Mealtime Memories of Mumbai

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Cooking Jewish style fare from a spicy corner of the world.

Whenever my husband David and I travel to cities with dwindling Jewish populations, we visit synagogues. In Mumbai last November, we stopped at the Gate of Mercy Synagogue, Shaar Harahamim, on Samuel Street.

The caretaker, Emmanuel Samson, led us through the synagogue’s courtyard. Pigeons nested on the roof. He removed his sandals before going inside.


“Should we take off our shoes?” I asked. He shook his head “no.”
 
I was curious about whether or not there was any local Jewish cuisine, but Mr. Samson’s English was spotty, so I didn’t ask any questions.
 
He explained the synagogue is open only on the High Holidays — there are few worshippers left to attend. “My family is in Israel and London,” he said. “I’m the last one here.”
 
A dark blue curtain with white Judaic designs shrouded Torah scrolls on the bimah. Black mold dotted the walls. Mildew filled the air.
 
“The synagogue is lovely,” I said. But I was gripped by sadness. David gave him money for tzedakah.
 
Although there are eight synagogues in town, this congregation, founded in 1796 by Bene Israelis, is the oldest. They may be descendants of seven Jewish families who fled persecution in the Galilee and were shipwrecked in India during the Second Century BCE.
 
Back home, I consulted Claudia Roden’s The Book Of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. In it, Roden explained that with few exceptions, Bene Israeli cooking mirrors South Indian cuisine. Tomatoes and onions are used more abundantly than in Hindu recipes, and lemons are chosen over yogurt. However, coconut milk is ubiquitous in soups, stews, curries and rice. Sesame oil abounds. Foods are seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, dried red chilies and a dash of sugar.
 
From Roden’s descriptions and the foods I had enjoyed in Southern India, I cooked up Jewish style fare from this spicy corner of the world.  
 
Squash Soup
Meat or Pareve
 
1-2 chicken or vegetable bouillon cubes
2-inch piece of fresh ginger
2 Tbsps. sesame oil
1 large onion, diced fine
3 Italian plum tomatoes, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 20-oz. package fresh peeled butternut squash, diced if pieces are large
Kosher salt to taste
1 cinnamon stick
¼ of a piece of dried chili, or more, depending on the desired heat
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
 
Dissolve bouillon cube in 3 cups of boiling water. Reserve.
 
Peel the ginger. Dice it fine and then chop until minced. Heat the sesame oil in a large pot on a medium flame. Add the onion and ginger. Stir until sweating, about 2 minutes. 
 
Add the tomatoes, carrots and butternut squash. Sprinkle in salt sparingly, because the bouillon is salty. Sauté until the tomatoes begin to give off their juices, about 3 minutes. 
 
Add the bouillon, cinnamon stick, chili and lemon juice. Stir to combine. Cover the pot and bring to a slow boil. Reduce the flame so the soup simmers slowly. Simmer until the squash is soft when pierced with a fork, about 40 minutes. 
 
Cool to warm. With a slotted spoon, remove the cinnamon stick and discard. In batches, puree the soup in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pour the soup into a saucepan to reheat. Serve immediately.
 
Serves 6 
 
Stir-Fried Broccoli
Pareve
 
2 bunches of broccoli, about 4 small-medium sized heads
2 Tbsps. plus 2 Tbsps. sesame oil, or more, if needed
2 shallots, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt to taste
½ tsp. curry powder
¼ tsp. ground tumeric
½ tsp. ground cumin
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
 
Cut off broccoli stalks below the florets. Pull off any leaves and discard both. Rinse broccoli under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Break the broccoli into florets and cut into bite-sized pieces.
 
In a large pot, heat 2 Tbsps. of sesame oil on a medium flame. Add the shallots and garlic and stir to combine. Sauté briefly until they sweat, about 2 minutes.
 
Add the spices. Stir until the kitchen is fragrant with the scent of spices, about 2 minutes. 
 
Drizzle in 2 more Tbsps. of oil and the lemon juice. Spoon the broccoli into the pot. Stir until coated with oil and spices. Add more oil at any time, if broccoli sticks to the pot. Stir continuously, until the broccoli is cooked but not mushy. Serve immediately.
 
Serves 6
 
Coconut Chicken Curry
Meat
 
2 large onions
2 ½-inch piece of ginger
1-2 chicken bouillon cubes
3 Tbsps. sesame oil, or more if needed
6 cloves of garlic, minced
Kosher salt to taste 
¼ tsp. ground turmeric
¾ tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ dried red chili, or more, depending on tolerance
¼ tsp. ground clove
¼ tsp. ground cardamom
tsp. ground nutmeg
5 Italian plum tomatoes, diced
4 carrots, peeled and diced fine
1 sweet potato, peeled and diced fine
Dash of sugar
2 Tbsps. lemon juice
1 13.5-oz. can of coconut milk
3 lbs. skinless, boneless chicken breasts cut in half crosswise
 
Peel onions and cut them into thin slices. With your fingers, separate each slice into rings. Peel the skin off the ginger and discard. Then chop it fine. With a sharp knife, dice the ginger. Place the bouillon in 1 1/2 cups boiling water to dissolve. Reserve all three ingredients. 
 
On a medium-low flame, heat 3 Tbsps. oil in a large pot. Spoon the onion rings into the pot. Stir occasionally until they begin to caramelize, about 15 minutes. (Add more oil at any time, if needed.) Add the garlic and ginger and stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes. 
 
Add all the spices to the pot. Stir until the scent of spices fills the kitchen, about 2 minutes.
 
Add the tomatoes, carrots and sweet potato. Stir occasionally until the tomatoes give off their juicecs, about 5 minutes. Add the sugar, lemon juice and 1 1/2 cups bouillon broth and stir to combine. Cover the pot, raise the flame to medium, and bring to a fast simmer. Stir occasionally until the sweet potato is fork tender, about 15 minutes. 
 
Meanwhile open the can of coconut milk. Spoon off the coconut cream at the top and discard. Pour the coconut milk into the pot and spoon in the chicken breast pieces. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 5-10 minutes. Serve immediately with Coconut Rice.
 
Serves 6
 
Coconut Rice with String Beans
Pareve
 
1 13.5-oz. can coconut milk
1 Tbsp. sesame oil, or more, if needed
1 ½ cups Basmati rice
Kosher salt to taste
¼ lb. string beans cut into ½-inch pieces
Dash of sugar
 
Open the can of coconut milk. Spoon off the coconut cream at the top and discard. Pour the coconut milk into a 4-cup measurer. Add enough water to equal 3 1/4 cups of liquid. Reserve.
 
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the oil on a medium flame until just warm, about 1-2 minutes. Pour in the rice and add the salt. Stir continuously until rice turns translucent, about 1-2 minutes. Add the string beans and stir until coated with oil.
 
Pour the coconut mixture into the rice. Add the sugar and stir to combine. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the flame to low and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. If rice is still hard, stir in another 1/4 cup of water and cover the pot until the water is absorbed. Open the saucepan as little as possible. 
 
When the rice is soft, quickly fluff with a fork. Cover the pot and let rice soak (rest) for 5 minutes. Fluff again and serve immediately.
 
Serves 6 

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