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'Cuisines give Indians distinct regional identities'

Tuesday September 27, 2011 09:11:21 AM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

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 Rachel".

"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 All That".

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 added.

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," David said.

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 writer said.

"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 coconut milk".

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





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