New Delhi: Cuisines
give India's diverse communities the one thing they need most -
regional identity, says noted Indian Jewish writer and Sahitya
Akademi Award winner Esther David.
"Indians would lose their communal identities if they did not have
their traditional cuisines," said David, also the winner of the
Prix Eugenie Brazier, a prestigious French award, for her "Book of
"I include food in my novels because I cannot possibly write a
cook book," she told IANS.
The writer and researcher was in the capital for the Lit for Life
festival, presented by The Hindu Sunday. She spoke about
literature and food at a discourse, "Are You Really Going to Eat
David, a Bene Jew from Ahmedabad, uses the non-vegetarian
gastronomic culture of the reclusive Bene Jewish community along
the Konkan coast of Maharashtra to recreate the saga of the
arrival of the tribe to India and its fight for survival.
According to demographic estimates, of the 65,000 Bene Jews in the
world, 5,000 live in India.
"The Jews in India lead a secret life - they do not mingle much.
It is a mindset borne by memories and years of persecution all
over the life," David said.
"We underplay our lives. I decided to open the lives of the Jews
in India with my book. The Jews in India have a distinct cuisine -
which sets them apart from the rest, giving them an identity," she
The author of six books has documented the community of Bene Jews
for the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, Israel.
David has revived lost recipes from families, friends and elders
in the tribe. And has used them to layer her fictional tale of
Rachel, a lonely Jewish widow and her tribe residing in a remote
village by the sea.
"We have a strict dietary law that stresses on hygienic food,"
The community traces its origin to the Jews who escaped
persecution in the 2nd century BC in Galilee.
However, the Bene Jews resemble the Marathas in appearance though
they still follow their traditional Kosher dietary laws, ritual of
circumcision and sabbath as the day of leisure.
In the 19th century, the tribe which had made landfall at the
ancient village ports of Alibaug and Danda in Konkan migrated to
the neighbouring cities of Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad.
Their Kosher diet lays down several dietary restrictions.
Jews eat only those fish that have fins and scales - any fish that
does not have scales are not allowed into kitchens, David said.
Fish is an omen of fortune among the Bene Jews.
"The fish is the symbol of protection because she does not have
eyelids and her eyes are always open and watchful...she is the
protector of the home, like the woman of the house... a fish is
also a symbol of fertility because of the number of eggs she
produces - and is also linked to the zodiac sign of Pisces," the
"Pork is banned," she added.
The community is not allowed to use milk or curd for its
meat-in-white-and-green gravy dishes.
"The holy book (Book of Exodus) dictates to followers that 'you
shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk - you shall not
seethe a kid (baby lamb) in its mother's milk'. We are forced to
use coconut milk as a substitute. Our food, as a result, has a
native Konkani and Maharashtrian flavour," David said.
"I cannot forget the green coconut curry of my childhood that my
mother Sarah cooked on Sundays," she mused.
For dessert, David suggested a "pudding of wheat extract cooked in
Her novel, "Book of Rachel", is in the process of being adapted
into a French movie. The offering from her treasure trove is a
book on chocolates. "It is in process," she said.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)