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PASSOVER IN INDIA : Why is this night different from all others? Because we're eating coconut rice.

March 24, 1991|JULIE SAHNI

On the tropical west coast of India, tucked away amid the vast Hindu population, there is a tiny but ancient community of Jews. You won't find chopped liver, potato pancakes or brisket of beef there, nor matzo ball soup. They serve molagachi (mahogany chicken with black pepper), ellegal (spice-rubbed fish in cool herb salsa), masalachi (mutton braised with garlic and coriander) and appam (coconut crepes with date sauce).

The oldest colony of Jews in India is known as the Bene Israel. Their origin is shrouded in mystery, but their traditions say they came in the second century B.C. and were shipwrecked at Konkan on the Malabar coast. The seven men and women who survived the disaster established the community, and today a memorial stands where, according to tradition, the bodies of those who were lost at sea are buried.

The second group--known as the Cochini Jews--say they arrived on the Malabar coast shortly after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Pardesi Synagogue in Cochin, which is of undetermined age--the present building dates from the 16th Century, but it preserves stone from a more ancient structure--has been designated a National Treasure of India. Iraqi and European Jews came later, in the last several centuries.

The Bene Israel and Cochini Jews remained relatively unknown to the Western world until recently, when they began to make an exodus from India to Israel and the United States, where they settled mainly in Los Angeles and New York City. Although temperamentally and linguistically similar to the Hindus, Indian Jews possess distinctly different customs and traditions, as well as a cuisine that is a wonderful amalgam of Indo-Jewish flavors.

"We are religious, of course," Sattoo Sabattai Koder explained to me in his centuries-old family house in Cochin, "but not orthodox." A stately looking gentleman dressed in a mondoo (the Malabari sarong), Rabbi Koder belongs to a family that traditionally provides wardens of the Pardesi Synagogue. He explained that Indian Jews strictly observe the Sabbath and its customs as well as Kashrut (Kosher laws), and the major Jewish festivals. But they have also adopted elements of India's secular spirit.

Hindu India, where everyone is born into one caste or another, not only allows but positively encourages ethnic groups to maintain their own traditions. As a result, Indian Jews socialize freely with other communities, celebrate each other's festivals and feast together without suffering from the ancient fear of unknowingly violating a dietary law. "It is commonly understood that everyone will respect and abide by mutual dietary codes," said Koder.

For the past two years I have had the good fortune to be invited to celebrate Passover with Indian Jews at Congregation Bina in New York City. I have watched spellbound as the congregation made its holiday preparations. The men in the congregation softy hummed songs of Exodus to Indian melodies while women in flowing silk saris and sparking jewelry prepared the Seder platter.

This platter has six ritual foods: lamb shank bone and roasted eggs to symbolize sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem; romaine lettuce in remembrance of the bitterness of slavery; celery for hope and the new growth of spring; date jam with walnuts to represent the mortar and bricks with which Jewish slaves worked for the Egyptians; lime juice to represent the tears shed by the Jews during this period of slavery; and matzo, the unleavened bread baked hurriedly by the Jews in exodus.

"Our ceremonies are never so ultraconservative that they interfere with the spirit of the people," explained Elijah E. Jhirad, co-founder and president of Congregation Bina. Jhirad had very kindly made me, a non-Jew, a member of his congregation.

"It is traditional to prepare lamb this day," said Julie Samson, a congregation who had prepared this Seder feast. "It is a Sephardic custom followed in remembrance of the paschal sacrifice."

It was impossible not to be intoxicated by the hypnotic scents of spices and herbs that emanated from the Seder table laden with dishes such as lamb braised with spices and fried onions, a layered casserole of hot sauteed fish and cool greens perfumed with dill and mint, a soul-soothing pot of spicy okra and a plate of coconut rice.

Since the Jewish communities in India are generally coastal, their cuisine is based largely upon the fish that abound in coastal waters. In addition, Indian Jews are rice-eaters, and they include rice at Passover in innumerable delicacies, from elaborate meat pilafs and casseroles to puddings, muffins and cakes. Non-dairy products such as coconut, almond and soybean milk are used for making gravies and creamy sauces, while fragrant oils of peanut, mustard, and sesame seeds lend light, spring-like flavors to dishes. Indian Jews, like other Indians, love tropical fruits--juicy ripe mangoes in particular.

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