Many months ago, Bala Menon contacted me after reading one of my blogs about Indian Jewry. He has graciously supplied me with updates about the dwindling Jewish community in Cochin. Recently, he co-authored a cookbook that preserves many Indian Jewish traditions. He sent me a complimentary copy in advance of this interview.
Today, I am honored to interview Bala. I would like my followers to learn more about his book, Spice & Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews, and his desire to preserve Indian Jewish traditions. See below for information on the cookbook giveaway.
Can you tell my readers a little bit about life in Kerala and why you left India?
Kerala is small strip of land in the southwestern corner of India and is one of the smallest states in the country. Known as “God’s Own Country”, Kerala has been named one of the Ten Paradises of the World and Fifty Places of a Lifetime by the National Geographic Traveller in its 15th anniversary issue in 2009. The highlands are covered with dense forests of valuable trees that include teak, rosewood and sandalwood, while the midlands are dotted with terraced plantations of tea, coffee, cardamom and pepper. In the foothills are estates of rubber, cashew and coconuts covering the entire length of the state. In the coastal areas and the hinterland are more coconut groves, interspersed with rice paddies, orchards of mango, banana, jack fruit, cashew, papaya and pineapples along with tree-lined canals and backwaters. Some 44 rivers crisscross the land, offering fresh water for vegetable gardens yielding every kind of tropical vegetable.
I left India very early – I think it was the desire to see the world and then decided to come to Canada.
It would be helpful to learn more information about your background. Please share a few details.
I had my schooling in Mumbai (then Bombay) and have a Master’s Degree in Political Science and Economics. I began my career as a sub-editor on the international desk of Times of India in Mumbai. I then took up as an assignment as Deputy Editor with Times of Oman, the national daily of the Sultanate of Oman in Muscat. I then joined as Deputy Night Editor at Gulf News, the largest circulated newspaper in the Middle East, based in Dubai.
I have travelled widely in the Middle East and Europe and have been living in Toronto, Canada for about 17 years now, with my wife and two children.
I understand that you are not Jewish and that you are a Hindu. Why have you become so passionate about preserving Indian Jewish history?
I have a keen interest in history and anthropology. Some years ago, I met a Jew from Cochin by the name of Kenny Salem at a Kerala festival in Toronto. We got talking and this sparked my interest in this ancient community. We became good friends and have travelled together many times to Cochin and Israel, meeting members of the community. Every conversation with a Cochin Jew invariably yields great information about the history, songs, rituals, folklore etc. Kenny and I felt that a lot of this information would be lost forever if it is not recorded now. We now have a vast store of material that could be used for forthcoming books or articles.
What type of information do you include on your blog?
Mostly tidbits of history, some current affairs related to the Jews of Cochin – subjects which I won’t be mostly covering in the books to come. There are about 24 articles on the blog now and I aim to put up at least one a month.
How does your wife assist you in your research?
She helps me translate a lot of the Malayalam documents into English. Also, she helped out in testing most of the recipes in the book “Spice & Kosher.”
How did you meet your coauthors- Dr Essie Sassoon and Kenny Salem?
I have already mentioned how Kenny and I became friends. I met Dr. Essie Sassoon in the town of Ashkelon during a visit to Israel. She is from Jew Town and Kenny and I used her car to drive around Israel. We travelled to the original Cochin Jewish settlement Moshav Nevatim in the Negev desert. Dr. Essie Sassoon also introduced me to several Cochin Jews, one of whom was Bezallel Eliyahu, the renowned horticulturist who was the force behind making the Israeli desert bloom. We spent a whole day in Bezallel’s farm in Moshav Quidoon. Bezallel is the recipient of the Kaplan Prize, one of the highest Israeli civilian awards.
Why did you decide to write a cookbook?
The cookbook is an offshoot of the main project on Cochin Jews. In June, Kenny and I heard that there were two other people, one in India and one from New York actively searching out for Cochin Jewish recipes. So the three of us rushed a little to get the book out as soon as possible.
How do your backgrounds complement one another?
The three of us speak the same language – Malayalam – and share a similar cultural ethos and our thinking on many issues is along the same lines. We also have the same costumes, similar food and mainly a shared history of 2000 years in Kerala, in war and peace. Hindu and Jewish soldiers in the Raja of Cochin’s army fought shoulder to shoulder against the Portuguese and the Muslims in the 16th and 17th centuries. Much earlier, it is said that Jewish soldiers and naval forces assisted the Chera rulers of Kerala fight againt the Cholas of the Tamil kingdoms.
What criteria did you use in selecting recipes?
There were no particular criteria. We have used almost all the recipes of the Cochini Jewish kitchen. One of the major recipes we missed was the ‘split pea rissole’ or parippuvada in Malayalam. This will be included in the Kindle edition of the book that will be released in January 2014.
Who provided the recipes?
The recipes were collected from Cochin Jews in Kerala, Israel, United States and Canada.
Is there anything unique about Cochin Jewish recipes?
Kerala’s spice trade was for a long time controlled by the Jewish community and they incorporated many of the exotic spices of the Malabar coast into their cuisine. They unleashed the magic of curry leaves into a cooking style already infused with the tamarind pulp and coconut to create a piquant and fragrant cuisine. Cochin Jewish cuisine is purely classical with some of them like the Chutulli Meen (pan-frie fish in onion sauce) and Ispethi (red beef stew), the pastel (a type of boureka) in continuous use for hundreds of years. Fish is a favourite with Cochinis even today and there is a great fondness for plantains, along with mango.
Are Cochin Jewish recipes similar to non Jewish local recipes?
There are many recipes that are similar to Hindu, Christian and Muslim dishes, with minor variations. However, there are others that are unique to the Cochin Jews like the ‘ural’, ‘pastels’ etc and which are centuries old.
Indians use spices that are oftentimes not found in North American kitchens. Will a westerner find it difficult to follow these recipes?
Cochin Jewish cooking is not ‘spicy hot’ but just enhanced with the gentler spices like cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin and a liberal use of coconut oil and coconut milk. All these ingredients are available across North America with some like ginger and turmeric sold in South Asian stores.
Many homes in India do not have western style ovens. How did the Jews of Cochin prepare traditional breads such as challah and matzah?
In Cochin, instead of challah, so familiar to the Western world as the main bread of the Jews, a type of bread/bun called rotti was made which was very soft on the inside with soft brown crust. Fresh coconut toddy was used as the raising agent. Ovens were small kilns burning coconut husk as fuel, just outside the kitchen. For Shabbath, there were large bakers’ ovens in a community hall for all the Cochini congregations. These ovens were called ‘pornas’ which comes from the Spanish world ‘horno’ for oven or furnace or from the Portuguese ‘forno’ for kiln.
Can you provide some helpful hints to readers who are unfamiliar with Indian cooking?
Every region in India has its own unique cuisine. Kerala cuisine is much lighter than the heavy and creamy North Indian cuisine which is now popular in the West. It is considered a kaleidoscopic cuisine because the state is blessed with abundant vegetables and fruits and myriad spices, along with some of the finest edible fishes in the world. Rice is the main food and this grain comes in different incarnations onto the dining table. Coconut – the kernel, the oil, the milk – are all essential ingredients in Kerala cooking. Shallots are preferred instead of onions. Many foods are steamed.
What other books are you planning to publish at Tamarind Tree Books?
Spice & Kosher is the first in a series of books about the Cochin Jews. The next one – Mourning Rituals of the Cochin Jews – is in Hebrew, written by a New York-based author and due for release in January 2014.
This will be followed by a biography of Abraham Barak Salem, one of the towering personalities and prominent Cochin Jewish leader of early 20th century Cochin. There will be three more books on other aspects of Cochin Jewish life, which we expect to publish in 2014.
With just a handful of elderly Jews remaining in Cochin, what efforts are being made to preserve this community?
The Pardesi Community or the Mattancherry Jews of Cochin know there is nothing that can save the community from extinction in Cochin. Among the seven left on Synagogue Lane, the oldest resident is 91 years old while the youngest is 45 and unmarried. Community members, most of whom are in Binyamina, Petah Tikwa and other parts of Israel are considering various proposals on managing the synagogue so that it continues to be operational – even it is for occasional use by tourists and the 30 other Jews in the nearby town of Ernakulam.
Thank you Bala for taking the time to answer my questions. Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by December 8th will be eligible for a drawing for an autographed copy of Spice & Kosher.
Future blog posts will include a review of Spice & Kosher and sample recipes from the cookbook. This book would be a delightful Chanukah gift for anyone who enjoys cooking.
If you try any of the recipes, I’d love to hear from you.
Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons.
The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and a Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.