It is early morning in Kalwa, India, and the scent of ginger and cardamom, coriander and turmeric already perfume the air. A group of women sit on the floor, sifting through lentils, peeling almonds, and chatting amongst themselves. Others tend to one of several industrial-sized pots simmering away on the stove, or stir grated coconut into sizzling butter to enliven its fragrant sweetness. The mood in the kitchen is jovial but focused. After all, these women are cooking for very important customers—kids.
Meet the Masala Mamas, a group of 16 women who come together each school day to prepare fresh meals for hundreds of children attending classes in one of Mumbai’s urban slums. The dishes, things like griddled chapatti bread, coconut and cauliflower curry, vegetable biryani, and grated carrot and cashew pudding, fuel the students for the day. And in a neighborhood where resources are scarce, the promise of a hot, home-cooked meal gives parents extra incentive to send their kids to school.
Meanwhile, the daily ritual of cooking also gives the women a reason to convene with one another. Nearly all of them left their ancestral villages and relocated in Kalwa in order to provide their children with greater educational access. In the process of moving, they left behind fresh air and land, but also generations of cultural knowledge and values that come with living in a particular place. This kind of consistent community is priceless.
Last month, a cookbook called Masala Mamas: Recipes and Stories from Indian Women Changing Their Communities Through Food and Love was published to bring these women’s daily culinary heroism to a broader audience. “I wanted to capture [their stories] and share them with the world—to honor the women for who they are,” said editor Dr. Elana Sztokman, an Israel-based writer and anthropologist who’s work primarily focuses on gender and religion.
Sztokman’s husband Jacob founded Gabriel Project Mumbai, an NGO dedicated to promoting education and health for children living in the city’s slums—including through the Masala Mama’s work. “Of all the the amazing projects that GPM is working on, this is the one that touched my heart the most,” Sztokman said. So she decided to undertake the formidable task of translating the women’s traditional recipes, and the culinary wisdom contained within them, for home cooks around the world.
Masala Mamas is not an overtly “Jewish” cookbook, in that it does not set out to capture the traditional dishes of India’s historic Jewish communities. But it is explicitly kosher. Since large swaths of Indian cooking are vegetarian or do not mix milk and meat, many traditional dishes naturally accommodate Jewish dietary law. But Sztokman said some adjustments had to be made. “We received a few recipes for prawns, and we experimented with that,” she said. “We ended up using silken tofu, which has a remarkably similar texture once it is marinated and spiced.” A recipe for tofu “seafood” curry, for example, flavors the soft soybean curd with cumin, coriander, chili flakes, and turmeric.
Meanwhile, the values captured in the book’s pages—a commitment to family, community, and education, and the deep connections that can be formed through cooking and eating—will feel familiar to many Jewish readers.
Sztokman does not have a culinary background, and so wrote the book with home cooks like herself (who might otherwise be novices to India’s varied cuisines) in mind. Masala Mamas includes notes on ingredients—tamarind, split pigeon peas, mung beans, fenugreek—and how to work with them. It also includes a recipe for homemade paneer cheese, which is available for purchase in specialty food shops, but not typically with kosher certification. “It is actually quite easy to make and a fabulous addition to the kitchen,” Sztokman said.
Perhaps the most striking about the Masala Mamas cookbook is the full-color joy emanating from the pages. The recipes are interspersed with profiles of the women, and the book is ripe with vibrant photos that capture the spirit behind their labor. “Despite the fact that most of the women only have a few years of education and got married when they were teenagers…they have a clear idea of what they want. They are strong and smart and full of optimism,” Sztokman said. “Many wake up at 4:30 a.m. to start their work… They do this everyday, taking care of their families and of one another.”