Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cochini delicacies bag second spot in Tel Aviv cooking contest

By Bala Menon

Ilanit Menachem from Atlit, a small town in the north of Israel, was the First Runner-up in a cooking contest "Cooking India, Flying India" organized by the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv recently.

Ilanit, of Cochin Jewish descent, made the Vada (lentil fritters), the Cochini Hubba and the unique rosette-like, crunchy sweet of Kerala called Achhappam during the finals at the famed Tapas Ahad Ha'am restaurant (of Yonathan Roshfeld) in Tel Aviv. "Everything had to be completed within two hours and it was a great experience to cook in Roshfeld's kitchen," says Ilanit.
Ilanit with her dishes -achhappam, fritters &  kubbah
The five finalists – Yaffa Samson, Ilanit Menachem, Jacqueline Solomon, Orna Reuben SRK and Tamar Michael (all Jews of Indian ancestry) were given a list of ingredients and asked to devise a menu with a main dish, a side dish and a starter or dessert.

The dishes reflected the diversity of Indian cuisine – Fish Cutlets, Shrimp Curry and Pea Rice (Yaffa Samson);  Cochini Huba and Achappam (Ilanit Menachem); Amritsari Fish, Masala Rice, Aloo Tikki and Halwa-Puri (Jacqueline Solomon); Punjabi Samosa, Tandoori Chicken with Rice (Orna Reuben SRK); and Palak Panner with Rice and Makkhani Lassi (Tamar Michael). (It must be mentioned here that the Cochin dishes were the unknown factor - and which are not found on regular Indian restaurant menus. These dishes are also featured in the book "Spice & Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews", published in August last year.)
  Israeli Television Channel 2 (Keshet) aired the finals of the contest  in their popular Friday morning show “Bokher Shel Keshet”, with the contestants dressed in traditional Indian attire when presenting their creations.

Video of the finals of the 'Cooking India, Flying India' contest.
The panel of judges comprised: Yonathan Roshfeld, Israeli food critic Hila Alpert, Indian restaurateur Reena Pushkarna and Indian culinary expert Sarraju Narasinga Rao. There was a just a single point difference between Ilanit and the final winner, Ms Orna Reuben SRK, who won two return flight tickets to India and a weeklong holiday in Kerala (the home of the Cochin Jews).

Indian Ambassador to Israel Jaideep Sarkar  noted in his address about the affection that Israelis had for India and Indian cuisine. Indian Restaurateur Reena Pushkarna showcased the diversity of Indian cuisine.  The finale concluded with a vibrant Bollywood dance performance by choreographer David Nigrekar and his troupe of Bene Israelis. (Bene Israelis are Jews who settled in the Konkan region of Maharashrtra near Mumbai in ancient times). Sponsors of the contest included the Spices Board of India,, Indigo Airlines, Tal Aviation, Government of India Tourism Office, Lev Cinema, Tandoori Restaurant, and Om Indian Store.

Video of the semi-finals at Lev Cinema.
The semi-finals at the Lev Cinema in Tel Aviv, a few days earlier, saw 19 candidates prepare about a hundred dishes for the judges, after which the five finalists were selected. Al semi-final candidates were invited along with their family and friends to watch the critically acclaimed Indian film The Lunchbox.— at the same venue. Ilanit 'idli' proved to be a big hit with Roshfeld "who liked it so much that he thanked me and showed me pictures of it on his cellphone."
A composite picture of the contest finals

As Ilanit says "It was an amazing experience for me and a great honour to participate in this competition and to represent the Cochin Jewish community. I did it with great pride!! Thank you all! Ilanit writes a popular blog related to Cochin Jewish cooking, called Chipappam.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

'Spice & Kosher' book on Cochin food featured in Asian Jewish Life

By Bala Menon

The latest issue of Asian Jewish Life (Issue 14, April 2014) has featured the book "Spice & Kosher - Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews" by Dr. Essie Sassoon, Bala Menon and Kenny Salem. The special 'India Issue' has spread the feature across four pages and  has published three of the unique Cochin Jewish recipes from the book.

The recipes covered are the famed Polappam & Chikkiyathu (a type of crepe made with black gram and semolina and which is a breakfast dish unique to the Jews of Cochin) Chicken Pastel (an ancient Cochin Jewish dish, mentioned in Dutch documents from Kerala of the 17th century), and the Chukunda (tiny baked/fried rice balls which were a popular treat for children during the festival of Shavout).
AJL Editor-in-Chief Erica Lyons says in an editorial, "...Also looking at the beauty of Jewish culture from Cochin, we have Bala Menon who has contributed recipes from Spice & Kosher ... (the book) is much more than a cookbook; it is a walk through history and a snapshot of Jewish life."
Other articles featured in the issue include one on the legendary David Sassoon of Bombay by Dr. Shalva Weil, a Passover story "A Cup of Tea" by Sophie Judah, an interview with artist Siona Benjamin and an article by Michael Bender of Florida about his impressions on Cochin. There is also an interesting article on the supposed fascination in India with Hitler by Navras Jaat Aafreedi.
 All articles in the issue can be read online at:

Asian Jewish Life is a quarterly publication "designed to share regional Jewish thoughts, ideas and culture and promote unity. It also celebrates our individuality and our diverse backgrounds and customs." Asian Jewish Life is a registered charity in Hong Kong. AJL operates under the fiscal sponsorship of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, a US organization.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Focus on Jews of Cochin at Florida University lecture

By Bala Menon

For more than 2000 years, a small community of Jews in Cochin, then a small kingdom in a remote corner of South India, "enjoyed security and prosperity, fully accepted by their Hindu, Muslim and Christian neighbors."
This story of the Cochin Jews was the theme of a presentation by one of the leading scholars of Jewish communities in Asia, Dr. Nathan Katz, when he spoke about the three interrelated strategies for constructing and enacting the unique identity of the Cochin Jews. "This identity is at the same time, fully Indian (Malayali, to be exact) and Jewish (Sephardi)," Dr Katz stressed at a 'full house' conference at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach recently.
Pictures of late 20th century Jewish Cochin, taken by Ellen Goldberg
Dr. Katz, a Florida International University distinguished professor and academic director, has extensively researched the Cochin community. He lived in the Mattancherry settlement of the Paradesi Jews for more than a  year, making him the first foreign Jew to do so for that length of time, in more than a century.

Arriving in India in 1986 as a senior Fulbright research scholar, Katz spent a year experiencing and documenting life in Cochin’s “Jew Town,” as it is widely referred to. His experience yielded two award-winning books about the community, as well as other volumes on Jewish communities throughout the subcontinent where he travelled.

This was the gist of Dr. Katz's lecture:

Dr. Nathan Katz
"They (the Cochin Jews) spoke of themselves have having originated in Jerusalem and fled to Cranganore after the destruction of the Holy Temple. They were welcomed by Maharajas (kings of Cochin), held positions of authority as merchants, soldiers and diplomats, and lived fully as Jews in the affectionate embrace of their neighbors.

"Touching on the two anchors of their identity - Jerusalem and Cranganore - and emphasizing the high social position, they were well-acculturated in local society."

"Second, they skillfully adapted Hindu temple behaviors in the autumn High Holiday celebrations, especially for Simhat Torah, the Festival of Rejoicing in the Law. They adapted Hindu practices, but always within the framework of Judaic Law or Halakhah. Thus, their neighbors came to know them, and they came to know themselves, as fully Indian and fully Jewish."

"Finally, they adapted to the local social structure, the caste system. To outsiders, the Jews were accepted as a caste, and like many castes, they were divided into endogamous subcastes. On this point, they violated Halakhah. But if this violation was Indian in origin, so was its resolution, as people from the lower subcaste adapted Gandhiji's satyagraha technique, eventually overcoming these discriminatory practices."

In this far-flung Indian corner of the Jewish diaspora, the community flourished. Yet when their two homelands attained independence from Britain, India in 1947 and Israel in 1948, virtually all of the community emigrated to Israel. Today, there are only about 40 or so Jews left in Cochin (Kochi) and the surrounding areas. In Mattancherry, which has the only functioning 446-year-old synagogue, there are only seven elderly Jews.
Ellen Goldberg, photojournalist and Dr. Katz's wife, had an exhibition of her photographs from Cochin, taken in 1986-87, as part of the lecture.

Presented by Flordia International Jewish Studies Initiatives, the program was co-sponsored by the university’s Initiative for Global Jewish Communities and the President Navon Professorship of Sephardi Mizrahi Studies. The  Jewish Studies Initiatives educates university students and faculty and the general South Florida community about Jewish history, culture, religion, literature, political science, and international relations.
The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU is located at 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. For more information: call 305-348-3909.