non fiction Posts

“Bene Appetit” by Esther David

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”.

17 April 2021

Of “Maus” and men

My eleven-year-old daughter and I are reading Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, Maus. It is chilling as Spiegelman draws his father’s memories of Nazi Germany and surviving the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Then I read Sameera Khan’s article in the Indian Express — “That January“, published on 6 January 2021. It is about the mobs that went on a communal rampage in Mumbai in Jan 1993, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 Dec 1992.

Sameera Khan recounts how they were the only Muslim family in their block of apartments and thus a marked family.

We first heard about the election lists circulating in neighbourhood with Muslim names conspicuously identified. The newspapers reports on mobs entering buildings and pulling residents out. Many residential buildings removed the boards listing names of flat owners. Our apartment building decided to take out only our name from the board below. The only Muslim residents of A-wing. The B-wing had no such problem: There were no Muslims living there. My parents tried not to get upset about this in front of us but I recall my mother calling up the building secretary and asking most decorously how this was allowed to happen. When you are the only ones, you keep your voice low. One morning a chand-sitara (moon and star) was scrawled in chalk on the wall next to our door. We had been marked. … That was Bombay, India, January 1993. It might have been yesterday.

Decades may have passed; but inexplicable, senseless hatred and cruelty of man vs man persists.

Today, writer Andrew Solomon posted the following image on Facebook with the comment: From yesterday’s riots [storming of Capitol Hill by Trump’s supporters]. In case Jews (or gay people, or BIPOC people, or educated people) thought they were safe. The abbreviation on this shirt stands for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough”

What is the difference between Spiegelman’s. Sameera Khan’s stories and the riots on Capitol Hill? Nothing. No time seems to have elapsed. Hatred thrives. Why?

8 Jan 2021

Ways of Dying

It has taken the pandemic for many of us to confront our mortality. Living with the fear of contracting the virus is like living in the shadow of death 24×7. It is a gloomy existence. Fortunately those able-bodied souls who have the chance and exercise their choice, know how to plan for their future, assuming they live. Yet “death” has been explored in literature ad nauseam. It is a complicated part of life since death brings with it a flood of emotions. Grief being predominate but much else happens too. Every individual affected by grief react in their own way.

“Ways of Dying” is a fine collection of literary writings around death and its rites that are observed by the living. All the pieces assembled in this book are extremely well known. But to have them arranged in this manner, shifting gears constantly between the public and personal spaces, unleashes a roller coaster of emotions in the reader. For instance, descriptions of the communal riots in the heart of the Indian capital in Oct 1984 (Amitav Ghosh), Khushwant Singh recalling the last hours of his grandmother, Amitava Kumar’s moving account of his mother’s death, or the fascinating extracts from David Davidar’s book “House of Blue Mangoes” and Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” leave one’s head spinning. The quality of writing is excellent. Controlled and measured . It engulfs the reader in the writer’s hurt at witnessing death. It is an indescribable moment. But at least we are spared that finality of the moment. Because when it comes, it is devastating. It is numbing. These stories can only bring you close to the experience. No more. But it is sufficiently chilling to read especially during the pandemic.

Pick it up. It is worth it.

9 Nov 2020

Web Analytics Made Easy -
StatCounter