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.

Advertisements

The Southeast Asian Origins of Jewish Cooking

I first ask my readers to forgive the click-bait title. This post is a look at the various ingredients in Jewish cuisines that were first domesticated in Southeast Asia. It is not a crackpot attempt to attribute Jews to an origin in that region. It should be noted that this attempt probably exists somewhere.

Many foods that we think of as “classically” or “immemorially” Jewish are assumed to have originated at some point in Europe or the Middle East. Indeed, a few things do originate in these areas; rosemary, wheat, chestnuts, rye, and onions are among them. Yet others come from further afield. For example, apricots are from China, apples from Kazakhstan, buckwheat from Siberia or Korea, and potatoes, tomatoes, and corn all come from the New World. And a whole host of foods come from Southeast Asia. Yes, you read correctly, Southeast Asia. Though long assumed in the popular imagination to have been relatively isolated before about 2000 years ago, Southeast Asia is actually the origin of many of our most cherished ingredients. I define Southeast Asia with the common academic definition: Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, and East Timor. These countries share a common history of Indianization (except Vietnam) and colonialism, were often parts of the same pre-modern trade networks based on the use of the Malay and Sanskrit languages, and share similar families of climates and crops. It is from this region that much of modern food began.

Map of southeast asia, with the eleven countries and their capitals
Map of Southeast Asia (Cacahuate via Wikimedia/CC)

The trade and exchange of foodstuffs – and their spread – has occurred for several millennia. Initially, it started quite simply: one would give the other, say, a tasty nut in exchange for a bolt of cloth. By the time of the Romans, trade networks were bringing spices all the way across Eurasia and sending back bolts of cloth. Among the spices and cloth and other goods were also various crops and animals that would be quickly adopted – for their taste, their ease, or their popularity. Some of these came from Southeast Asia and traveled a long, intermediary-filled journey to Europe and North Africa.

The role of Southeast Asia in much of world history – and especially that in food and material culture – has been obscured for several reasons. One is that a lot of the physical evidence is inaccessible: documents and structures decay due to moisture and termites in the tropics, which is a challenge for anyone studying the medieval or ancient eras in tropical environments. (Even if we have copious evidence of advanced civilizations.) Secondly, of course, is racism and colonialism: other than Thailand, the region’s eleven countries were all colonized by European powers for significant amounts of time. Our Eurocentric food history has left little room for the true and magnificent tales of the peoples who Europe colonized – and brutally so. Finally, there is simply not yet enough work done on how the trade networks that spanned from the Moluccas to Portugal operated before the modern era. We have an idea, but because of the decay and Eurocentric history, our picture of food trade and agricultural ideas in Southeast Asia and anywhere that is not Europe or Northern Asia is sadly deeply incomplete – even as we know from archaeology and anecdotes that this was deeply important.

But that is enough blathering from me. You, I am sure, want to know the foods I am discussing! What was traded and spread from their original homes in Southeast Asia?

Chicken

Confused chicken looking quizzically at camera
This rooster cannot believe his 23andMe report! (Matt Davis via Flickr/CC, March 2012)

Chicken is often seen as an ancient food in the Middle East and Europe – after all, the Egyptians consumed it – but it originates somewhere in Southeast Asia. There is a bit of a debate as to whether it was first domesticated in what is now Thailand, what is now southwestern China, or what is now Sumatra in Indonesia. Like many crops such as corn and wheat, it is likely that there were several moments of domestication. Maritime peoples spread the useful bird wherever they went: speakers of Austronesian languages took chickens from Southeast Asia to East Africa and Madagascar at one extreme, and through the South Pacific to Ecuador on the other. Indian traders brought the bird through India to the Middle East, from which it was brought to Europe. Chickens were likely somewhat known to Jews in the First Temple period and were certainly present by the Roman era, and have remained popular in the Mediterranean ever since. (Geese were more common in Eastern Europe, where chickens were a somewhat rare luxury.)

Citrus

Etrog on a branch
Etrog (Daniel Ventura via Wikimedia CC)

The lemon and orange are quintessentially Mediterranean. They are also Burmese. Well, not quite – but the likely origin of all citrus fruits is somewhere in what is Burma today. Back then, it was just the citron. From Southeast Asia, traders brought it to the Middle East by ancient times, where citrons – called Etrog in Hebrew – became indispensable for the rituals of the holiday Sukkot. Greeks and Romans then grew citrons in their areas, but only Jews continued to grow citrus fruits in Europe through much of the Middle Ages. Arab rules reintroduced citrus fruits to Spain during the Moorish period in Spain, by which time talented farmers had developed lemons and oranges in India and on the Arabian Peninsula. Other lovely citrus fruits, like the lime and kumquat, were bred elsewhere. Jewish communities across the world not only used citrus fruit for rituals, but inserted citrus at various levels in everyday cuisine. Marmalade was initially introduced by Portuguese Jews to the rest of Europe, where it became very popular among Jews and non-Jews alike.

Coconut

Green coconuts with the tops peeled off
These coconuts are not quite ready to be turned into Passover macaroons! (Photo MaxPixel/CC)

Coconuts likely originated in the region of Sumatra or Peninsular Malaysia. They were spread initially by the sea – coconuts can float in the sea and stay fertile despite being salty for 120 days. The coconut was a pretty popular foodstuff wherever it was adopted, and from India and Indonesia it spread throughout the Indian Ocean basin and the tropical Pacific. Spanish and Portuguese traders later brought it to the Americas. In Jewish cuisine, until the late 19th century, it was mostly only present in communities where coconuts were common, in India and coastal Yemen. Coconuts were found in curries, chutneys, and stews. However, dried coconut spread in the 19th century around the world, and began to be commonly incorporated in Jewish baked goods. Machines to more efficiently process coconut were invented by American Jews in the late 19th century, which led to the popularization of coconut in cold climates. Coconut milk also emerged as a popular pareve substitute for milk.

Sugarcane

Sugar cane crop with mountain in background at Cairns, QLD.
Sugarcane in Queensland, Australia (Photo Gregory Heath/CSIRO)

Sugar has a long and checkered history that all begins with the independent domestication of sugar cane at several locations across what is now Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The use of sugar and sugarcane spread from there to India by ancient times, and with Arab traders during the Umayyad Caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa to Spain. From there, colonizing European powers took sugarcane to the New World – which also accelerated the institutionalization of the slave trade. (Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power is an informative history here.) Growing and refining sugar was backbreaking, dangerous labor that Europeans were only too happy to slough off to enslaved people. Jews in Suriname were among these slaveholders. By this time, Jews had already developed a taste for sugar in Spain during the Moorish period – and after the expulsion, they took sweets made from sugar and the use of sugar as a spice everywhere they went. Sugar in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was sourced until recently from beets.

Bananas

Purple bananas and banana leaves on a table.
Not your Curious George banana – these are purple bananas and leaves for sale at a market in Thailand. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

This is a bit of a controversial inclusion: bananas were domesticated in what is now New Guinea, which is usually not considered Southeast Asia. (Definitions vary.) Evidence of domestication of bananas and sugar cane comes from the Kuk Swamp in the highland regions of Papua New Guinea from several thousand years ago, and it is likely that domestication occurred independently at several places through the island. Contrary to popular assumptions about “uncontacted peoples,” New Guinean people traded with peoples to the east and west, and bananas reached Indonesia and the Philippines no later than four thousand years ago. By the medieval era, banana leaves were in frequent use as plates, food wrappers, and materials across the Indian Ocean basin – and bananas were a popular staple food as well. Jewish communities in India and the Arab world did eat some bananas, but bananas really “took off” with their introduction to the Americas in the 16th century, and their incorporation into local diets across the Americas. Immigrant Jews adopted bananas quickly upon arrival into the United States and Argentina, and the banana found itself both as a beloved snack and incorporated in baked goods.

Taro

Taro plants with big leaves
Taro leaves – yes, they are that big. (Photo Pixabay 2016)

Another controversial inclusion for a different reason: many people do not realize that yes, Jewish communities cook with taro! Taro was initially domesticated at least three times, in Northeast India, New Guinea, and in what is now Malaysia or Indonesia. The starchy roots are stunningly portable; hence, it spread quickly across tropical and semi-tropical regions, and was established from Polynesia all the way to Ancient Egypt and Cyprus. The Romans ate it much as Italians eat potatoes today. Taro’s use in Europe mostly declined after the fall of the Roman Empire, although it remained common in Portugal. Today, most North Americans associate taro with Chinese cooking. Egyptian, Indian, and Syrian Jews have all historically used taro in hearty stews.

Cloves and Nutmeg

Medieval illumination of noblemen in traditional tunics and boots around tables eating meats and breads under trees and drinking. Dogs are drinking at a creek in the foreground. The trees are tall and in full foliage, the image has red and blue illuminated borders.
Noblemen eating a sumptuous picnic that may have included some cloves and nutmeg because they could. Note: this was not normal. (Image from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus, 15th century.)

Cloves and nutmeg are both native to Indonesia – cloves to Ternate and Tidore, and nutmeg to the Banda Islands. I talked about the history of the spice trade around these in a post on medieval cuisine last year. Both have been part of Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines for centuries, and became incorporated into some Ashkenazi dishes after the 18th century. Dutch Jews and Arab Jews use cloves especially in savory dishes. The love of cloves, in fact, also goes back as far as Biblical times – evidence of cloves from the period has been found in the Holy Land. For thousands of years,

Indonesia was the only source for both spices, and an entire trade network built up between the Molucca Islands and Europe and North Africa, trading the spices. The Dutch used brute violence and genocide to establish a monopoly during the 17th century, which also encouraged other European powers to transplant nutmeg and cloves elsewhere.

Black Pepper

Illuminated section of manuscript of Latin calligraphy, laid on a cerulean blue tile. Top section is drawings of unicorns on a blue background. Bottom section is serpents wrapped around frond-like trees on red ground.
To be fair, a snake around the tree is easier than some pepper grinders. This is what medieval Europeans thought getting pepper entailed: snakes around trees and unicorns! (Photo from 12th-century “Marvels of the East”)

Black pepper is native to South India and Sumatra, where locals figured out that the dried berries of the pepper plant add a wonderful spark to food. By the high ages of New Kingdom Egypt (mid-2nd millennium BCE), a thriving trade in pepper stretched across the Middle East. Greeks, Romans, and Medieval Europeans all loved pepper – and used it heavily in foods. Jews, too: it was the traditional prized flavoring of German and Lithuanian Jewry. In fact, it was pepper that spurred Europe’s first colonial ventures, in part – the Portuguese went on their sailing adventures, as did the Spaniards, partly in pursuit of pepper. Today, black pepper is used across Jewish cuisine – but especially in Ashkenazi cooking, in which it is the main source of piquancy. And though most Europeans moved away from heavily spiced food in the 18th century, many Jewish communities continue to use black pepper in quantities now unknown in Europe, but still common in India. In Southeast Asia, the chili pepper – native to Mexico – has taken predominance.


If you want to read more about the history of cooking, Southeast Asia, and trade of foodstuffs in the ancient and medieval Old World, I highly recommend the following resources: