In Bene Appetit, Esther David, a Bene Israel Jew herself, records traditions and closely guarded recipes from Jewish communities from across India. In this excerpt, she travels to Andhra Pradesh to learn about the cuisine of Bene Ephraim Jews.
The Indian Jewish community comprises a tiny but important part of the population. Over the centuries, its members have stuck to their dietary laws and integrated Indian habits with their customs, leading to some unique ceremonies, rituals and recipes that have been passed down from one generation to another. Despite living in different corners of India, they are still bound by the common threads of food and religion.
Read this excerpt from her chapter on Andhra Pradesh’s Bene Ephraim Jews:
The Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh
I decided to start my study of Indian Jewish cuisine with the Bene Ephraim Jews, as I was fascinated by the image of the small Bene Ephraim synagogue at Machilipatnam near Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. Bene Ephraim in Hebrew means ‘children of Ephraim’.
I had the email address of Mukthipudi Jaya Kumar Jacob, fondly known as Jaya Kumar, whose family looks after the synagogue at Machilipatnam. He is an associate professor of environmental studies at Chirala Engineering College, Andhra Pradesh. Once I established contact with him, I embarked on my journey.
It was an unusual experience, quite in contrast to my urban Jewish experiences in Maharashtra, Kerala and West Bengal. Machilipatnam gave me a rare insight into another world. Here, some members of the Bene Ephraim community still live in rural areas.
The Vijayawada International Airport at Gannavaram, Vijayawada, is small, neat and clean, decorated with copies of kalamkari fabric designs, leather puppets and Kondapalli toys made of wood, which depict village life in Andhra Pradesh. Jaya Kumar received me. He had hired a taxi to Machilipatnam for us.
It was mid-monsoon and the air was humid, but the drive to Machilipatnam unfolded a refreshing landscape. The taxi drove past villages which had huts with thatched roofs made of palm leaves. I could also smell the fragrance of sea air. The taxi sped past fields with farmers tilling the land, and ponds, lakes, orchards and banana groves, lined with tall trees of palm, coconut, teak and drumstick.
The taxi veered past herds of buffaloes, cows, goats, sheep and even flocks of country chickens running around on the dust roads. All along the drive, there were roadside stalls selling cold drinks, coffee, tea, snacks, chopped areca-nut or supari, basic groceries, mounds of tender coconut and kalamkari handkerchiefs.
At Machilipatnam, I saw temples painted in bright colours, churches and mosques, and the city square, which had a fountain with four mermaids. Almost all the houses had on display a protective mask of Pothuraju, with a long, curved moustache and red horns. When the taxi turned towards my hotel, I saw a huge statue of the saintly spiritual master Sai Baba of Shirdi, which was sculpted with a halo of Shesh Nag, the seven-hooded serpent of Lord Vishnu.
After checking into the hotel, I rushed to the Bene Ephraim Community Synagogue as the Jewish community had already collected there to meet me and to attend Shabbath prayers. Some had travelled long distances to reach Machilipatnam, as they were from other cities, towns and villages of Andhra Pradesh.
The synagogue was in the suburbs, surrounded by bungalows where the Jacob family and their relatives lived, although some of their family members also live in Israel. It was small and built in a walled courtyard, painted in different shades of blue, with the Star of David and a menorah. There was a narrow veranda, a corridor with small windows, an extra doorway facing the horizon and a mezuzah at the doorpost of the synagogue. The heikal or the ark was at the far end of the synagogue, facing west, where a torah was kept in a cabinet, covered with a silk curtain. The centre of the synagogue had a small wooden railing, behind which there was the bima or teva, a slightly raised platform from where the hazzan leads the prayers.
This is a small synagogue, so women and young girls were seated on chairs in the last row, while men and boys sat in the front row. In larger synagogues, according to custom, Jewish men sit on the left and women on the right. I was introduced to Jaya Kumar’s brother Dan, the hazzan of the synagogue, his family and other members of the Bene Ephraim Jewish community. According to Jewish custom, the men were wearing kippas while the women had covered their heads with scarves or the ends of their saris. The Tallit, a prayer shawl, is also worn by Jewish men for Yom Kippur prayers, religious events and some rituals.
Andhra Pradesh also has a synagogue in Chebrolu near Guntur. In Machilipatnam, I discovered that the Bene Ephraim Jews had a deep faith in Jewish life and a desire to preserve their heritage.
It was a pleasant evening and the pink shades of the sky were darkening, Dan stood on the teva chanting Shabbath prayers while the congregation followed him. Soon after, two young girls sang Hebrew songs accompanied by Jaya Kumar on the violin. After this, he gave a solo performance playing Hebrew prayer tunes, which ended with applause. I was introduced to the congregation as Jaya Kumar distributed the questionnaire that I had formulated to learn about Jewish cuisine.
That night, I had Shabbath dinner at Dan’s home with his entire family. His home was next to the synagogue. The family had prepared fried bhindi, potato curry, fried fish, fish-egg curry, parathas, rice and a variety of spicy chutneys made with gongura leaf, tomato, tamarind, sesame and crushed peanut, along with a bottle of gongura leaf pickle, which had pride of place on the table. Gongura leaves, also known as sorrel leaves, are blanched in boiling water and drained to reduce their sour taste before they are added to vegetables, chicken curry and other dishes, or before being made into chutney.
Find the recipe for Gongura Leaf Chutney here.
The next day, I went to the Manginapudi seashore in an autorickshaw. These autos carry four to six people, all crammed in with each other. Sometimes some passengers sit next to the driver. The sea had a gateway of sculpted dolphins next to a Hanuman temple, a cart of seashells and vendors of tender-coconut water.
Two fishermen were returning with a catch of fish, placed in a box and carried on an oar. One of them was wearing a tight loincloth and the other was wearing a mundu or a sarong tied around his waist. They stood covered with fine sand, surrounded by a group of women buying freshly caught fish. I noticed that the women were wearing saris and had flowers in their hair. The Jewish women of the Bene Ephraim Jewish community wear the same attire. Jewish men wear shirts over trousers but prefer to wear a mundu or sarong at home.
We stopped at the vegetable market, which was a built space, where vendors were selling vegetables and fruit. The market walls were painted in red ochre, decorated with kolam patterns, best described as curlicues. It is a ritualistic art form. Traditionally, these are painted by hand, with rice-flour paste or white powder, at the entrance of most south Indian homes. The market was tidy, and there was a variety of vegetables and fruits, like banana clusters on long stalks, potatoes, onions, bhindi, cabbage, cauliflower, pumpkin, bottle gourd, spinach, gongura leaves, curry leaves, coriander leaves, fresh mint, tamarind blossoms, raw mangoes, ripe mangoes, berries and fiery hot Guntur chillies.
At the entrance of the market, a woman was selling kalamkari napkins, which are multipurpose, as they can be used to wipe perspiration, keep paan leaves damp or cover food. In a lane nearby, women were making kalamkari designs with block-printing techniques on fabric.
I then visited a Jewish home near the synagogue. At the doorway I saw a kolam with the design of a star, which was painted a little off centre, so that one does not step on it. The lady of the house, whom I had met the day before at the synagogue, invited me in. I noticed that the interior was urban, with religious artifacts from Israel, along with framed family photographs on the walls.
The kitchen had steel utensils, plasticware, a filter-coffee container and a stone mortar and pestle to grind masala. I learned that nowadays they prefer electric mixers to make chutneys or batter for idli, vada and dosa. The fridge had a vessel filled to the brim with medu-vada batter, made of fermented rice and lentils, for the next day’s breakfast. And, for dinner, she had planned to make sambhar with toor dal or pigeon-peas, along with rice and vegetables. It was midday, so the lady invited me to join the family for lunch. The table was laid with drumstick curry, potatoes, brinjals cooked in tamarind sauce, dal and rice, which was served with a helping of ghee, mango pickle, sesame chutney, boiled eggs and yogurt.
After lunch, she took me around her garden, which had gongura bushes, a luxuriant plant of curry leaves, pomegranate, guava, banana, grapevines and a drumstick tree. I was told that gongura leaves are essential in Telugu cuisine and that sometimes sun-dried fish and meat are also added to some vegetable curries.
That evening, I visited an old cemetery situated next to a French monument, where I saw Dutch, French and British graves, along with graves of the Christian community and the Bene Ephraim Jews of Machilipatnam.
The Bene Ephraim Jews follow the dietary law and keep their kitchen kosher, with separate utensils and dishes for dairy and meat. And if, by mistake, meat is cooked in a vessel used for milk, the vessel is washed with warm water and not used for twenty-four hours. The Bene Ephraim Jews maintain four to five hours of difference between having milk and meat dishes.
Leafy vegetables are soaked in salt water and checked for worms, as they don’t eat insects, considered to be non-kosher. Meat or chicken or fish are soaked in salt water and washed properly before they are cooked. During festivals, food is made in vessels that have been washed in warm water. Earlier, Telugu Jews used to serve food on plantain or lotus leaves, but now they use steel thalis, melamine plates or disposable plates.
In the absence of a shohet, an elder of the Bene Ephraim community prepares kosher meat in accordance with the Jewish dietary law.
Fish curry and rice is the staple diet of the Bene Ephraim Jews. During summer months, they also make boiled eggs or a simple one-dish meal of lemon rice or curd rice or tamarind rice or vegetarian biryani or egg pulao, which is served with a variety of chutneys, pickles and poppadums.
In winter, spicy fried rice is made with chicken curry or fried chicken or potato curry, while vegetables are cooked with dried fish or dried meat along with boiled eggs as an accompaniment. The Bene Ephraim Jews have a preference for spinach, which is served with a dal-rice or sambhar-rice or rasam-rice combination.
Rice dishes, like lemon rice or tamarind rice, are made with plain white masuri rice or parboiled rice. Sambhar is made with toor dal, while rasam, which is also known as tamarind soup, is made with dal water. When meat or fish dishes are not cooked, the Bene Ephraim Jews make curd rice or vegetable curry with rice and eat it along with a bowl of yogurt, which is served separately.
Payasam or rice pudding is made as a dessert, with rice, milk and sugar, garnished with cardamom powder. A similar recipe is made with vermicelli. As milk is used in these recipes, both payasam and vermicelli are only served with vegetarian dishes.
When rice pudding is served with meat dishes, it is made with rice cooked in coconut milk and jaggery, and garnished with cardamom powder and broken nuts.
This is an excerpt from ‘Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews’ by Esther David published in 2021 (HarperCollins).