KOCHI, India — Dreaming of spices described in the Book of Kings, I came to this southern port city built in the 14th century to learn about its long-standing but tiny Jewish presence and its food, which some believe dates back to the time of the Bible.
I left with a better understanding of the people and their history, as well as a chicken dish for Passover, after eating first in the home of Queenie Hallegua, 78, and then the next day in the home of another accomplished cook.
Hallegua, whose great-grandfather came as a peddler from Iraq and whose grandfather, Samuel Koder, a merchant, is credited by the family with bringing electricity and the ferries to Kochi, lives on Synagogue Lane in a building decorated with ancient Indian signs.
Over a glass of her pungent Passover wine, made from boiled raisins blended with water and then strained through a cloth, she told me about how she carefully sifts her grains and spices to clean them in preparation for Passover cooking.
Pesach work began in January, when we bought rice, cleaned and washed it, pounding some into rice flour, Hallegua said. We also cleaned chilies, coriander, cinnamon, pepper, ginger and cardamom, and set some aside for Passover.
Most spices were harvested in December and January, then dried in the sun for two or three days, roasted and ground. Hallegua showed me her separate Passover kitchen, outfitted with a large stone mortar and pestle used to grind spices and a flat granite stone for grinding coconut, chilies and coriander.
In the olden days we made our own matzo, she said. We pounded the wheat collected in fields, and people gathered to cook it on a grill over a wood fire in our courtyard sometimes in 100-degree heat. The matzo is thicker than the machine-made variety sold in the U.S.
These days, Hallegua buys prepackaged rice, rice flour and spices, which she cleans again for Passover. But she still boils down dates to the texture of honey in a copper caldron to make her haroseth. The date jam, used as honey in biblical times, is eaten topped with chopped cashews, walnuts or almonds.
Around the lace-covered table in her dining room, I sampled her coriander chicken, a staple at her Seder, which tastes more Indian than Iraqi.
Hallegua said she buys kosher chicken from Bangalore. Otherwise, she gets her meat from one of the two local shochets, men trained in the laws of Jewish meat slaughter.
In search of one of the shochets, I traveled to the teeming marketplace of Ernakulam and entered the Cochin Blossoms tropical fish and plant store, housed in the ancient Kadavumbagam Synagogue, where the few remaining Jewish merchants steal away from their businesses to pray. The minute I arrived, the shochet, Elias Josephai, rode up on his motor scooter. And when I mentioned that I was looking for recipes, he hailed an auto-rickshaw to drive to his home to meet his wife, Ofera.
She makes a chicken dish similar to Halleguas at Passover. But in the manner of Bene Israel Jews from Mumbai, her homeland, she adds a fresh masala of sauteed onions, cilantro, mint and tomatoes.
The recipe here is one I adapted from those of both women. This year I look forward to serving the chicken and other Indian dishes at my own Seder.
For a printable copy of the recipe, click the link:
IF using whole spices, heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, anise seeds and cumin seeds; stir until the seeds start to pop, about 3 minutes. Grind them in a small blender, coffee grinder or mortar and pestle along with the nutmeg, turmeric and salt. If using ground spices, simply mix them all together in a small bowl. Rub the mixture into the chicken, transfer to a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
IN a large Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onions and saute until golden. Add the chicken and saute for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, curry leaves, vinegar and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, until the chicken is soft and cooked through, about 20 minutes.
IN a food processor, blend the ginger, garlic, cilantro, mint and 2 of the chilies. Taste and add more chilies if desired. Stir into the chicken and simmer for another 5 minutes. Serve over rice, if desired. Yield: 6 to 8 servings