Growing up, I remember how I used to devour books by Enid Blyton. Solving mysteries like the Famous Five, Secret Seven appealed to me but so did the food in her books. Sleuthing is hard work and Blyton’s school-going amateur detective characters were always eating something or the other — freshly baked cakes or chocolate cookies, toasted sandwiches with clotted cream and strawberry jam washed down with pots of steaming tea or ginger ale. Blyton’s stories made me fancy even the plain bread-butter breakfast, which I insisted on having with tea and a side of fruity jam.
As a beginner cook, I used to enjoy reading about recipes, more so if they had stories attached to them. I, therefore, enjoyed Esther David’s Book of Rachel, which provides an insider’s view of the life of a unique historic community, the Bene Israel Jews in India. The food is the central character in David’s book.
The Bene Israeli, the Cochin Jews and the Baghdadi Jews are the three main groups of the Jewish community in India. The Jews after they were banished from their original home in Egypt found themselves travelling to different parts of the world and Bene Israelis, which means ‘children of Israelis’ assimilated themselves on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra.
Coastal Indian cuisine is synonymous with fish and David begins her critically acclaimed story with, what else
but, a recipe for fish, fried with a generous sprinkling of red chillies which has been for many years the Sabbath dinner of Rachel, who is the novel’s chief protagonist. Danda is a small hamlet in Alibaug. The last surviving Jew of Danda is portrayed as a free-spirited woman, who lived alone after her husband died a few years ago. Her children, two sons and a daughter immigrated to Israel after they turned 18 or 20.
With Brownie, an adopted mongrel, a few goats, some poultry and ducks, Rachel lived out her daily life. As a rule, Rachel spoke Marathi, the language she had known since her birth, a fact that endeared her to the people in her village who appreciated the fact that, just like them, she spoke Marathi with all the right intonations and also knew all the Maharashtrian customs, so much so that often they introduced her to their relatives as a Konkanasth Brahmin. Apart from speaking and praying in Marathi, Rachel wore nine-yard sarees and had recently taken to wear 5-yard saris.
The Bene Israel Jews observed the Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday, which was one of the reasons they were known as the Shanvar Telis of Danda. They had been oil traders by profession and always stopped work from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Rachel cooked for herself only on Friday, the Sabbath eve, perhaps fish or chicken and a goblet of the homemade sherbet for the Kiddush with a Sabbath bhakhri instead of bread.
She made it her responsibility to take care of the abandoned synagogue with its Grecian pillars, Ionic roof, chandeliers, oil lamps and velvet curtains with gold embroidery, which stood at the back of her house. Rachel was married in the same synagogue and so was sentimentally attached to it.
David uses the first couple of chapters to paint a character sketch of Rachel and how she spends her time primarily in keeping the synagogue clean and ready for service and welcoming the occasional tourist with limbu paani, tea or lunch.
By chapter three, we are already introduced to three recipes — Fried Fish, Sown Kadhi, also known as the queen of curries and Mutton Curry with Tamarind. Each chapter in the novel is named after a typical Bene Israeli dish.
Subsequently we find that the cuisine becomes a mix of Jewish and Indian. The Bene Israelis have adapted their original cuisines to local influences while upholding their traditional dietary ‘kosher’ laws. Majority of their food is similar to Maharashtrian food. A case in point is instruction for making Chicken using kesar (saffron), without which no Indian kitchen is complete.
The ancient recipes Rachel prepares are sometimes simple but at times elaborate such as Chik cha Halwa, Kippur chi Puri, Mince Cutlets, Puran Poli, etc. They provide a link to her children as she looks forward to their return home. Each recipe is associated with a feast or a special memory that Rachel has stored away in her head. There is a symbolism attached to each recipe — either social or religious, which is explained while elaborating the recipe. Rachel’s subtle humour is on display when she makes and serves Mordecai, a scheming fellow Jew, a plate of ‘peethal’, which has a tendency to give gas and acidity if one does not take a walk after eating it.
Meanwhile, the story takes shape as Rachel utilises her innate fighting spirit to emerge as an unlikely opponent to foil the plan of developers, who want to acquire the synagogue and its adjacent land, with the consent of the synagogue committee. The novel uses food to provide a feminist narrative of Rachel defending her diasporic roots.
Esther David won the Sahitya Akademi award for this book in the year 2010.