ies and anec­dotes about her trav­els. It offers a rich and var­ied cui­sine, and home cooks will find a broad range of new and fla­vor­ful dish­es to try out.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions

The guid­ing idea behind Esther David’s Bene Appétit: The Cui­sine of Indi­an Jews is that when a com­mu­ni­ty decreas­es in num­ber, its tra­di­tion­al food becomes a mem­o­ry.” Only about 5,000 Jews remain in India today, and David’s book cru­cial­ly doc­u­ments the rit­u­als and food­ways of Indi­a’s six diverse Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties: the Bene Israel Jews of west­ern India, the Cochin Jews of Ker­ala, the Bagh­da­di Jews of Kolkata, the Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh, the Bnei Menashe Jews of Manipur, and the Bnei Menashe Jews of Mizo­ram. More of a trav­el­ogue with recipes than a con­ven­tion­al cook­book, Bene Appétit explores the region­al dif­fer­ences among these groups, high­light­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties with oth­er types of Indi­an cook­ery while show­ing how Jew­ish culi­nary prac­tices remain dis­tinct. The recipes for main­ly veg­e­tar­i­an and fish dish­es are delec­table. Tilkut pota­toes, fried in plen­ty of oil with onions, chili pow­der and sesame seeds, would enhance any Hanukkah cel­e­bra­tion. In cap­tur­ing the dis­ap­pear­ing food­ways of Indi­a’s minor­i­ty Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, Bene Appétit offers impor­tant insights into a lit­tle-known Jew­ish style of cook­ing that lies far beyond the famil­iar bounds of Ashke­nazi cuisine.