Award-winning Indian Jewish author and illustrator Esther David was awarded the Hadassah Brandeis Reserach Award (USA) for studying Indian Jewish cuisine. In India, Jews first settled in Kerala before the Christian Era began. These are the Cochin Jews. In the late eighteenth century, the Bene Israel Jews arrived in western India, settling along the coast in areas like Alibaug and Mumbai. The Baghdadi Jews first settled in coastal Surat, then moved towards Mumbai and Kolkata. The Bene Ephraim Jews chose the seashores of Andhra Pradesh, while the Bnei Menashe Jews of Mizoram and Manipur.
Esther David’s Bene Appetit is part-travelogue and a detailed recipe book, collating recipes from different parts of the country. She discovers that despite having set their roots in India, many centuries ago, Indian Jews abide by the strict dietary rules that govern Judaism. The Jews have adopted locally available produce in their recipes and to some degree adapted the dishes to their tastes. Jews insist upon kosher meat, a strict demarcation between meats and milk, eating fruits after their meals, making unleavened bread, consuming only certain kinds of fishes, avoiding shellfish etc. Esther David has meticulously documented her search for recipes, meeting people, being introduced to strangers who spontaneously welcomed her warmly into their homes and serving strict Jewish fare.
David discovers the immense variety that exists in Jewish cuisine. Indian Jews have readily substituted milk with coconut milk. They also use plenty of rice-based dishes, jaggery, some of the local herbs and spices such as gongura leaves in Andhra Pradesh and panch phoran in West Bengal. Fruits of all kinds are used after meals or even to make the sherbet to offer at religious occasions.
This is a seminal book for its documentation of a dying culture in India. The Jewish population is dwindling. At the time of Indepence (1947) there were approximately 50,000. Today, there are few left as many have emigrated to Israel. So much so that at times it gets difficult to have a quorum of ten Jewish men or a miniyan to fulfil certain religious obligations. There are other signs of the community disappearing. For instance, local bakeries that made unleavened bread for Shabbath, no longer do so. Cloths used for religious ceremonies are not easily available locally any more. So are brought from Israel by relatives or visitors. Time-consuming dishes like malida are made on exceptional occasions. The Jews now simply use chapatis or a similar bread as it is technically unleavened too. Hence, “Bene Appetit” is a critical repository of socio-cultural practices. Future generations will appreciate this book.
Apart from Jews, anyone interested in experimenting with new recipes, reading cookery books and seeking healthy alternatives, may find this book useful. Even Hindus who are looking for satvik recipes, will find Bene Appetit very useful to consult. Most often the recipes provided are fairly easy to comprehend but there are some recipes that required careful editing. Even experienced cooks may get mildly confused by the manner in which instructions have been given. For example, the recipes for Pastel and Pastillas seem to have repeated their instructions. It is a bit of a fog. There is another unexpected editorial glitch when David visits the synagogue in Mizoram, she observes that the prayer book was in Mizo but the “words were spelled out in English”. It is well-known that the languages of northeast India did not have a script till recently. This is an oral tradition and it is after 1947 that the languages began to require a script and the Roman script was quickly utilised. It is the same script used for the English language. Save for these minor hiccups, “Bene Appetit” is a stupendous addition to any cookery shelf. I would put it in the same league as the late fashion designer Wendell Rodericks “Poskem”, where he shared recipes from Goan Catholics and those that he recalled from his childhood. These books bring out the beautiful diversity in India that has thrived over centuries.
Note: The photograph of the book has been taken against a wooden Star of David that used to hang in my husband’s childhood home. Jacob’s maternal grandfather was an Afghan Jew who used to often travel to India with his brothers. They use to trade in jewels. But little is known about them. Jacob’s grandfather married a local Christian girl and settled in central India. The only signs of influence his faith left upon his descendants are in these symbols, occasional visits to the local synagogue to meet the rabbi and observing a few Jewish dietary laws. No more. The descendants are practising Christians. Yet, it is fascinating to watch at close quarters the assimilation of Judaism into Jacob’s family. BTW, the Afghan Jews are not mentioned in “Bene Appetit”.
On 24/25 August 2019, Sandeep Raina’s “Where No Daffodils Grow” was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement. Here is the link. Given the space restrictions in print, the article had to be edited. Reproduced below with the kind permission of the author is the unedited version.
Sandeep Raina was born and brought up in Baramulla, Kashmir. He studied engineering in Srinagar, and when in 1990 militancy gripped the Kashmir valley, he finished his education and left for Delhi. He lived in Delhi for 10 years and then in Istanbul for 3 years before moving to Surrey, England where he has been living for the past 15+ years with his wife and 3 children. Sandeep’s wife is a doctor in Surrey, their daughter studies medicine at the University of London, and their twin sons are studying engineering at the Cambridge University.
Sandeep has worked as a senior engineering executive in mobile telecoms for the past 28 years and travels globally for his work. As a mobile telecoms evangelist, he has been invited to speak at many conferences across Europe and the USA, and has published numerous professional articles. Currently, he works for a French-American telecommunications software company in London.
Sandeep has written a novel based on Kashmir, which took him over 11 years to write. The reason to write a novel was that it worked as a slow cathartic process to counter the traumatic and violent experiences of the early-90s Kashmir, and the harsh life of being a migrant/refugee in Delhi. As part of his life and travels outside Kashmir, he has acquired different perspectives of the Kashmir conflict. Through his writing about the Kashmiri people, of all communities, caught in the long-drawn, brutal conflict, he aims to present a better understanding of their predicament.
Sandeep has also published short stories about Kashmir, which reflect the exchanges with people caught in conflicts like Kashmir. They not only highlight the broken relationships, the loss of trust, the rising communal politics of Kashmir and India, but also offer introspection and a hope for the communities that have been disadvantaged because of the strife.
His stories have been published in several magazines and papers, including, The Hindu, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times of India/The Economic Times.
Men in tall black hats and flowing black
robes strode briskly down an empty street. Some of them had long side burns and
some had long beards. It was a summer
afternoon, hot, and they were quite overdressed. I was visiting a friend in
Golders Green in London and asked him what was going on, who were those people,
why the costumes?
“Nothing, they are our Jewish neighbours back
from a synagogue,” said the Kashmiri Pandit friend. “Many Jews live here since
Why were they dressed in such a pronounced
manner? I wondered. Here was I, trying my best to assimilate, just landed in
London. It didn’t make sense.
We had lunch at our friend’s home, typical
Pandit cuisine, mostly lamb dishes: rogan
josh, yakhni and matsch. I had
met him and his wife after many years. We chatted for long on the table,
reminiscing. The flat was sparsely furnished but had a few Kashmiri rugs. I noticed
a small ornate candle stand in the window and asked what it was.
“It is a menorah,” said my friend’s wife. “To light candles in the Jewish
festival of lights, Hanukkah.”
Until then I had thought Diwali was the
only festival of lights.
in this apartment building is a Jew, most of them old,” said my friend. “And
they are very nice people.”
The next day, I told Mike, my colleague in
office, about the Jews in costume. Mike was a small young man, who once had
said that being Jewish, Catholic and French was the worst one could be in
England, and he was all of them. One of his parents was French and Catholic,
the other English and Jewish.
“There are other interesting things that we
do, such as not doing anything on Sabbath,” he laughed. “Not even switching on a
“Why?” I said.
He didn’t want to explain or didn’t know.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In
Kashmir, on days of fasts, women in our Kashmiri Pandit family cooked strict vegetarian
meals, cleaning and praying, and not doing much else. And the fasts followed
the moon’s wax and wane. Punim, aetham, mavas. On full moon, mid
moon, and no moon. There seemed to be much in common with the Jews.
are also really good with money,” laughed Mike.
My grandfather’s father had been a zamindar,
a landowner, in Kashmir. My mother said that he was so rich that he didn’t
count coins, he weighed them out of hand balances. But, my grandfather was not
rich, nor us. My mental comparisons with the Jews ended at this thought.
Years went by. In which my grandfather
died. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but his memories kept on coming back
to me in many different ways. By now we had moved into a new house, and I worked
for a different company, in a different town in England, where I became
friendly with an older Iranian colleague, Paymon.
It was the Persian new year, on spring
equinox, when the day equals night, and the opposites balance out, when I told
Paymon about Navreh, the Kashmiri Pandit new year. How on the eve, we filled a thaal, a deep plate with rice, milk, yogurt,
a pen, a coin, some lentils, a daffodil. Bits that made life.
“We do something similar on Navroz, and we
call it haft seen,” he said, surprised.
I felt a sudden connection build. We discussed
Navroz and Navreh in snatches between meetings, across our office desks, on the
coffee machine. Iran is so far from Kashmir, but it suddenly felt close. I told
Paymon about the chinars, the papier-mâché, and the floral woollen carpets that had travelled from Iran, and
the origins of rogan josh. Things began to tumble out. I even snatched a paper
napkin and wrote my name in Nastaliq, the script that had travelled from Iran to Kashmir.
“I didn’t know this,” he laughed.
I didn’t know either, when growing up in
Kashmir. If it’s a part of you, you don’t think much of it. I remembered my grandfather.
I remembered his bold loud voice, his very sociable manner, his rambling
conversations, his strong physical presence, his eloquent Farsi.
Grandfather used to recite Farsi couplets
when he was in a good mood, when he had an audience, which could be my reluctant
father or a hapless neighbour who had chanced to step by. Grandfather rolled
off the Farsi couplets with the same verve as chanting mantras in Sanskrit,
when he did his puja every morning, with
lots of flower petals and incense sticks, in front of an array of gods. I was
small, the Farsi and the Sanskrit both sounded magical to me, inspiring awe.
I told Paymon all this in the office
canteen, and he listened to me with an older man’s patience.
My euphoria was unabated. For a Foodie
Friday in the office, I woke up early and cooked rogan josh in the morning over
low flame for three hours. My wife
wasn’t happy that I hadn’t let her cook. I packed the rogan josh carefully in a
large plastic box, with a sticker on top and wrote- Kashmiri Rogan Josh in my wobbly Nastaliq, and sped to office, just
in time for lunch. My colleagues had already begun eating, and there were foods
of all kinds on the large canteen table. Italian, Greek, English, Brazilian,
Welsh, Indian, Iranian. The rogan josh was late. Then Paymon saw me.
“So, you can read and write Farsi?” said Paymon,
looking at the sticker, asking me to put some rogan josh on his plate.
“I can’t,” I said. I couldn’t even read and
Rogan josh disappeared fast, everyone ate
it. It was declared the best cooked food on that Friday. I brimmed with pride.
When I left that job, on my last day, Paymon
wrote four lines in Farsi on my farewell card. Under those he wrote in English:
Thank you for enlightening me about
Persian Kashmir. It has been great talking with you. It is sad to see you go
but I wish you all the best.”
I think Paymon said something about those
Farsi words in the card, but in my farewell hurry, I didn’t hear too well.
The card remained unread for years. Later,
I wished I had learnt some Farsi, some Nastaliq from my grandfather. I
wonder why I didn’t. My question took me back to a faint conversation from my
childhood. I was reading out two Kashmiri words written in Nastaliq on a
ten rupee note. In those days, currency notes in India had the value written in
15 official languages, each in its own script.
ropiye,” I read out, trying to decipher the curls,
whirls, and dots.
“It’s not dah ropiye, its duh ropiye,”
said my mother.
“What’s the difference?”
“Muslims say dah, but Pandits say duh,
because dah in Sanskrit means cremation. And
Muslims bury their dead.”
My mother also told me that the ancient script
for Kashmiri was Sharada, now dead, and nobody knew what it had looked like.
Pandits and Muslims had other differences
too. I was aware of some. My pheran, the
long woollen garment that I wore in winters, had an extra fold, ladh, near its hem, while Bitta, my Muslim
friend’s pheran fell straight. My grandfather wore a pajama, not a shalwar. My
great grandmother’s pheran was ankle-length, with long sleeves, while old Muslim
women wore knee length pherans, and shorter sleeves.
Many differences, all small. Until someone
powerful outside Kashmir, heard about the tiny twists of tongue, the lengths
and folds of pherans. And questioned if Kashmiri had more Farsi or more Sanskrit?
Whether its script was Nastaliq or Sharada? When the powerful became more powerful with this
knowledge, a powerless man in a tempo bus, after a squabble over a seat, called
my grandfather a kafir, godless. Hurled
the word like a weapon. I was with my grandfather in that bus. I had seen him
pray to God every morning, in fact, many gods. My proud grandfather’s face was livid,
his complaint to the bus driver a mere mumble. I remember my own inertness, the
tremble in my fingers.
Not much later, a powerless young boy, just
out of teens, gunned down my grandfather’s nephew and niece, my mother’s
cousins, with their partners, inside their home. We fled Kashmir.
It’s been 29 springs since that happened. This
year, in London, I forgot to fill up the Navreh thaal. Or look up the new panchang, the Hindu calendar book, which
my mother posts from India every spring. On Navreh eve, when I was small in
Kashmir, I would run out to pluck a handful of nargis, white daffodils, that grew in our garden. They had the
sweetest of scents, but I wasn’t allowed to sniff; they were meant for God. And
on Navreh morning, when the April air pinched my winter-chapped cheeks, I would
wear a new kurta-pajama. Forgetting the thaal has brought sweet nostalgia and tremendous
Pictures of Navreh thaals flooded Facebook,
on cue. Rice, milk, yogurt, coin, pen. No daffodils. Where most Kashmiri Pandits
now live, daffodils don’t grow. A panchang said the year is 5094 by the Saptrishi
calendar, 2075 by the Vikrami calendar.
“29 by the Pandit exile calendar,” a friend
messaged. My heart stopped for a long moment.
On the cover of a panchang, I saw a script
that I had never seen before. Sharada. It had fonts like thick brush strokes or
like engravings on stone. Blurry, awoken from a deep sleep.
I had read a book long ago about the
revival of Hebrew after the Jews had fled from European towns. How Hebrew was
invoked to string the scattered Jews. How they would all go home, with a common
language and a new script to a land they could call their own. In a desert.
I think of Thar or Kharan, when I think of
deserts. One on the India-Pakistan border and the other on the Pakistan-Iran
border. I grew up with snow and mountains, I grew up with lush fields, streams
and lakes. What would I do in a desert? What if someone powerful traced my
roots to the Aryan Iranians? And sent me to Kharan in Balochistan. Would I go?
Would my children go? Would my children’s children go?
I am sure the Jews had said this too.
I thought about Iran. I remembered my
conversations about Navroz and Navreh with Paymon. I hunted for the farewell card
from my last job and found it in a stack of birthday cards that our children
had given me over the years. Among dozens of messages written in English was
the quatrain written by Paymon in Farsi, in flowing Nastaliq. Asking to be
I messaged a photo of the lines to Paymon,
asking him if he could translate it for me. Paymon did not reply, I don’t know
why. I had thought Paymon would be a friend for life. Friendship’s a promise. I
thought of who else could help me: Grandfather. But he was not around anymore to
fill me with the awe and magic of his Farsi. Not hearing back from Paymon, not able
to read his message brought a deep sense of loss. Like a forgotten Navreh. Like
a broken promise.
I asked an English friend to help me. He
sent a photo of the Farsi message, all the way to Tehran to his sister-in-law.
A week later, I received the transliteration and the translation in my inbox.
Grandfather appeared before me. And read out in a bold, loud voice:
keh beh nazd e oo gol o khar yekist
maz hab e oo mos haf o zonnar yekist
gham e on yar che bayad khordan
ra khar e lang o asb e rahvar yekist
“A friend who sees no difference between a flower
and a thorn,
In whose religion, the Quran and Zonnar are
Why should we worry about him?
As for him, a lame donkey and a swift horse
are the same.”
Zonnar used to be a girdle which Jews wore to
distinguish them from Muslims, long back in time.
Paymon had not forgotten, he had kept his
promise, he had written me a message to remember for life. Like a true friend,
he knew me more than I knew myself.
A few days later, I pulled out a pheran from
my clothes cupboard, which my wife had bought from a Kashmiri trader many years
ago. It is dull brown and woollen, a bit scratchy at the neck, and it does not have
a Pandit fold near the hem. I had never worn it.
That summer day, I wore it. It warmed me up.
I looked at myself in the mirror, and the image of the Golders Green Jews
walking briskly down a street flashed in front of my eyes. Now I knew why they were
dressed like that.
What they were holding on to.
Next spring, I won’t forget Navreh. I will fill
up a thaal with rice, pluck a yellow daffodil from our English garden, place a
pound coin, a pen and an idol of a god in the thaal. Some milk and yogurt too. And
pray. That I’m not sent to a desert.