Spice & Kosher: serving up the Cochini Jews’ story

November 20, 2013 - All News

Staff Writer
Ever heard of ‘Cochini Jews’? No? Yet they continue to reside in the original, white-walled streets of Jew Town — even if there are just eight among them there around the synagogue today, all elderly.
And GTA residents Bala Menon and Kenny Salem — both originally hailing from Kerala in India — are determined to keep the Cochini Jews story alive.
Their quest has today resulted in a book, ‘Spice & Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews’, written jointly by Menon and Salem, along with Dr Essie Sassoon, a Cochini Jew, and today living in Ashkelon, Israel.
The book contains some 200 recipes — and, through the recipes, seeks to outline the history of the Jews of Cochin.
“It’s such an important part of India’s history and Kerala’s heritage,” says Menon.
‘Spice & Kosher’ is only the first — during a recent visit to SAF’s offices, Bala hinted at more literary efforts ahead.
Menon and Salem make an unlikely twosome. Kenny, an Orthodox Jew, is a scion of the illustrious Salem family of Cochin who stayed in Israel for three years before coming to Canada in 1990. Today he’s based in King City, north of Toronto, and runs an engineering and transportation business. He describes himself as semi-retired.
Meanwhile Brampton-based Menon (full disclosure: this writer and Menon are friends and go back several years), a Hindu, is a journalist/artist who lived and worked in the Persian Gulf extensively before coming to Canada some 16 years ago.
It was a chance meeting at a Keralite community gathering in Toronto in 2008 that brought the two together. There, they got talking about their shared homeland, their shared language of Malayalam, their love of Kerala cooking. They became friends, travelling to Israel and Cochin together. And the project to write about the community was born.
So much of the history of the community remains untold, Menon believes. “I have some new information now.” So he and Salem began the task of writing about the community.
Their combined efforts to preserve the story of the Cochini Jews are perhaps quixotic, but the two are determined. Menon, who has a master’s in economics and in political science, has started a blog — The Jews of Cochin — where he posts his research. His wife Rema helps translate some of the documents he has uncovered.
The first effort, ‘Spice & Kosher’, is a social history of the community’s cuisine. It’s aroused an enormous amount of interest, says Menon. “More importantly, it’s also selling well — the initial response has been quite promising,” he smiles.
Menon has also started a company, Tamarind Tree Books, to publish the books. Next up is a history of the community: its roots, its growth and its demise.
He also plans to write a biography of Salem’s grandfather, Abraham Barak Salem.
In the early 20th century, Abraham Barak Salem helped break the colour barrier that had been imposed by the Portuguese when they colonized Kerala hundreds of years before, differentiating between members of the Jewish community based on skin colour, and thus creating the “black Jews” (or Malabari Jews) and the “white Jews”.
Menon has spent a lot of time talking with the remaining inhabitants of Jew Town in Cochin, as well as the Jews in Ernakulam, gathering their stories, memories and anecdotes. Introduced by Salem, he has been able to get them to speak candidly about their world.
Meanwhile, Salem and a cousin in Los Angeles have set up a trust fund to help administer and keep the community’s last synagogue, the Paradesi Syngogue — the oldest, functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth, built in Cochin in 1568 — still open.
The dream is “to keep it as a Jewish place in Kerala for any Jew to come and pray,” says Salem. They’ve “appointed a couple of people who live there who are non-Jewish who have grown up with us” to look after the synagogue, once no one in the community is left.
Journey to the present
The Jews of Cochin trace their history on the Malabar coast of India to 2,500 years ago, landing on those monsoon-swept shores as sailors in the fleets of King Solomon to purchase spices, animals and precious metals.
Songs and oral traditions of the Cochin Jews tell of their early settlements in Malabar in places like Paloor and the port of Cranganore (today’s city of Kodungalloor), soon after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. They call this the ‘First Diaspora’.
In 1000 CE, the legendary Kerala emperor Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi Varman issued two copper plates to a Jewish merchant Issappu Irrappan (Joseph Rabban), believed to be of Yemeni descent. The plates conferred on the Jewish community 72 proprietary rights equivalent to the then Malabari nobility. The rights and honours were conferred on the Jews in perpetuity “as long as the earth and the moon remain”.
Replicas of these plates were presented to a delighted then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Sept 9, 1992, when he visited India — “a heart-warming piece of evidence that there was a safe haven for Jews in a little corner of India, centuries before the dream of Israel became
a reality”, as Menon notes.
The plates are even today preserved in the Ark of the famous Paradesi Syngogue of Cochin.
Interestingly, in the late 18th century, Cochin was more important to the
Jews than New York. Walter Fischel, a scholar of Oriental Jewry, wrote: “Cochin, one of the
oldest Jewish settlements on Asian soil, had a much larger Jewish community than New York and surpassed it not only numerically, but also culturally. The Cochin Jewish community in 1792 had about 2,000 Jews… and 9 synagogues of considerable antiquity, while New York had only 72 Jewish families and only one synagogue.”
Most of the Cochinis emigrated to the Holy Land after the birth of Israel.
“But although physical Cochin has receded from the Cochinis when concepts of time and space are taken into account, the food has remained with them as part of their consciousness and identity,” points out Menon.
“For the Cochin Jews, food meant fresh, coconut milk-laced, highly spiced, aromatic dishes of tropical grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts and permitted meats that were quintessentially kosher and Jewish. For the Cochinis in Israel, these continue to be their everyday foods.”
He adds that Cochini Jewish cooking is considered genuine classical cuisine, because “recipes like the pastel, ural, ispethi and chutulli meen have been in continuous use for hundreds of years.
“Kerala’s spice trade was for many centuries controlled by the Jewish community and they incorporated the local spices into their cuisine. The dishes were thus infused with the magic of curry leaves, tamarind pulp and coconut, creating a fragrant and piquant cooking style.
“Foremost among the culinary treasures the Jews used was the coconut. Complementing it were the universally-loved pepper and spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, asafoetida, red and green chillies, coriander, fenugreek, assorted lentils — and an astounding variety of vegetables and fruits.”
Hence the book Spice & Kosher.
The book is now available worldwide through, Barnes and Nobles, other online retailers and on request from bookstores.
— With inputs from Debra Black/Torstar