A FORK ON THE ROAD
Cochin kosher: The fragrant foods of India's Jews
Linda Bladholm food@MiamiHerald.com
Thu, Jun. 08, 2006
SCHOLARS: Ellen Goldberg and Nathan Katz learned to cook kosher Indian dishes in the South Indian state of Kerala 20 years ago.
* Recipe | Cochin chicken roast (main dish)
* Online-Only Recipe | Hamin (Cochin Jewish chicken and rice pulao)
If you've never heard of kosher Indian food, you're not alone. Not many people know there are Jews in India, albeit in very small communities.
Nathan Katz and his wife, Ellen Goldberg, regularly cook and serve kosher Indian dishes like turmeric rice with chicken, okra with chickpeas or chicken cooked with cardamom and cloves for the Sabbath meal in their Miami Beach home. They learned these specialties of the Jewish community of Cochin (now Kochi) in the South Indian state of Kerala 20 years ago while on a Fulbright fellowship.
Katz and Goldberg began their research into Jewish identity in India with anthropological detachment, but over the course of the year embraced the customs of the Orthodox Jewish home in which they lived. They returned to the United States with a renewed commitment to their faith -- and extra poundage, having conducted much of their research sitting around tables talking and eating.
The couple, who met at Temple University in Philadelphia, moved to Miami in 1994 when Katz was hired to chair the Center for the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. He is an internationally recognized authority on South Asian religions and spent many years in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. Goldberg is a program director for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
Jews are believed to have sought refuge in Kerala around 500 B.C. after the destruction of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Many were involved in the spice trade and were familiar with the Malabar Coast and its tolerant Hindu rulers. Cochin Jews are Sephardic, meaning their food is closer to Middle Eastern than Eastern European.
They eat no beef or lamb, as the last shokhet (ritual slaughterer) left Cochin more than 30 years ago. Fish and chicken are the main meats, marinated in lime juice instead of yogurt and supplemented by vegetables and rice.
Kosher mai (fresh grape wine) is made for Kiddush, the blessing after Shabbat. Matzoh is made with the help of a Hindu mill owner. Jews have always been respected here, and are included in community festivities, with their Hindu, Muslim and Christian neighbors preparing kosher vegetarian food for the occasions.
Spicy fish curries and rice cooked with coconut milk, saffron and almonds is common in Cochin kosher cuisine. Sabbath meals may start with fish balls in curry or fried fish smeared in spices and koobe rice-flour dumplings stuffed with potato and dipped in coriander sauce.
Next comes the hamin (''hot'' in Arabic), the Indian version of cholent -- a slow-simmered meat dish that cooks overnight because of the prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath. In Kerala, that means chicken sautÃ©ed with onions, tomatoes and spices, and placed in a pot with rice and water. The sealed pot cooks over low heat until the chicken is almost melting.
The Jewish community in Kerala is dwindling, but Cochin Jews in Israel keep the culinary tradition alive, as do Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg.
Linda Bladholm's latest book is Latin and Caribbean Grocery Stores Demystified.
FYI: Kashrut, Caste and Kabbalah: The Religious Life of the Jews of Cochin by Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg (Manohar, $41.95) is available at bookstores including amazon.com.