Snapshots of Jewish Cuisine in the Indian Ocean

I originally wanted to write a comprehensive post about the history of Jewish cuisine in the Indian Ocean. I realized that would need to be the length of a book. So I tried to do a shorter version. I ran into a similar problem. Instead, I have decided to do something a tad simpler. Rather than go into a drone, I will look at a few foods or things that show the influence of Indian Ocean trade routes on Jewish cooking. Though we do not think about the Indian Ocean much in Jewish history or Western history, it is important that we do so.

A sailing dhow on blue waters
A dhow – one of the many traditional ships used for trade and transit across the region. (Photo CC/Steve Monty)

As many scholars have pointed out before, the Indian Ocean was the center of world trade for a thousand years, and much of that had to do with food. The flow of spices from Indonesia to India to Arabia and Africa to Europe – and within and between those places – set the stage for much of early global trade. Cloves and pepper were already traded across vast distances in Biblical times – and sugar would follow by the Roman period. After Islam came about and spread with seafarers, the region gained a common language – Arabic – and an even bigger network of traders, based in what is now Oman and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tamil emperors ruled for lengthy periods over South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Later, the region would be a patchwork of kingdoms and empires which built their own powers on trade and maritime prowess. From there, spices, minerals, and people moved from Ethiopia to India to Malaysia to Arabia to Iran to China. Europe dealt with this world through intermediaries – and it was Portuguese and Spanish ambitions to enter this trade that influenced Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the start of European imperialism. Nowhere was this more apparent than food. Spices were an attainable goal, and often these were spices native to faraway lands along the ocean’s shores. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves were items that tinged local cuisines across the basin and beyond. Dishes from traders were common from Zanzibar to Timor. Merchants from Portugal to Japan craved the same tinge of pepper.

Jewish cuisine the world over was influenced by this trade. In some cases, Jews were living on the trade routes themselves: in Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Iran, Iraq, and Burma. In other cases, as was true of Ottoman, Venetian, and Ukrainian Jews, trade with other communities connected them to the ocean. For all these communities, the spices and foods, recipes and ideas, methods and knowledge that travelled on the seas transformed their kitchens. For examples, I will look at a snack, a spice, and a method.

Samosas 

Samosas around a green dip
(Photo Sean Choe via Flickr/CC)

A few years ago, I wrote about sambusak, a savory, filled Iraqi pastry, and its ties to triangular pastries elsewhere. The snack started its journey as a triangular pastry in Central Asia, and first became popular in the Persian-speaking world. From there, it travelled with soldiers, merchants, and migrants to India, the Middle East, and North Africa, where it sometimes went by different names. Eventually, it reached Greece and the Balkans as the boreka – named after a different Turkish pastry, the börek, which is made with boiled dough. It also reached Spain, and later the Americas, as the empanada. Jewish communities not only partook in sambusak and empanadas, but adapted them to Jewish holidays. In many communities, pastries like these are common on Shavuot.

The samosa was a seafarer, too, and became popular in the Indian Ocean region. From India, the recipe travelled eastwards to Southeast Asia, where it is still extremely popular in Indonesia. In Burma, too, it became popular – and the Baghdadi Jewish community would often serve their recipe on Shabbat. That version mixed flavors of three samosas: the local Burmese one, a Bengali one, and the sambusak recipe from Iraq. (If anyone has the recipe, please let me know!) Westward, the samosa made its way across the sea to Yemen, which already had a different version that probably came from the Gulf. There, Jewish writings mention triangle pastries as a delicacy enjoyed in urban areas like Sana’a. From Yemen, or via what is now Somalia, it hopped over to today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea, where Jewish communities also adapted the dish to local ingredients. Today’s Ethiopian Jews have brought their version of the recipe – filled with delicious lentils – to Israel and Chicago. It is also a plot device in a wonderful film about a Jewish boy named Solomon in the Ethiopian highlands, called Lamb. Later Jewish communities would also bring their own triangle pastries to the Indian Ocean shores. Portuguese Jews in Cochin mixed local samosas with empanadas, and Jews from Rhodes made borekas in the colonial cities on the African coast they went to in the early 20th century.

Why was the samosa popular? After all, cooking oil was expensive until the modern era, and samosas are often fried. (Though some are baked, steamed, or cooked in a Dutch oven-type way.) They are also surprisingly annoying to make, with thin dough and a habit of breaking at the worst possible moments. On the other hand, they are delicious. The carb-forward softness of the dough – substantial and yielding – gives way to a filling that can be spiced to almost any specification. They are most easily made in bulk, which makes them ideal for celebrations or anything in which people may be social. The effort required – even with our modern pre-made wrappers and equipment – makes the pastries special for occasions, and easily incorporated into the many Jewish traditions of elaborate foods for Sabbaths and holidays. More broadly, they are also the perfect street food.

Given that they are best made in bulk, and that frying was quite dangerous in homes until recently, samosas were, like other fried foods, a thing eaten outside the house in urban areas. Sellers, enterprising vendors, or housewives needing another line of income set up samosa stands in markets as early as the 12th and 13th centuries in Persia, and later elsewhere. The samosa joined a long line of other fried foods – doughnuts, fritters, dumplings, and so on – that extended back to the early days of Islam. Though many Jewish communities eschewed eating outside the community – and though many other communities had similar rules – Jews were likely in the markets, eating samosas, and picking up those ideas. Perhaps, they were selling them too – and giving other communities a taste for new things that Jews brought with them, from wherever they came. Like cinnamon.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon
Photo CC/Public domain

Cinnamon is the unlikely star of Ashkenazi holiday food. It is strange, when you think about it, that the bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka and Indonesia would be so frequent in the festive cooking of an Eastern European minority thousands of miles away. And yet – Tzimmes mit Flanken is not quite the same for some without the cinnamon to accompany the carrots; Mandelbroyt gain a zing with it; red cabbage with apples is spruced up with a touch of cinnamon; some enterprising cooks even add them to their matzoh balls. In Lithuania, a tradition arose of stuffing matzoh balls and Kreplach with onions fried with … cinnamon. How did this community, so far from where cinnamon is grown, come to add it to their food?

Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine were tied through long spurs to the Indian Ocean trade networks thousands of miles away. The trade routes shifted over time, but in the 17th century, they looked something like this: Spices from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent were bought and sold in Cochin and other ports in Kerala, from where they were shipped to what is now Oman, Iraq, and Yemen. From there, they went over land, river, and sea to Istanbul and other Ottoman centers in Anatolia and the Balkans. From there, another round of buying and selling would happen, and traders – often Jewish – would bring the spices from there, by land or sea, to what is now the Ukraine. Then, well-worn paths would carry the spices to the centers of Poland and Lithuania. Many of the communities on these paths were Jewish, and were already trading other things as well – etrogim for Sukkot, books and halachic literature, cloth, and goods. Spices were always a mainstay. Ideas spread too – not just recipes, which flowed back and forth, but also religious ones. The heresy of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi spread from the Ottoman Empire elsewhere on these very circuits. Contrary to the Ashkenormative and, honestly, rather twee history spun of homely Ashkenazi communities hewing to some sort of tradition that they themselves would have found laughable. Our ancestors were aware of an extraordinary world – even if they were usually too poor to access its fruits. They took what they could, and made it their own. Cinnamon was one of them.

It started, like black pepper and ginger, as a luxury good in the Middle Ages. But increased trade – especially after the Dutch and Portuguese used colonization, genocide, and slavery to monopolize the market – made the spices cheaper in Europe. Now, the trade networks flowed from Amsterdam and Lisbon through Germany to Eastern Europe, and in much greater supply. By the 16th century, Martin Luther mixed his anti-Semitism with complaints about peasants becoming addled and lascivious on black pepper. Thus cinnamon went from a luxury good for a few Jews to a luxury good for many Jews. Soon, it began popping up in many goods. Later, when sugar became more common after the introduction of the sugar beet in Eastern Europe, cinnamon became a mainstay of Ashkenazi sweet foods, and substantial foods that were sweet but often served as a meal or holiday dish, like noodle kugel. The availability of cinnamon for a comparatively cheap price from the 19th century on also made cinnamon far more common in day-to-day cooking, just like other former luxuries like sugar, meat, and white bread. Even today, much of the cinnamon we consume comes from Indian Ocean countries like Sri Lanka. One reason cinnamon became cheaper, in fact, was the reduced shipping cost of spices to Europe after the opening of the Suez Canal.

Of course, cinnamon is frequent in the Jewish cuisines of the Indian Ocean itself. The spice makes frequent appearances in Indian Jewish curries and soups, and it is sometimes included in Ethiopian spice mixtures. It is also used with some frequency by Jewish communities in Iran, especially with fruit-heavy dishes.

Stuffed Chickens

A series of serving plates with vegetables
All separate, all able to go into a chicken. (Photo CC)

When Jews migrated across the ocean basin, they brought their cuisines with them. Sometimes it was a taste for a spice or a way of serving bread. And sometimes it was the habit of stuffing a chicken to near-capacity with delicious things.

This recipe started in Iraq. Medieval Arabic cookbooks from Baghdad record poultry stuffed with bread or rice as a festival dish, or a frequent dish on the tables of nobility and the wealthy. (Among other delicacies that, sadly, did not stay popular.) Jews probably picked up this dish there, and adapted it for cooking on the Sabbath and the restriction rabbinic Jews follow on not mixing dairy and poultry. (Most Islamic schools of thought allow that combination.) The dish stayed a local delicacy for a few centuries.

Then, starting as early as the 17th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th century, Iraqi Jews migrated in large numbers to India, Burma, and Malaya – which were then under British rule. The cuisine came with them, and as these communities became established as traders, merchants, and doctors, so too the cuisines began to change. The stuffed chicken gained new versions as spices were changed, fillings were changed, or even the method was changed. (Instead of roasting, say, baking in a covered pot.) As a result, many varied versions of the recipe now exist that we have a record of.

As Jews migrated in the past across the Indian Ocean basin, other recipes probably went through similar shifts. We are lucky to have a sense of it with stuffed chicken – and the copious writing of Baghdadi Jews across the region to tell us about it. Here, we can see an example of how a recipe might have travelled. Now, too, though those Jewish communities are mostly elsewhere, other recipes travel among those countries’ majorities too. Whereas in the 19th century, it was a stuffed chicken, now, it is noodle dishes with vegetables – brought from Southeast Asia through South Asia to become popular in the Middle East. Perhaps the noodles could be a chicken filling?

If you want to read more about the Indian Ocean trading economy, Dan Brockett’s Twitter thread is an incredible place to start. I also talked about this last year in a post about Southeast Asian ingredients in Jewish cooking.

For samosas: on Netflix, there is a cute Indian series called Itihaas ki Thali se, with short animated films on the history of various South Asian delicacies. It is in Hindi with English subtitles. There is a really fun samosa episode, that makes for a perfect break between episodes on a Netflix binge, before you realize that you should make some food – or get some prepared food.

For cinnamon, see my book recommendations for unlearning myths about Medieval Jewish cuisine.

For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food has a recipe. I have not had the time or energy to try it yet – to say the least, it is not a recipe one simply walks into the kitchen to make. So, here, I leave you to the trusted care of Queen Claudia, who I trust with all my heart to guide you like the captain of a ship on calm waters.

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