Celebrating the Traditions of an Indian Hanukkah
Onion pakoras, coconut milk curries and sweet flattened rice pancakes are customary delicacies for the holiday as celebrated by India's longstanding Jewish population
“There are Jews in India?”
Siona Benjamin gets that all the time. Born a member of Bombay’s Bene Israel community, she immigrated to the United States when she was 26. “The first time I tasted latkes and matzo ball soup was when I came here,” she says.
Bene Israel is the largest of several Jewish communities in India, with an estimated population of 4,000; others are constellated in Cochin, Delhi, Calcutta and elsewhere. The historical prominence of Indian Jews may be cognitively dissonant to some, but it fits perfectly into the narrative of Western Civilization. “I have to gently remind people that the cradle of civilization is Mesopotamia,” Benjamin says. “Judaism and Christianity and Islam started in the Middle East, and there were Jews in India and Pakistan and Iraq and Spain, before there were Jews in Russia and Poland.”
Today, Benjamin is a practicing visual artist who lives outside New York. She’s also a two-time Fulbright Scholar who has done research on Jewish Indian communities in Israel and India alike. Her forthcoming documentary, Blue Like Me, examines this relationship and is due out on Amazon next year.
The Jewish people of Bene Israel journeyed from Israel to India over 2,000 years ago, according to religious tradition and many historians. Many settled on the coast, according to Benjamin—the Jewish people of Cochin, in India’s western state of Kerala, are one of these groups. (Their population has been dwindling in recent centuries, and is currently estimated to be in the 20s.)
South Indian coastal cuisine often features coconut milk in its meat curries; for Jewish communities, this also serves the purpose of being kosher. (Otherwise, yogurt is often used to thicken curries, which would entail mixing meat and dairy.) There are also dishes in Jewish Indian communities that you can’t find in their Ashkenazi or Sephardic counterparts, or in surrounding Indian Hindu communities. Malida is one such food, according to Benjamin—it refers both to the dish itself as well as the religious ceremony surrounding it.
It’s a dish of flattened rice that’s unique to the Bene Israel community. Uncooked, the grains almost look like instant mashed potato flakes, and you rehydrate them with water in a similar fashion. You fluff them until they’re light and airy, and then mix in sugar, spices, dry fruits and raisins. Accompanying this would be a prayer in honor of the Prophet Elijah, and “you’d also eat coconuts or dates to remind yourself of how people came from the dessert,” Benjamin says.
For her, it holds Proustian significance. “It has a distinctive smell and taste that’s not anywhere else in any other Indian cooking, and it’s very strongly in my mind about being Indian Jewish,” she says. Although you often see flattened rice served in savory forms throughout India—often called poha—this specific sweet iteration is far less common.
Shulie Madnick, whose parents are also from Bombay’s Bene Israel community, is a food journalist who’s written about Jewish culinary traditions for The Washington Post and National Geographic. She has a blog, Food Wanderings, dedicated to these themes. Like Benjamin, she acknowledges the ceremonial importance of the Malida. And, also like Benjamin, she never made latkes until she moved to the United States, despite having been born and raised in Israel.
“I usually make onion pakoras each Chanukah [as] my mom made them year-round, but it’s my own tradition and adaptation for the holiday,” she says. “They do fly off the tray before making it to the table.”
Another latke-adjacent food reminiscent of the holiday is vada pav, a common street snack in Bombay and elsewhere; it’s a moreish deep-fried potato ball that’s sandwiched between what looks like a dinner roll. It’s not unique to Indian Jewish communities, but is rather in keeping with the deep-fried theme, with oil being central to Hanukkah symbolism.
These vadas actually aren’t terribly unlike aloo makala, which is a deep-fried snack of sliced potatoes. Their very name is evidence of cultural fusion. Aloo means "potato" in Hindi, and makala means "fried" in Arabic, Rahel Musleah explains. “You can always tell how good a cook is by the aloo makala.”
Musleah identifies as a member of the Baghdadi Indian Jewish community—of which aloo makala is distinctive—and was born in Calcutta. She immigrated to the United States as a child. Today, she’s a Columbia University-educated journalist and educator who leads historical tours to India through her company, Explore Jewish India.
“Calcutta is also known for its sweets, and we always had Indian sweets. Growing up, I didn’t know which dish was Indian and which was Baghdadi,” she says, pointing to the gastronomic fluency between traditions.
Baghdadi Jews also have a version of cholent, the traditional Eastern European stew made for Shabbat. More spice-laden than its Ashkenazi counterparts, Baghdadi hamin features chicken (instead of beef), and rice that’s developed a crust on the bottom. “I don’t cook it myself because I’m a vegetarian, but that’s at the synagogue in Bombay,” Musleah says.
Interestingly, she points out that this dish and other Jewish ones are actually often cooked by Muslims—in further testament to India’s coexisting multiplicities. “Usually Muslims are already familiar with certain laws of kashrut or halal,” she says, and this facilitates their work in domestic kitchens. “Most Indian synagogues have Muslim caretakers, and they’re fiercely protective of the synagogue.”
Musleah states that Indian Jews have historically been shielded from much of the anti-semitism that other communities in the diaspora have experienced; and yet, they’ve not necessarily been isolated within their communities, either. “There was a vibrant [Jewish community] in India that contributed in many ways to the cultural and social fabric of Indian life,” she says. “Everything from art to politics, and on our tours, we see Jewish influences where we might not expect to see them.”
Although this article uses food as a lens to approach the complexities of Judaism in India—and its celebration Hanukkah—that angle is, admittedly, narrow. And for Musleah, it’s not even about the food these days. She’s never been a fan of cooking large Hanukkah spreads, especially as her kids have gotten older (and considering it's a pretty minor holiday). But the other traditions, she loves.
“Hanukkah is a time to celebrate religious freedom, and India provided that religious freedom to Jews from throughout the world, and that is something that is really really important to me,” she says. “There’s a certain psalm that we say after we light the Hanukiah, and there’s a line that says ‘God has turned my mourning into joy.’ Those words never fail to give me goosebumps.”