How religious curbs lead to great food

By Vikram Doctor, TNN

As an enthusiastic omnivore I don’t like food bans of any kind. Yet I have to admit that food bans have often resulted in interesting culinary developments. For example, in Europe the Catholic Church’s proscription on eating meat on Fridays lead to the development of a huge range of fish dishes, especially salted and smoked ones for those with no easy access to the sea.

Brandade de morue, the thick smooth garlicky salt cod puree that is a great classic of French bistro cooking, is one result. Similarly Chinese Buddhists developed soya products in the most amazing ways, while Indian upvas cooking traditions have kept alive offbeat ingredients like water-chestnut flour and amaranth seeds.

But perhaps the two best examples of how bans have resulted in delicious and fascinating food are Jain cooking, with its ban on anything that remotely involves taking life, like root vegetables (little critters might get killed while you dig them up) or yoghurt left overnight (too alive), and Jewish cooking, with its complex set of Torah derived rules including bans on pork, on fish without scales (shark, shellfish) and on cooking milk and meat together. I’m not concerned at the moment with the logic of these bans, just their results, which have been detailed in two excellent books.

The Jain book is Dadima No Varso, which translates as grandmother’s legacy . My food writer friend Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal tipped me off to this book on Palanpuri Jain cooking that’s been privately produced by the Rachana Group of Women, lead by Nita S.Mehta, Rajul A. Gandhi and Dr.Satyavati S.Jhaveri. Palanpuri Jains are famous for the success they have achieved, particularly in the diamond trade, and clearly no cost has been spared in creating what is intended to be the definitive word on their cooking. And it is.

Dadima No Varso is amazing. It’s hardcover , 456 pages, with recipes in Gujarati on one page and in English on the facing page. It could have done with a bit more detailed introduction to the community and the roots of its cooking, but Palanpuris are famously businesslike, and the book gets straight to work. For all its sumptuous production it is also efficient, for example opting for line illustrations, always more useful than photographs for showing cutting and cooking techniques.

There’s a Gujarati-English glossary of ingredients, illustrations of all the traditional cooking utensils, cooking tips, sample menus and, most impressive of all, a set of two page photo spreads that detail not just the finished dishes but all the regularly used ingredients as well.

These sundried vegetables illustrate the double handicap the original Palanpuri cooks were working under, of not just religious restrictions, but also geographical ones. The semi-arid area they came from made a regular supply of fresh vegetables hard, so they had to depend on many dried ones, and also dhal and cereal products, much like the food of Rajasthan, which it borders.

Yet out of these handicaps they have created a wonderful cuisine, bursting with strong, unexpected, intense tastes, and also the textural variety that, as Vir Sanghvi has noted, is a distinctive aspect of Gujarati food. If there’s one dish I’d single out its jamphal nu shak, curried ripe guavas which are simultaneously spicy, sweet, but not in the sugary, and with an overall fresh, unexpected taste that is quite amazing. Most Palanpuri food is hard to get outside their homes, but this is available at Swati Snacks in Mumbai, where it’s called peru nu shak, and is brilliantly paired with the slightly bitter taste of methi rotis. Apart from its taste, it also demonstrates how open Jain food can be.

But human ingenuity always finds ways to work through the rules to find something good to eat, and Jains are always eager to find new ingredients they can use — guavas in an earlier generation , babycorn and broccoli today — or new ways of cooking, hence their enthusiasm for Jain pizza, Jain pasta, Jain bakes and more. Such food is often mocked in Mumbai, but it’s really one way a cuisine develops and this is how Jain cooking is going global. Jewish food has already undergone this process, though for grimmer reasons. The scattering , over centuries, of the diaspora meant that Jews had to deal with new foods and new settings in which to cook them, but they nearly always managed to do this while maintaining an allegiance to their dietary principles that Jains might well admire.

In fact, Jains and Jews do interact in interesting ways. In Antwerp, for example , where ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jews deal with Palanpuri Jains in the diamond district, I’m told that the understanding of the principle of dietary rules is one thing that helps the communities understand each other, even if the actual rules differ. I doubt the communities eat each other’s food, but apparently Jewish functions all feature separate buffets entirely for the Jains.

Meanwhile in India even the crossover to eating happens: Sharon Galsurkar who runs the Jewish community centre in Mumbai , told me that if the young Israeli tourists ask him how to keep kosher rules while travelling, he tells them to look for Jain restaurants since they can be sure food will all be broadly within kosher rules.

The working out of these varieties of Jewish food is the subject of one of the most fascinating food books ever written — Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food. Roden is one of the greats of food writing and someone I’ve been hooked onto ever since reading her wonderful short book Coffee years ago. More recently she published Arabesque, a book on the food of Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey, that was filled with historical details and explanations about the societies that developed these cuisines.

But The Book of Jewish Food, while took Roden 16 years to do, is her magnum opus. It is not just her discovery of the many strands of Jewish food, but also the new emphases she puts. International Jewish culture has historically been dominated by those from Northern and Eastern Europe, the Ashekenazim , but Roden’s roots, in Egypt, were with the southern Sephardim, and it is their cooking, from their communities on all the shores of the Mediterranean, and their even more exotic offshoots in Arabia, Iran, Georgia and India that form the heart of her book.

In each country the same pattern is played out, with local ingredients and recipes being adapted to kosher rules. In India, for example , the two Western Indian communities of Cochin Jews and the Bene Israeli of Maharashtra made much use of coconut milk to replace milk – making a kheer of coconut milk, for example.

Quite often the recipes can seem identical to other local recipes, especially for the Bene Israeli. Partly this is because they went native far earlier and more completely than other Jewish communities, but partly also because milk isn’t much used anyway along the Konkan coast. But there is always a twist at some point that relates it to the larger Jewish tradition, and the fascination of her book is seeing how this recurs, again and again, across countries. The recipes are also excellent, and if there’s one I’d suggest trying it’s her amazing orangealmond cake. It’s an interesting recipe — butter free, so it could be eaten after a meal with meat in it, and flour free, so can be eaten during Passover festival, when wheat is banned.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting.. I was always amused by seeing restrictions on Jewish food and you sort of brought a stark compare & contrast play to it.. Similarly.. I am still intrigued by some of their religious days & fasting like Yom Kippur its logic might seem to be distant cousin to Paryushan..