An obscure Indian-inspired cuisine

The street leading to Cochin synagogue

We’ve recently had some Israeli visitors at work. This has led to some discussions of kosher food and where to find it in Brighton. It turns out that this town has no kosher restaurants. Yesterday this led to a rambling conversations that ended up somewhere surprising.

One of our guests said that Hove was, at least, better than India for kosher food. We ended up talking about Jewish communities there. It turns out that most of the Jewish population of Cochin moved to Israel in the 1960s, and they have their own cuisine that fuses Indian and Jewish food. It’s quite an obscure type of cookery – the community is about 7000 strong, and there are no restaurants, apart from a private dining option – and only a couple of cookbooks.

Jewish people are said to have emigrated to India as early as early as the time of King Solomon, around 587 BCE; the earliest records date back to 70CE and synagogues are known to have been built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Other Jewish groups moved there in the fifteenth century in response to persecution in Europe. The community in Cochin avoided the horrors of the Goan inquisition, with Cochin being under Dutch control rather than Portuguese. Following Indian independence and the founding of Israel, most Jewish people left, although the synagogue in Cochin has a small but declining congregation.

I’ve never been rained on as hard as we were in Cochin

One group that moved to Israel settled in the area of Mesilat Zion, near to where one of my colleagues lives. A short distance from Tel Aviv, the moshav (co-operative agricultural community) was founded in 1950 and later taken over by a community from Cochin. The current population here is about 1200 people.

A number of Cochini Jews also settled in Nevatim, which has recently switched from agriculture to promoting tourism. As part of this, Matamey Cochin is a group that hosts Cochini meals in their homes. An article in Tablet magazine ( Jews From Cochin Bring their Unique Indian Cuisine to Israeli Diners) described the food:

“Our food isn’t like the Indian food you know,” explained Miriam Elias… “We use different spices. We stick to a few basic ones and don’t mix them up like the Indians do.” Not only does their cuisine differ from Indian food from other areas, it differs from Hindu cooking in Cochin, too. First of all, it is kosher and devoid of dairy products (the closest you get is coconut milk), and some dishes are strictly Jewish and don’t exist in the local Hindu menu at all. Many of the dishes serve a certain purpose and are aligned with holidays and specific dates. For instance, the Cochin papadam (which differs from the kind of papadum you get in Indian restaurants) is eaten before the Tisha B’Av fast and is served with various kinds of curry. “When we say ‘curry’ we mean something completely different than what you know as curry,” clarified Bat Zion Elias. “Curry for us isn’t a spice mixture or a hot dish. Our curries are a variety of cold salads made out of cooked vegetables, like tomatoes, onions, or eggplants, sort of like matbucha…”

The Cochini food includes a lot of coconut dishes, which is useful because this can substitue for milk in kosher dishes. There is also an interesting approach to cooking onions:

“…We brown large quantities of onions, and then cook vegetables or whatever it is we are cooking in the onion juice, instead of cooking in water. A lot of our dishes are cooked this way, and it gives them a very distinct and special flavor.”

There are only two books devoted to this type of cooking, along with recipes in a few other books. I’ve ordered a book called Spice and Kosher, a book on the cuisine of Cochin Jews. I’m looking forward to experimenting with this. Eti Gilad’s The Cochini Cuisine looks to have been privately printed and doesn’t turn up on Amazon. My copy of Spice and Kosher arrives tomorrow. I can’t wait to explore something of this new cuisine.

Cochin’s fishing nets are one of its famous sights
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One thought on “An obscure Indian-inspired cuisine”

  1. May I please please please be on the guest list for one of your cook ups from this?? 🙂

    Very interesting article about how the 2 different nations naturally adopted their cuisines and came up with their own.
    I also love the fact that their cuisine is devoid of dairy!!

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