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Jews From Cochin Bring Their Unique Indian Cuisine to Israeli Diners

On a moshav in southern Israel, the women behind Matamey Cochin keep alive the flavors of an ancient Jewish community

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(Shy Shmuel; recipe photo below Hadasa Shani)
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One of Israel’s well-known traditions is “the great trip to the East” that young adults take after completing their army service—whether it’s to “find themselves” in ashrams, lie on the beach in Goa, or smoke weed all day far from their parents’ observing eyes. This tradition is one of the reasons Israelis think they know all about India (the other being the fact that Israelis think they know all about everything). But many Israelis don’t know that Jews have a history in India that dates back to antiquity.

While there are different groups of Jews in India, living in different areas, the Cochin Jews of South India are the oldest, dating back to biblical times. These Jews, whom the Hindu Raja granted their own area in the southern Indian port city of Cochin (known today as Kochi) during the Middle Ages, lived peacefully in what is now part of the state of Kerala. Even though they never suffered persecution, most of them immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and early ’60s. The majority settled in moshavim around the country, while some moved to various cities. In the 1960s, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 Cochin Jews in Israel. Nowadays, there are very few Jews left in Cochin, while the community in Israel, which grew due to intermarriages, totals between 7,000 and 8,000 members.

One of the moshavim where most Cochin Israelis are situated is Nevatim, in the south of Israel. Nevatim used to be an agricultural settlement, but since the local agriculture died down in the 1980s, the moshav has been striving to revive its economy by turning it into a tourist attraction, based on the heritage of its Cochin Jews. Tourists, from Israel and abroad, visit Nevatim for its beautiful synagogue, cultural center, and museum, as well as for the traditional food cooked and served by the women of Matamey Cochin.

Matamey Cochin (“Cochin delicacies”) is a business operated by eight local women between the ages of 55 and 65 who host Cochin-style meals in their homes or in the local hospitality tent, for groups who make reservations. When the idea of hosting traditional meals in the moshav came up, the women of Nevatim turned to Smadar Kaplinsky, who develops small businesses for women in Israel. She helped them get their enterprise off the ground four years ago this month, and, with the assistance of Partnership 2000 and the Jewish Agency, the women of Nevatim started holding cooking workshops for Taglit-Birthright Israel and other youth groups, as well as hosting meals for visitors. In addition to providing traditional meals for groups from the United States and Canada a few times a year, they cater mainly to groups from Israel.

I traveled to the Negev recently to visit Nevatim, where I met Bat Zion Elias (the moshav’s tourism coordinator), Geula Nehemia, Rima Efrayim, and Miriam Elias—four of the leading ladies of Matamey Cochin. Sitting in Nehemia’s garden, which surrounds a small art gallery where she sells her ceramics and her husband’s iron art, the women told me about their heritage and culture.

Although it is a small community, Cochin Jews are not a homogeneous group. There are two separate communities: Malabari Jews (who were known in Cochin as Black Jews and probably arrived in India as traders in the time of King Solomon) and Paradesi Jews (a community of Sephardic Jews who arrived in Cochin in the 16th century, after the expulsion from Iberia, and are known as White Jews). Just as the Malabari Jews were the majority back in India, they are the majority in Israel, too. The Cochin Jews in Nevatim “belong to the Black Cochin Jews,” said Bat Zion Elias. “In India the two communities lived separately, and it’s the same in Israel. Recently the Indian ambassador initiated a convention of all Indian Jews in Israel and brought all of us together for the first time, but generally there is no connection between the groups.”

After urging me to crumble a curry leaf—fresh from the curry tree that grows in Nehemia’s garden—in order to smell its unique aroma, the women started bringing various traditional dishes to the table, most of which were prepared with curry leaves, which Cochinis call veplla. Many of them seemed like exotic versions of more familiar dishes, and not necessarily Indian ones. I sampled pastels—deep fried pastries similar to empanadas, filled with minced chicken breast, onions, cabbage, and spices, which probably originated from Spain or Portugal. The kadtela pastel I was served had the same filling, but with a different kind of dough, which reminded me of blintzes. Dosha, a pancake that brought to mind the Yemenite lahoh, was served with a traditional spicy and sour sauce called chamandi, made of ground almonds, coconut milk, curry leaves, and mustard seeds. Hubba—semolina dumplings filled with minced chicken breast, onions, cabbage, celery, and coriander—looked like the Cochin version of Iraqi kubbeh. The women were quick to confirm that many of these dishes did arrive in Cochin from faraway places and were adapted to suit the local produce.

“Our food isn’t like the Indian food you know,” explained Miriam Elias, who, like Bat Zion Elias, was born in Israel; Nehemia and Efrayim were born in India and came to Israel as children. “We use different spices. We stick to a few basic ones and don’t mix them up like the Indians do.” A cookbook called Spice & Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews, which was published in Canada a few months ago, claims that the three C’s—cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin—along with coconut, coriander, and pepper, dominate this exotic cuisine. If you ask the women of Matamey Cochin, they will tell you not to forget curry leaves, black mustard seeds, garlic, onions, ginger, and turmeric.

Not only does their cuisine differ from Indian food from other areas, it differs from Hindu cooking in Cochin, too. First of all, it is kosher and devoid of dairy products (the closest you get is coconut milk), and some dishes are strictly Jewish and don’t exist in the local Hindu menu at all. Many of the dishes serve a certain purpose and are aligned with holidays and specific dates. For instance, the Cochin papadam (which differs from the kind of papadum you get in Indian restaurants) is eaten before the Tisha B’Av fast and is served with various kinds of curry. “When we say ‘curry’ we mean something completely different than what you know as curry,” clarified Bat Zion Elias. “Curry for us isn’t a spice mixture or a hot dish. Our curries are a variety of cold salads made out of cooked vegetables, like tomatoes, onions, or eggplants, sort of like matbucha. The meal before Tisha B’Av, as well as the dishes served during mourning periods, are always vegetarian. We eat chicken or beef on happy occasions.”

In day-to-day life, the Jews of Cochin ate a lot of vegetable and rice dishes, as well as fish and chicken. They boast a large variety of breads—some baked, others steamed, deep-fried, or pan-fried—as well as many different savory snacks. “In India, we didn’t have refrigerators, so most of the food was made fresh and eaten on the spot,” explained Bat Zion Elias. “But we also have a large variety of wheat snacks that are dry and can be kept outside for a long time. Any big event starts with a toast in which we eat these snacks, before starting the actual meal.”

Apart from helping the local economy by establishing culinary tourism in their area, Matamey Cochin’s main objectives are preserving the Cochin Jews’ tradition as well as empowering local women. “Smadar Kaplinsky organized elderly women in different areas, women who had vast knowledge but never did anything with it outside of the home,” said Bat Zion Elias. “That’s what she did for us, too. When we started out we were 18 women and one man, now we are eight women. It’s hard work and many dropped out along the way. But now we have a strong and unified group.”

Nehemia admits that for many years she didn’t cook this kind of food at all, and the group opened her up to her own tradition: “My kids grew up on schnitzel and mashed potatoes, like all Israeli children. After we started this project I found out that my grown-up daughter does like Cochini food and is eager to learn how to cook it. It is important to us to teach the next generation how to make this food, otherwise our culinary tradition will disappear forever.” Bat Zion Elias agreed: “In Nevatim and other settlements in which we are the majority, like Aviezer, Ta’oz, or Mesilat Zion, our cooking tradition still exists. But in places where Cochin Jews live among other ethnic groups, and where the young generation intermarries, it is starting to die out.”

There used to be a restaurant called Cochin in Kfar Yuval, a moshav in the Galilee panhandle, but it doesn’t exist anymore. Nowadays it seems the only other place to eat Cochini food in Israel besides Nevatim is at a similar set-up in moshav Mesilat Zion, near Beit Shemesh. This is also called Matamey Cochin, although it has no connection to the women of Nevatim, and is privately owned. “My family and I host homemade Cochini meals in our backyard for about seven years, maybe more,” said Benny Aline, the owner of Matamey Cochin in Mesilat Zion. “We cater to groups of at least 10 people, and usually 20 to 30 people. We get internal tourism as well as tourists from abroad, who come here to taste something new and different.”

Both Aline and the women of Nevatim sometimes venture outside of their home turf to sell their food at various food events and festivals, but when striving to preserve a dying tradition, festivals, workshops, and group meals aren’t enough. In Israel only one Cochin cookbook has ever been published: Eti Gilad’s The Cochin Cuisine, which was published independently in 2007 and has long been out of print.

“My personal drive was to document and preserve the tradition of the Cochin Jews and its culinary aspects,” Gilad, head of the Institute for Gender Research at Achva College of Education, told me. When I asked her what is so special about Cochin cuisine and why it should be of any interest to the outside world, Gilad—who was born in Cochin and immigrated to Israel with her parents when she was 4 years old—talked about healthy kosher food, much of it suitable for vegetarians (it has some meat and fish, but a lot of it is based on fruit and vegetables). “One of the interesting things about Cochin cooking is the use of coconut, in all its variations,” Gilad told me. “I got a call from Mea Shearim telling me I saved them, because coconut milk is a great substitute for milk in kosher cooking. Another interesting thing is our use of onions. We brown large quantities of onions, and then cook vegetables or whatever it is we are cooking in the onion juice, instead of cooking in water. A lot of our dishes are cooked this way, and it gives them a very distinct and special flavor.”

Gilad grew up in Yesud HaMa’ala and resides in Rehovot, but of course she has visited Nevatim many times and eaten at Matamey Cochin. “The most striking thing about the experience of eating there was the freshness,” she marveled. “In India we didn’t have refrigerators and the food was prepared before each meal. Freshness is one of the main principles of our cuisine, and the women of Nevatim are very strict about that. When you eat food with spices that have been pulverized on the spot, and not bought at the supermarket and kept in the fridge, or when you eat freshly baked bread, you can taste the difference, and of course everything is much healthier. It requires a lot of work, but the women of Nevatim do it with tremendous love.”

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Jews From Cochin Bring Their Unique Indian Cuisine to Israeli Diners

On a moshav in southern Israel, the women behind Matamey Cochin keep alive the flavors of an ancient Jewish community