Zilka Joseph

Sweet Malida: Memories of a Bene Israel Woman

By Zilka Joseph
A collection of poems and prose about the history and cuisine of the Bene Israel Jews of India, childhood memories and personal journeys. 
Who are the Bene Israel Jews of India? Where did they come from? How did they survive in India? A moving, multi-layered, richly sensory and informative collection of poems and short prose inspired by this ancient community which the poet herself belongs to.  Using various poetic forms, the poet launches on an imaginative journey, delving into the history, especially the food and culinary customs of this small community of Indian Jews, explores its special connection to the Prophet Elijah, while seamlessly weaving in memories, bringing to life the past and lost loved ones as well.


Link to the book:

http://mayapplepress.com/sweet-malida-memories-of-a-bene-israel-woman-zilka-joseph/

Artist: Raina (Ezekiel) Imig


Resources on Bene Israel cuisine and recipes follow the sample poems.


Sample poems from Sweet Malida: 

Sweet Malida

Sweet malida,
a mix of water-softened
flattened rice, sugar,
dried fruits and nuts,
was a dish made

for Shabbath, or for breaking
our fasts. Cooling, light
on the palate, and
to the body and the spirit,
it was welcome in the heat

of day or night. We had many foods
in common with our Muslim,
Christian and Hindu neighbors,
and we often celebrated together
their festivals or ours. I relished

particularly fresh coconut,
the regional staple, its milk
or its flesh added to almost
every dish. But this was to me
the best way to eat it;
finely grated
by my mother’s hands,

left unsweetened
and sprinkled haphazardly
on the malida, juicy threads
with a fleck of stubborn
brown kernel here and there
that sometimes crunched
in your teeth like sand,
and you winced and swallowed it,

knowing that there was no
simpler or purer
or truer form than that.


Eliyahoo Hanabi
--the Malida ceremony of the Bene Israel 


Give thanks to the Prophet Elijah!
Eliyahoo hanabi! 
Eliyahoo hanabi!

Let us heap the sugar-sprinkled poha 
tall as a pyramid, mixed with shredded 
coconut, precious dried fruit and nuts,
scented with the most fragrant
of spices. O Elijah, can you taste

the nutmeg, the cardamom, the freshly
sliced mangoes, guava, chikoo, apples and
bananas arranged like garlands? Can you see
the pomegranate seeds dotting the top
of the rice, bursting sweet juice 
and tartness? Can you smell 

the red rose petals
scattered everywhere,
the cups of cloves? 
Accept our thanks!

Let us say barakha over 
each item, ha’etz, ha’adama.
The fruits that grow on trees of hard
wood, the fruits that grow on soft
trunks of fiber. Phool-chi barakha, 
praise the flowers that give us so much
pleasure. Join us! Descend in your fiery 

chariot, where ascended once, as it left 
a cleft in the rock in Sagav village, where 
pilgrims come to Alibagh, the soil 
our wandering ancestors’ were
blown onto by the storm. They reached 
land, survived. Feast 

with us, we humbly ask, O granter 
of wishes, as we chant 
our gratitude, our prayer—
words of Malida-chi barakha 
circle our offerings, rise up

to meet you in the clouds,
touch your flaming chariot
your horses of fire. 

Eliyahoo hanabi! 
Eliyahoo hanabi!

A Chirota for My Thoughts

this fine flaky treat was often made
from left over chironji dough

rolled out in flat circles
ghee-smothered with fingers

piled on each other folded and rolled
folded and rolled again

full of hidden “puthers”—feathers
which fluffed up miraculously

as it rose up singing
out of hot oil

a crisp golden disc
delicate as eggshells

dusted with sugar or drizzled with a glaze
then studded with pistas and charoli

eaten so fast the fine sprays of crumbs
settled everywhere like dust

I pressed my little index finger
into it and sucked

or licked off the old dining table
with my tongue

some days paralyzed with lost-ness
and weak limbs I pretend

unhealed wounds and home fallen
to ruin are made whole

broken slivers I salvage
from inside those stainless steel tins

the indestructible dubbas we owned
etched with our names


 Green Kaanji and Destiny

the house always smelled different
lighter, somehow fresher
fragrant in a way that it didn’t
when red curries were cooked

hunks of ginger garlic onion smashed
and ground on the ridged stone 
scooped into a steel bowl

then oil heated in a dekchi 
(peanut oil Postman brand
when I was young) till it smoked
a handful of kari leaves 
with one or two green chilis 
seeds removed (we could not 
deal with much heat)
thrown in

(ah the crackling, the fragrance)
and the wet paste added soon after 
what a sizzle 
and splatter and noses and eyes
watering briefly
stirred on a medium flame
a slow stir stir stir
with a dash of cumin and turmeric
and a half-palmful of coriander powder
salt to taste

mouth-watering the smell 
filling the rooms
wafting out the windows
attracting crows
to sit on the sill and caw

masala never browned
just gently fried
rawness cooked out
the spices mellowed
just till it passed the final
sniff test

and what could compliment 
this green deliciousness 

mild fish like paplet
(these pomfrets were cheap back then)
sometimes local chickens 

tough birds stewed into softness
or a winter vegetable like kohlrabi 
or cauliflower peas with
the ubiquitous potato 

what made this kaanji green
as a tropical pond
oh the oh dhanya, so dhanya—
a blessing and the blessed herb
bunches of cilantro leaves
mud-smeared coriander washed 
picked clean of grit and earthworms
then ground on the same stone
with a splash of water 

a cup of green shining liquid
poured in right at the end
finished with a quick boil
and a lavish squeeze of lime
(fingers still exuding the smell
of the rind as you ate)

emerald kaanji of the Konkan
my ancestors learned to cook 
when these west coast villages 
became home

so comforting (sometimes 
with coconut milk
for a richer curry)

yet so feisty citrus 
bursting on the tongue
the tang of cilantro

a dish I loved so much
that once as a young girl
I could not stop eating it

slurping the velvety goodness
into my mouth
gorging on tender cubes
of kolhrabi and butter-soft potatoes

until alarmed my mother
swept the dish off to the kitchen 
(only I was left at the table
still cleaning my plate
with my fingers) and did 
we both learn the truth that day

that this little girl
mouth full of green curry
skinny weak child 
a poor and picky eater
(eyes bigger than her stomach)

(who could know what or who I would turn into
when I grew up  and who knew
what “foodie” meant
did the word even exist then) 

had the makings of a glutton
was destined to be 
obsessed with food


Information/Resources on Bene Israel Cuisine and Recipes


Zimra Israel shares her culinary knowledge, stories, and recipes:
https://www.indiafoodnetwork.in/food-stories/bene-israel-lunch-zimra-israel/


Esther David's invaluable book Bene Appetit, a compilation of recipes of Indian Jewish communities:
https://www.amazon.com/Bene-Appetit-Cuisine-Indian-Jews/dp/9353579570


Jewish Book Council's article on Esther David's prize-winning book:
https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/bene-appetit-the-cuisine-of-indian-jews


An article on Bene Israel food and a family's curry recipe:
https://www.jewishfoodsociety.org/stories/a-shabbat-curry-by-way-of-mumbai


Some interesting takes on food and traditional recipes:
https://thejewsofindia.com/category/recipes/


A survey of the vibrant foods of Indian Jewish communities including the Bene Israel:
https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20220424-the-surprising-landscape-of-indian-jewish-food


Some Festival Foods:
https://www.architecturaldigest.in/story/for-the-jewish-holy-month-a-feast-of-food-and-design-from-their-mumbai-outposts/


Traditional Cuisine of the Bene Israel:

https://www.goya.in/blog/the-fascinating-cuisine-traditions-of-the-bene-israelis-of-india-book-of-rachel