Esther David, Jewish Indian author and illustrator, published a post on the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) blog discussing her book “Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews” and her findings while researching the book.
David explained that after fleeing the area that is now Israel, many Jews settled in India. In the mid-1950s and 1960s there were close to 30 thousand Jews in India. Although they comprise a small percentage of the population, there has been a Jewish community living in India since 75 CE.
She continued by explaining that there are five Indian Jewish communities: the Bene Ephraims of Andhra Pradesh, the Bene Israelis of Western India, the Bnei Menashe Jews of Northeast India, the Baghdadi Jews of West Bengal and the Cochin Jews of Kerala. David noted that Indian Jews from the five different regions have different facial characteristics, since they settled in different parts of India. She pointed out that most Indian Jews chose to live close to bodies of water.
However, even though the communities live in different parts of India, they still share both religion and food as a common thread that keeps them together. Many continued with their traditional diets, but integrated Indian habits into their practices. According to David this resulted in “unique ceremonies and rituals that have been passed down from one generation to another.”
Today, there are less than five thousand Jews living in India. For David this presented a need to preserve the traditions that have been disappearing because of “modernization and immigration.”
David explained why she wrote the book: “When a community decreases in numbers, its traditional food starts to disappear,” wrote David. The book was a way for her to try and “to preserve the heritage of Indian Jewish cuisine because food is memory and culture. Food is connected with the bonding of families and communities. Food is part of our childhood.”
This project began for David when she got funding from HBI in 2016, with which she was able to study Indian Jewish food traditions. From there came the book and the study on Jews living in India.
David said that even in India, most Jews do not mix milk with meat in the dishes that they make. Since yogurt, a staple in the Indian diet, is made with milk, most Jews end up being vegetarian, so they are able to eat Indian foods. Some Jews use coconut milk as a substitute for dairy products, in order to make curries and sweet dishes.
Since kosher meat is difficult to come by in India, the various communities found different ways to get around that, which were influenced by the traditions in the regions they settled in. Kosher wine is also not something that is widely available in India, so many communities opted for a dried grape sherbet. According to David, it is made with “the women soaking black currants in a vessel of water and washing them, while the men crush, strain and bottle the sherbet.” The recipe for the sherbet is available on the blog post.
David is a part of the Bene Israel Jewish community of Ahmedabad, according to the blog. HBI featured her book “Shalom India Housing Society” in the 2010-2011 calendar. In 2010, “The Book of Rachel” received the Sahitya Akademi Award for English Literature.