Jews are famous for their love of Asian food, but many may not know that Jews have cooked their own food throughout the continent for ages. A new cookbook, “Spice & Kosher,” collects recipes and remembrances of the food of the Jews of Cochin, a group that has inhabited a region of India possibly since the first century.
The Jewish community of Cochin (now Kochi), a city in Kerala in southern India, is rumored to have begun in the time of King Solomon, and grown after the destruction of the First Temple. But the first concrete documentation of Jews in the area seems to come from after the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 CE. The Jews prospered under the protection of Hindu rulers; more came from the Middle East, and then the Iberian Peninsula after Jews were expelled in 1492.
At its height, the Jewish community there comprised several thousand people, enough to support eight synagogues. But despite affluence and peace, almost the entire community emigrated to Israel after 1948. Today, only a few dozen Jews remain in Cochin, at most.
In Israel, Cochin Jews have found another welcome home, but have struggled to preserve their unique culture. This year, Essie Sassoon released the cookbook “Spice & Kosher” to help fill the void in the documentation of this food. Born in Kochin, Sassoon, a medical doctor, went to Israel in 1973 to volunteer in the Yom Kippur War, and stayed.
Cochin Jewish food understandably shares a lot of similarities with other Indian food. Sassoon told Indian site The Hindu that her cooking heavily employs spices known as the “Three c’s:” cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. A fourth would also be “coconut,” a distinct flavor not used elsewhere in Jewish cooking (although as Cochin Jews have learned, coconut milk is a great substitute for dairy). And as kosher meat is difficult to find in Cochin, much of the food is vegetarian or fish-based.
Other Cochin Jews in Israel have opened restaurants to promote culinary tourism and preserve the traditions. Matamey Cochin in the southern moshav of Nevatim serves savory filled pastries called pasteles, dosha (pancakes), and semolina dumplings called hubba.
One cook at Matamey Cochin told Tablet Magazine that what really made Cochin food stand out was freshness.
“In India we didn’t have refrigerators and the food was prepared before each meal,” she said. “When you eat food with spices that have been pulverized on the spot, and not bought at the supermarket and kept in the fridge, or when you eat freshly baked bread, you can taste the difference.”