A Passage to India's Cochin Cuisine Leads Through a Moshav in Central Israel

The Jewish community says their ancestors had traveled to southern Indian to trade spices during the time of King Solomon. Now Israelis will have a chance to sample the food that bears a close resemblance to the their own kitchen

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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PastelimCredit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Riki (Illouz) Yosef’s recipes notebook looks like a throwback to a different era: thick, with faded handwriting, packed with notes and scraps of paper that tumble out when the book is opened. The traditional Cochin recipes she learned from her mother-in-law are studded with erasures, corrections of quantities and remarks on cooking methods. Riki, the daughter of parents of Jewish-Moroccan origin, acquired her knowledge of Cochin cuisine from cooking together with Miriam, her husband’s mother.

“It was the only way to learn,” she says. “My mother-in-law is one of those skilled, intuitive gourmet cooks who explain everything – quantities and cooking methods – with handfuls of materials and hand gestures. But she has such tiny palms that even if I’d tried to imitate her, it wouldn’t work. So I cooked every recipe with her dozens of times; I measured, erased and corrected until I got the precise quantities.”

Riki, who was born in 1969, is married to Itzik Yosef, from Moshav Taoz. “Until then I didn’t even know there was such a community, Jews who came to Israel from India,” she says. “After the army, I met a girl who had married a Cochin man, and the first thing she told me was how tasty their food is. Through her I met Itzik, and a year later we were already on our honeymoon.”

Like many first-rate cooks who adopt a foreign cuisine as though it were their mother tongue – as a means to integrate into the community and acquire a cultural identity – Riki is today considered one of the best cooks in Taoz, a small moshav, or cooperative village, in the Jerusalem hills, populated largely by Jews from Cochin and their offspring. “In India, the women spent the whole day in the kitchen, cooking from morning to night,” she sighs, trying to explain how difficult it is to master the art of Cochin cooking and why many in our time have abandoned the practices of the traditional kitchen.

“In a hot and humid climate, without refrigerators, fresh food is cooked daily. On Friday, a bit of vinegar is added to the food so it won’t spoil on Shabbat, and every day coconuts are ground and milk extracted from them. Complex dishes are prepared, using multiple raw materials, along with dry, fresh dishes, and all the components are sliced very small. It takes at least three hours to prepare the stuffing of the Cochin version of kubeh, and it’s the same with the stuffing for the Shabbat pastelim (similar to dumplings), or the dish made from potatoes, orange lentils and the curry leaves of the masala grey mullet. Of course, these days hardly anyone makes Cochin halva, which takes at least six to eight hours,” writes Yosef.

KubehCredit: Dan Peretz

It’s easy enough to grow crops in the fertile earth of Kerala, the tropical southern India region where the Cochin Jews originate, but there are also a lot of people to feed. Similar to other countries in Asia, where the food is primarily rice-based, people are uprooting the jungle to grow rice, so wood for burning is in short supply. In the absence of abundant sources of energy for cooking, the raw materials that are added to rice – meat, fish, vegetables, herbs – are cut into minute pieces so they can be cooked well on scarce fire.

Riki and other women from Taoz will sell their delicious homemade dishes as part of the Rural Food Festival being held until March 23 throughout the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, west of Jerusalem. The events in Taoz will take place in the khan established there by Malka Shavit, a local resident who is a tour guide by profession and a leading activist in the effort to preserve traditional crafts and the heritage of the Land of the Fathers.

The majority of the Cochin Jews immigrated to Israel in 1954. Their descendants still emphasize proudly that they were one of the few communities who financed their immigration to Israel themselves. “The story that people in the community like to tell is that their ancestors reached India in the time of King Solomon – who commanded them to trade in spices – and settled on the legendary Malabar coast,” Shavit says, adding, “But there’s no real support for that. The first solid evidence of a Jewish presence is a charter of rights, hammered onto copper plates, that the ruler of the southern kingdom granted to the followers of the Mosaic religion a thousand years ago. He gave them the right to collect their own taxes, granted them freedom of occupation and made it possible for them to manage an independent life. It was a closed, affluent, well-educated community that was zealous about upholding its Jewish identity. The synagogues were at the heart of the cultural life and the economy.”

Over the centuries, Spanish, Iraqi and Dutch Jews joined the community. “Two sub-communities – ‘black Cochins’ and ‘white Cochins’ – were formed,” Shavit says. “And to this day, in the third and fourth generations of the immigration to Israel, the place you came from in Kerala has significance – whether you’re city- or country-bred.”

It’s only in recent years that the community has begun to talk with openness about the trauma of relocating. “They used to say in my family that from the moment grandfather arrived in the Land of Israel, he never smiled again,” Shavit recalls. “Back there, he was a wealthy merchant, and here he got nowhere. He was sent to plant trees and other make-work. The elders of the community followed the young people, who arrived first, but they were treated with suspicion, in part because of an unjustified concern that the newcomers carried infectious diseases. Their property was left behind. They were dumped in the open on Friday morning, either in the Negev desert or in remote locations in the Judean Hills, and told to build themselves a shelter for the night. They’d come from a land of flowing rivers and tropical vegetation – the hedgerow between the houses there had bushes of black pepper, cardamom and curry – and overnight found themselves in the dry wastes of the Land of Israel.”

Adds Rachel Sofer, who was born in 1954, “When they came to this country they took up farming that didn’t succeed. Even people who’d lived their whole life in the city, like my parents. They were subjected to every possible experiment. They were given everything imaginable to grow – tobacco, fruits, geese, fowl, cucumbers and tomatoes. Everything pretty much failed. Today, of 71 farming units in Taoz, only three are still breeding fowl, and my son is one of them.”

Cochin lentils, pumpkin, sweet potato, preserved lemon and green curry. Credit: Dan Peretz

As with other Jewish communities, the move to Israel influenced the culinary culture. A major change was the use of wheat flour, in place of rice flour and chickpea flour. The women continue to use wheat flour to make appam (a baked or steamed homemade bread that’s typically eaten with chamandi, a marvelous sour coconut dip that every woman makes in her own distinctive way) and idli (airy, puffy omelets originally prepared with rice flour) – even though today, in contrast to the 1950s and 1960s, rice flour and chickpea flour are available in Israel.

“And that’s not the only change,” says Sofer. “In the past, we didn’t use industrial yeasts – the starter for baking in Kerala was resin extracted from coconut trees – and today, for example, hardly anyone uses hilbeh [traditional spiced fenugreek], because people in Israel don’t like the smell.”

Sofer, who’s one of those singular beings blessed with a divine gift, or perhaps a congenital talent, for working in the kitchen – compiled her mother’s traditional recipes, which she continues to use every day, into a family cookbook. (“I collected and bound the recipes, because my son married an Ashkenazi woman.”) During the festival, she’ll be cooking three Cochin-style meals in her beautiful yard, which abounds with fruit trees and herbs. The plan is to continue to offer home hospitality after the festival as well. The menu she intends to serve the guests includes amchur (a family of dips), homemade chutney and curry, traditional snacks from chickpea flour which she makes with her own hands, and also wonderful meat dishes such as isfeti (beef in coconut) or chicken in tangy chili sauce.

The fair, and the meals that are served in the homes of women from the community, afford a splendid opportunity to get acquainted with and experience this rich and varied cuisine, which makes extensive use of coconut, lemon and a vast array of dry herbs and bay leaves. Jewish-Cochin cuisine hasn’t yet become part of the new Israeli canon, and few are familiar with it. Entry into the Israeli kitchen is influenced by parameters such as the size of the community (in this case it’s particularly small) and the availability of raw materials that were widely used in the country of origin.

But as with other Jewish communities that immigrated to Israel, there are also more complex reasons, related to the power structure within Israeli society. It’s hard to escape the thought, for example, that the dark skin color of most of the Cochin community – as in the case of the Ethiopian Jews – didn’t also influence the reception accorded their cuisine.

Little Kerala fair, Moshav Taoz, March 8 and March 22, 10.00-14.00; for the entire festival program: tour-yehuda.org.il/articles/58/ (Hebrew) Jewish-Cochin meal with Rachel Sofer, Moshav Taoz, March 8, March 15, 11.00-15.00, reservation required, at 054-2329956.

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