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Wine & Dine
March 19, 2020

Shabbat Salaam

An evening with Moshe Shek in the iconic Blue Synagogue gives Joanna Lobo an intimate look into the unique cultural fusion that is Mumbai’s Jewish cuisine and the traditions associated with it

The Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue stands tall and proud in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. A newly polished teal-and-white façade lends the World Heritage site a gleam that belies its 136 years. Everywhere in the vicinity is the bustle of hipster commercialisation. In contrast to the graffiti-covered walls around it, the synagogue bears the effects of a violent history: an ugly police cordon at the entrance. But, this predominantly Baghdadi Jewish place of worship welcomes people of all faiths. Except on the weekends.

“Prayers are going on,” says the guard to inquisitive faces peeking in on Friday evening. He changes his language depending on the customer but the message is constant. The synagogue closes doors for Shabbat (or Sabbath), which starts from sunset on Friday evening till Saturday night. It is a day of rest for the Jewish and is dedicated to prayer.

As the community rests on the seventh day, Saturday, preparations for the Shabbat meal are done ahead of time. While peace and serenity permeate the prayer room of the synagogue, the kitchen downstairs is abuzz. It is here that a team — Hindus, Catholic and Jewish — is preparing the most important meal of the week. At the front is Chef Moshe Shek, known for his eponymous chain of restaurants. With him is Clera Lobo, a Mangalorean Catholic skilled at cooking Jewish food. They lead a team of five, every Friday, in preparing that night’s dinner and the Shabbat meal for Saturday.

It is into this hustle that I enter. I, a Roman Catholic, am here to learn about Bombay Jewish food. It is a term used broadly to describe the food of the Jewish community in the city, a delightful amalgamation of Judaic laws and culinary influences from the city they call home.

Mumbai is home to three Jewish sects: the Bene Israel, Baghdadi Jews and Cochin Jews, and each can trace their arrival in India back to centuries ago. The first two reside mainly over here, though the Bene Israel arrived off the Konkan coast first. The Baghdadis came into India from the Middle East and settled in emerging commercial centres — Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata). Baghdadi Jews follow the Sephardic way of cooking, bringing in recipes and ingredients from Israel and the Middle East and adding Indian flavours and spices to typical Iraqi and Syrian dishes.

Today, conservative estimates place Mumbai’s Jewish population at around 4000. The numbers are dwindling, but the community holds on to their religious and kosher (or kashrut) traditions. This can be witnessed in the preparation of the Shabbat meal.

The synagogue’s new kitchen is a shiny mass of polished stainless steel and modern equipment. There are stoves, an oven, a dough machine, several hot plates and steel filters for water. A set of knives sits on one wall; dabbas (lunch boxes) line shelves on another. One section of the kitchen is for cooking hot food; the other is for baking.

As I walk in, I divest myself of my bag and take the apron handed to me. I start my day in the cooking section, overseen by Clera. She is already hard at work; her hair is in a bun, and she is wearing an apron and sensible shoes. She has spent the last two days hauling in chickens and cleaning them for today. “It was very bloody…and tiring,” she says. Her hands are now a-blur, prepping the cleaned chicken. The bird is the star of the hamim (from the Hebrew word for ‘hot’), which is the Sephardic version of cholent, a uniquely Jewish dish prepared for Shabbat.

Jewish law does not permit cooking on Shabbat, so traditionally cooks would prepare meat and bean stews in heavy pots the day before and allow them to simmer in ovens overnight. The dish would be fully cooked by mealtime.

Here, Clera uses chicken for the hamim. Her recipe involves stuffing the bird with more chicken pieces, rice, tomatoes, spices and haldi. She then stitches the legs together to ensure the filling doesn’t spill out. By the side, she has made a heavy brown sauce with sautéed onions, tomatoes, ginger-garlic and spices. In a large container, she puts in the onion mixture, chicken, water and salt. When it starts to boil, she adds the rice, covers the dish and keeps it on a low flame. Once the dish cooks, it is kept on a hot plate or in an oven to stay warm till service. It is accompanied by boiled eggs, sometimes boiled potatoes, and a chutney of coriander seeds, fresh coriander and lime. “This is the main dish for tomorrow’s meal. It needs attention as it has to be perfect. There are many small things to take note of, so I prefer doing it myself,” she says.

Clera, 52, has been preparing the Shabbat meal for the synagogue for 10 years and has never felt the two faiths — her Catholic one and the one she cooks for — to be at odds. She has been cooking Jewish food all her life. She started working at just 15, frying up samosas and vadas (“We used to call her Samosa Miss,” says Moshe) at Hill Grange High School on Peddar Road, founded and run by Sophie Kelly, an influential member of the Baghdadi Jewish community. Though she would typically cook snacks like chutney sandwiches, vadas and samosas, Clera’s attention had been on the Jewish food being cooked in Kelly’s kitchen. She began to observe the preparations and soon became adept at cooking the dishes herself. Then she met the sisters of Solomon F. Sopher (president of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Mumbai), who shared their culinary knowledge with her. A quick study, Clera joined the Sopher household, helping to prepare the Shabbat and other festive meals. “I can cook most Jewish dishes. But ask me about anything Mangalorean and I am clueless,” she says with a chuckle.

Coincidentally, the next item on her list, the potato chop, finds a place in Mangalorean, Goan and even East Indian homes. But the Jewish version is slightly different. The stuffing is chicken with coriander (“Lots of it”). The chops go into an egg wash, are rolled in crumbs (powdered matzah — a crisp unleavened flatbread) and fried in hot oil till brown.

Baghdadi Jews prefer eating chicken, so the bird features in several dishes. It’s in the kubbah — a ball of minced chicken, celery and onion, covered in semolina and cooked in a spicy curry or soup, with vegetables. Every Shabbat meal has a kubbah: the stuffing is the same, vegetables change according to the season. To make the kubbah, Clera prepares a paste of raw rice and water, forms a ball and stuffs it with the chicken mixture. “It’s a dish that goes well with everything. You have meat and rice and veggies together. It’s very filling,” she says.

This spicy kubbah, made today with cluster beans, becomes our afternoon lunch. Clera doesn’t take a break to eat; she prefers munching on bhel because “it’s healthy”. For the night meal, Clera has also prepared a chicken biryani. On other days, she serves fried fish — marinated in haldi and salt — or a fish curry. “The Jewish people I cook for love fish curry, fish fry and pulao. I give them these dishes and they’re in heaven,” she says.

Though there is a team to prep and fry and arrange things, Clera bustles about, overseeing everything. She’s busy tasting the simmering dishes, monitoring the hamim, mixing chutney and forming chops. I assist her in minor tasks, chopping, clearing things, dipping chops in an egg bath. “Whatever is eaten and served has to be done according to tradition,” she repeats, like a mantra. A few kosher traditions are followed when cooking meals: the meat and fish have to be kosher, meals should be cooked before sunset, and no fire or flame is to be used on the Shabbat. And, there has to be a Jewish person present to light the stove and to oversee things. Enter Moshe.

Moshe is widely considered as one of the first celebrity chefs in India. He worked at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai; The Langham, London; started a tiffin service; and moved to Israel to work at the Hilton, Tel Aviv. Back in Mumbai, he set up Athena resto-bar, Basilico and the first of his restaurant chain, Moshe’s. A recluse compared to his peers, he resurfaced a few years back to offer cooking classes at his home in Alibaug. These days, he is in the final stages of setting up the kitchen and dining room at the synagogue and preparing for the future. “I want to open this place up to people to come and dine, at least three times a week,” he says. He is also setting up a bakery in Vashi and an office in Kala Ghoda and has ambitious plans for other restoration projects. But on Fridays, Moshe is at the synagogue, doing what he loves best: baking. His biggest task for the day is preparing the challah (a slightly sweetish bread typically eaten on ceremonial occasions). His challah is so beloved that people often ask him for doggy bags, and I am one of them. But, to earn the bread, I have to learn to make it.

Moshe has prepared the dough which rests in a big pot. An hour later, he removes it, adds some oil and kneads it. It is then weighed and divvied up and kept to rest once more. Though he has set alarms on his phone, Moshe instinctively knows when it is time to work on the dough again. To form the challah, I have to first beat out the air from the dough, roll it out into three long pieces and then braid it. The braid is significant; it represents the unbreakable bonds of the family. My shapes aren’t as clean as Moshe’s, who completes three in the time it takes me to make one. “It takes patience and a lot of practice,” he tells me. The dough is kept to rest a third time.

In my honour, Moshe decides to try making the Goan poee (a pita-like bread with a cavity in the centre, made from whole-wheat flour). Goa is a favourite destination; he usually visits it once a year and if he had been given the chance, he would have settled down there. “Every time there was a menu change in the restaurants, I used to pack my bags and my notebook, go to Goa and sit and think. I took a week to myself. It always helped,” he says. Today, that notebook includes a recipe for poee. He measures out the ingredients and starts kneading the dough himself. We shape it together, dusting it with bran to give that textured look. Once the bread is in the oven, I stand by and wait for it to bake. Moshe points to the water at the bottom of the oven, which is important because the steam helps in creating a crust. As I watch, the challah rises and the braids sport stretch marks. “It’s because they were too tight.” When the challah is hot, it is sprinkled with sesame seeds, and brushed with an egg wash till it glistens in the glaring kitchen light.

As he applies these finishing touches to the challah and poee, Clera and the team are busy clearing things away. Foil covers the finished dishes, and these get placed in the order of the meal. Some food is packed and sent to people who cannot make it for dinner. The whole place is cleaned and washed down. But, before that, there is a break.

Rest, I soon realise, is important in this kitchen. People take turns to eat lunch so the work doesn’t stop. By evening, there are calls for chai. Moshe heads out to buy saffron chai as a ‘treat’ from a place he discovered recently. We sit outside — kosher law doesn’t allow the mixing of dairy and meat, so tea cannot be had in the kitchen — and talk. The chatter is constant — there’s a discussion about the appropriate dress code in religious places, priests, and whether India will soon see a larger population of Jewish people emigrating from Israel. The chai break done, the group disperses to prepare for the evening prayer. It’s the most exciting part of the day for me, because I finally get to taste the food that’s been cooking all day.

Friday prayers begin around 6.30 p.m. and dinner is served an hour later. Clera and I are the only women here (it’s common to have more men in attendance, other than visiting tourists), and we make our way up to the balcony, out of view of the men below. The prayers end and people move into the dining room, wishing each other Shabbat Shalom. At the table, the rabbi leads the group in more prayers. We sip on sweet grape juice and disperse to wash up before the meal.

There is an order to serving Jewish food. Soup comes first, a light vegetable stock with matzah balls. Next is bread, served with hummus that is liberally drizzled with olive oil. The challah is expectedly delicious, soft and springy with a faint, underlying sweetness. Even the poee does well, the crusty outer layer revealing a spongy inside — it’s a good first attempt and Moshe makes me promise to get him a better recipe. Next is a salad, followed by the fried items: roast chicken, potato chops and kubbah. Finally, it’s the turn of the biryani, which is masaledar and laden with onions and without any whole spices. It is all delicious, and still comfortably warm despite being prepared earlier that day. Every dish feels ‘Indian’, heavy on the masala and yet, not spicy. The meat is perfectly cooked and complements the vegetables.

My meal ends with cut fruits. By this time, most have finished eating and started singing. I am surprised to hear the strains of Tum to thehre pardesi, each Hindi verse followed by one in Hebrew. There are more prayers and thanks to Moshe and Clera for their services. As the crowd disperses, I head back to the kitchen. Clera has left for the day but not before setting aside a doggy bag of food. Moshe has one for me too, with a perfectly formed challah inside, and he instructs me to turn the leftovers into French toast.

The sweetness of the bread lingers on my tongue long after I am home. It’s a reminder that though the city may be home to multiple communities and cuisines, breaking bread is what unites us.

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