Jews From Cochin Bring Their Unique Indian Cuisine to Israeli Diners
On a moshav in southern Israel, the women behind Matamey Cochin keep alive the flavors of an ancient Jewish community
Nehemia admits that for many years she didn’t cook this kind of food at all, and the group opened her up to her own tradition: “My kids grew up on schnitzel and mashed potatoes, like all Israeli children. After we started this project I found out that my grown-up daughter does like Cochini food and is eager to learn how to cook it. It is important to us to teach the next generation how to make this food, otherwise our culinary tradition will disappear forever.” Bat Zion Elias agreed: “In Nevatim and other settlements in which we are the majority, like Aviezer, Ta’oz, or Mesilat Zion, our cooking tradition still exists. But in places where Cochin Jews live among other ethnic groups, and where the young generation intermarries, it is starting to die out.”
There used to be a restaurant called Cochin in Kfar Yuval, a moshav in the Galilee panhandle, but it doesn’t exist anymore. Nowadays it seems the only other place to eat Cochini food in Israel besides Nevatim is at a similar set-up in moshav Mesilat Zion, near Beit Shemesh. This is also called Matamey Cochin, although it has no connection to the women of Nevatim, and is privately owned. “My family and I host homemade Cochini meals in our backyard for about seven years, maybe more,” said Benny Aline, the owner of Matamey Cochin in Mesilat Zion. “We cater to groups of at least 10 people, and usually 20 to 30 people. We get internal tourism as well as tourists from abroad, who come here to taste something new and different.”
Both Aline and the women of Nevatim sometimes venture outside of their home turf to sell their food at various food events and festivals, but when striving to preserve a dying tradition, festivals, workshops, and group meals aren’t enough. In Israel only one Cochin cookbook has ever been published: Eti Gilad’s The Cochin Cuisine, which was published independently in 2007 and has long been out of print.
“My personal drive was to document and preserve the tradition of the Cochin Jews and its culinary aspects,” Gilad, head of the Institute for Gender Research at Achva College of Education, told me. When I asked her what is so special about Cochin cuisine and why it should be of any interest to the outside world, Gilad—who was born in Cochin and immigrated to Israel with her parents when she was 4 years old—talked about healthy kosher food, much of it suitable for vegetarians (it has some meat and fish, but a lot of it is based on fruit and vegetables). “One of the interesting things about Cochin cooking is the use of coconut, in all its variations,” Gilad told me. “I got a call from Mea Shearim telling me I saved them, because coconut milk is a great substitute for milk in kosher cooking. Another interesting thing is our use of onions. We brown large quantities of onions, and then cook vegetables or whatever it is we are cooking in the onion juice, instead of cooking in water. A lot of our dishes are cooked this way, and it gives them a very distinct and special flavor.”
Gilad grew up in Yesud HaMa’ala and resides in Rehovot, but of course she has visited Nevatim many times and eaten at Matamey Cochin. “The most striking thing about the experience of eating there was the freshness,” she marveled. “In India we didn’t have refrigerators and the food was prepared before each meal. Freshness is one of the main principles of our cuisine, and the women of Nevatim are very strict about that. When you eat food with spices that have been pulverized on the spot, and not bought at the supermarket and kept in the fridge, or when you eat freshly baked bread, you can taste the difference, and of course everything is much healthier. It requires a lot of work, but the women of Nevatim do it with tremendous love.”
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