Essie Sassoon’s book on the food of Cochini Jews, Spice and Kosher, is a rare amalgamation of the histories and tastes of Israel and Kerala, finds Esther Elias

Essie Sassoon remembers her early Sabbaths as a child in Kochi’s Jew Town. The women of Mattancherry’s Jewish community spent the day before Sabbath making hamin, a rice and chicken dish with carrots and tomatoes. “Each family would make their pot of hamin and take it to our puthen veedu (Sassoon Hall, now David Hall) where there was a large porna (oven), in which the hamin would be stored for 24 hours,” she says. On Sabbath day, when fires are forbidden to be lit, the hamin made for their sumptuous lunch. Memories such as these, pepper the pages of Essie’s book on the unique cuisine and customs of the Cochini Jews — Spice and Kosher.

Jewish tradition

Kosher, Essie explains, is food that abides by the boundary of Jewish laws. Important among them are the complete separation of meat and dairy products in both cleaning and cooking, and the ritual slaughter of animals for meat. “Since Kosher meat was available to us only when it came from Mumbai, Cochini Jews had a largely vegetarian or fish-based diet.”

Jewish cuisine here also varies from traditional fare in that it had appropriated into its everyday the many spices of Kerala. “We use cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, saffron, and even garam masala in our cooking.” Thus, the 200-odd recipes in Essie’s book, co-authored with Bala Menon and Kenny Salem, trace this unusual amalgamation of Kerala and Israel through history, stories and recipes.

Israel has been home to Essie from 1973. As a 33-year-old gynaecologist, trained in Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai, Essie was practising in Kozhikode, when she was moved to volunteer her services to the Yom Kippur War. “My sister was in Israel then. Those were tough days and I knew the hospitals there needed help. So I went, convinced that I would return soon,” says Essie. Her half-year sabbatical from Kozhikode was spent working with a French doctor at Tel HaShomer Hospital. “He knew no English; I knew no French, but we managed! I also had to learn to speak Hebrew, because till then, I’d only said Hebrew prayers,” she recalls. Later, Essie shifted to a hospital in Ashkelon, a city in southern Israel. After almost four decades of service there, she retired in 2011. Soon after, her friend from Kochi, Kenny, visited her from Canada with journalist Bala requesting she document her history. Thus was born Spice and Kosher.

“I’ve always loved cooking!” says Essie. “I come to Kerala every two years and take spices back with me, always. In Israel too, the Cochini Jewish community cooks like we used to here.” In the city now for her month-long visit, Essie says Spice and Kosher is organised according to the various Jewish festivals and the foods associated with them — from Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) and Day of Atonement, to the Feast of Tabernacles, Simhath Torah, Purim, Hanukkah (Festival of Lights), and the Passover. The Passover, for instance, is marked by food that has not been fermented, made in special utensils designated for it. “So we make unleavened bread, called matzah, for which the men used to knead the dough, while the women opened it out and baked it,” says Essie. It was a community affair with much hymn-singing while the bread baked over an oven of coconut shells.

On the 14th day of the Passover, called Seder, the community makes a thick jam-like syrup garnished with walnuts called charoset. Essie’s book holds the instructions for Cochin charoset, a special two-day long recipe by her sister Rachel Roby. Daily cooking at Jewish homes here involves the staple kadathala pastel — a rice flour wrapping stuffed with egg, potatoes and mint leaves — served with a fenugreek (uluva) dip. Another regular is the yayin wine, homemade with boiled raisins soaked in sugar and turned for a month until fermented right. Special occasions such as weddings and anniversaries called for a traditional Malabari biriyani, often prepared by an invited Muslim chef, informs the book. “Back in Benyamina, in Israel, my sister still makes this biriyani for over a hundred people,” says Essie.

Combined wisdom

Spice and Kosher combines the culinary wisdom of over 30 members from the Cochini Jewish community, many of whom are now back in Israel. While Essie sought out these recipes and anecdotes from 2011 onward, it was Bala and Kenny who ordered and framed it into a book. With the book now complete, Essie spends her days at her Pilates class, as well as with her folk dancing group every Sunday with her Israeli friends, just as she has for the last 20 years.

Spice and Kosher was published by Tamarind Trees Books earlier this year, and can be bought from online retailers.

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