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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Glimpses of the Jewish Kitchen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Just like many nerdy New Yorkers, I spend a fair amount of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are so many beautiful things to see and histories to learn there. Anyway, since apparently I cannot stop thinking about Jewish food at any point, I decided to spot some Jewish ties with various objects throughout the museum on a recent visit. Many of the things we consider “high art” today once had functional purposes – especially the ceramic, metal, and glass ware we now peer at through glass protective cases. These functions were, of course, largely for the upper crust of society – and in this case I will be generally referring to wealthier Jews. It should be noted that we do find plenty of “ordinary people” pottery and cookware in archaeological sites – they just do not make the vaunted cases of the world’s great museums.

Let us go take a look.

Brass ewer for wine or sherbets, 13th-century Iran

Brass ewer with harpies and astrological signs and a fluted neck

The object: A brass ewer with detailed mural-like inlays of silver and other compounds. The complex design includes medallion vines with rabbit heads, zodiacs with the planets, and harpies and astrological imagery. All of these were considered highly auspicious in the context of 13th-century Iran, and may be considered akin to similar decorative work on Kiddush cups today. (Jews, too, are superstitious.)

The Jewishness: Ewers and jugs like this would have been used for ritual purposes in many wealthier homes – especially for Kiddush wine. In addition, silver and silverwork was commonly a Jewish industry in many cities.

Iznik plates, Ottoman Empire, 16th century

A floral plate from Iznik with a bird and flowers and plants, blue pattern on the rim.
(Image public domain via Metropolitan Museum)

The objects: A circular stonepaste plate with a colorful pattern of flowers and birds. The plate was made in the late 16th century in Iznik, which was the center of the Ottoman pottery industry. Iznik ware was popular across the empire and abroad, and was influenced by prior Arab and Persian practices, as well as Chinese porcelain traded along the Silk Road.

The Jewishness: Iznik had a thriving Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, many of whom would have traded these wares to other centers in Thessaloniki, Izmir, and abroad. Later, plates like this would become a “template” for early Zionists to use for serving “new Israeli cuisine.”

Porcelain teapots from China and Japan, and the German, English, French, and Dutch factories that imitated them, 18th century

12 porcelain teapots, some from China and Japan and some European imitations, in a glass case. Several are blue and have floral patterns.

The objects: This display compares imported Chinese and Japanese teapots with the European factories that imitated them in the 18th century. Porcelain was a luxury good, and the method for making it was originally invented in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), and a significant industry developed in modern-day Jiangxi province during the Song (960-1279 CE) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties. The technique spread to Korea in the medieval era and then to Japan in the 17th century. From there, the Dutch East India Company took porcelain wares back to Europe, where they met incredible demand from the élite of the day. A decades-long process began to establish porcelain manufacture in Europe, which was finally started in Meissen in Saxony in 1710. From there, porcelain spread across Europe – though it was still heavily imported from China and Japan as well. In this age, European élites underwent both a culinary revolution and an aesthetic one. First, they began to drink tea – newly imported in the 17th century – in larger quantities. In addition, Orientalism took hold as Europeans sought to imitate a rather paternalistic fantasy of “the East.” As a result, European factories plagiarized or imitated Chinese and Japanese imports to meet this dual demand.

The Jewishness: Tea is consumed traditionally in dozens of Jewish communities, and the consumption of tea greatly expanded in the 17th century among Russian and Sephardi Jews. Jewish communities in Uzbekistan and Georgia were involved in the Silk Road trade and many Jews in maritime and overland trade with Asia, including that of porcelain.

French porcelain partial tea service used in 18th-century America

French porcelain teapot, cup and saucer with a gold and black pattern

The object: This is a beautifully decorated porcelain teapot, cup, and saucer, from an 18th-century French factory, with a gold-and-back floral theme sparsely laid on a white background. Such examples come from the aforementioned European porcelain industry, which moved from “Chinoiserie” Orientalist designs to more localized European examples through the 18th century. These pieces are examples of the latter. This particular group belonged to the Loyalist Verplanck family in New York in the late 18th century, who was given the full tea service by the British commander of forces in New York, Sir William Howe.

The Jewishness: As mentioned above, tea consumption spiked in the 17th century among Jewish communities. By the 18th century, a small minority of Jews was wealthy enough to drink tea like the Christian élites they partly assimilated into. This sort of tea service would easily have appeared at the table of the Nathans or other wealthy Jewish families in 18th-century New York.

Pennsylvania Redware, 18th century

A large case with about 20 pieces of Pennsylvania redware dishware

The objects: German immigrants in 18th-century Pennsylvania began manufacturing practical ceramic wares from local red clay found throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, which soon gave rise to a local style now known as “Pennsylvania Redware.” These plates, bowls, and cups often utilized a technique known elsewhere as sgraffito, which involves scratching through one level of clay slip to reveal a lower level of slip. The ceramics were largely made for a local American market, which was readily receptive. Though these plates are from the 18th century, the industry’s golden age was in the early 19th century after American independence.

The Jewishness: The same wealthy families that might have owned the French tea service would have easily possessed some Pennsylvania Redware for everyday use – and middle-class families may have served their Shabbat and weekday meals on plates like these as well.

Spanish inlaid plates and bowls, 14th century

The objects: Inlaid plates and bowls with decorative patterns from Southern Spain in the 14th century, when the region was still under Almohad rule. The style of pottery is now known as Hispano-Moresque, and utilizes detailed patterning, tin glazes, and often a metallic after-glaze. In its era it was already a luxury good, and these wares influenced Italian styles that later became known as maiolica in the 16th century.

The Jewishness: The 14th century was the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry – and not only were some Spanish Jews wealthy enough to have owned such plates and bowls, but many more were involved in the production of such wares. Pottery and ceramics have been a Jewish industry since ancient times, and medieval Spain was no exception.

Farissol Haggadah, 16th century

A man holding maror in the Farissol Haggadah with Hebrew text on parchment
Image JTS via Forward.

The object: This is an incredible illuminated Haggadah from 15th-century Italy. The order of the Passover (Pesakh) Seder ritual is not only written, but accompanied by gilded and painted images from the story of the Exodus and of the Passover ritual foods. The margins also contain micrographic illustrations.

The Jewishness is obvious.

Images all mine, July 2017, unless otherwise noted.

Lentils With Okra

In much of the Jewish world, the Rosh HaShanah menu tends to skew heavily towards meat. Among Ashkenazim, brisket and tzimmes cooked with meat are almost de rigueur – and are sometimes combined into one dish. In Morocco, a delicious tagine with prunes is the custom; among Persian Jews, there is even a tradition to eat cow’s lung.  Then, of course, there are also all of the traditions with fish: the fish’s head for a good “head of the year,” gefilte fish and forshmak (chopped herring) among Ashkenazim as appetizers, or spicy hraime in the Libyan and Tunisian traditions. Suffice it to say that Rosh HaShanah is not the most vegetarian-friendly of holidays.

Assembling the ingredients - lentils, okra, onions, spices.
Assembling the ingredients – lentils, okra, onions, spices. (Photo mine, August 2016)
So, what to cook for your vegetarian friends and relatives – or yourself, if you are vegetarian? There are, of course, many options, but I am going to suggest this very simple adaptation of a Indian recipe: lentils with okra. Both lentils and okra are traditional in many Jewish cuisines, and both have that wonderful ability of being very easy to cook, yet tasting like something very complex indeed. I make a simpler version of this recipe quite regularly for guests, and the contrast of the green okra chunks against the brown lentils can, with a bit of arrangement, be beautiful. The original recipe I used many years ago had a completely different spice mixture; for this recipe I used a more Middle Eastern combination with sumac and paprika.
Cooked lentils and okra close-up with cilantro
The final product – the bright green is cilantro. (Photo mine, August 2016)
Lentils symbolize plenty to some, but unlike other beans in some Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, they are not actually a traditional Rosh HaShanah food. Instead, many consider the lentil to be a food of mourning, and eat lentils both during the shiva for a deceased relative, and at the traditional meal preceding the fast of Tisha b’Av. However, lentils also can and do show up on the table at joyous occasions – and perhaps, with this recipe, at yours as well.

Lentils with Okra

1 medium white onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound okra, chopped into chunks*

2 tsp table salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp ground sumac (optional)

½ tsp ground thyme

1 tbsp white wine or rice vinegar

1½ cups dried lentils

3 cups water or vegetable stock

 

Olive or vegetable oil

Fresh cilantro (for garnish)

  1. Heat a deep saucepan, then coat the bottom with oil. Add the onions and garlic and begin to sauté.
  2. When the onions begin to soften, add the okra and mix thoroughly while sautéing.
  3. After the okra is mixed in thoroughly, add and mix in the salt, pepper, paprika, turmeric, cumin, sumac, and thyme. Sauté for two minutes.
  4. When the onions are significantly softer (beginning to brown under the spices), and the spices are sticking to the okra and onions, add the vinegar. Sauté for another two minutes, or until the okra begins to “look” and feel slightly softer against your mixing implement.
  5. Add the lentils and mix in, then add the water.
  6. Bring the mixture to a boil. Then, simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils have absorbed most of the water and are soft, and the okra is soft. Stir every few minutes. (If the lentils and okra are very soft, and you still have some water left over, you can add 1 teaspoon of cornstarch or ground kuzu root to thicken the sauce.)
  7. Garnish with plenty of cilantro. Serve hot.

 

* The starch in the lentils naturally offsets the “slimy” part of the okra. If you want to know how to prepare okra to be less slimy, go to my bamia con limon recipe from January.