Indian Pesach

This year, Passover was a little different from in years past.  We spent Pesach in three Indian states: Kerala at Kuzhupilly and Cochin; Rajasthan at Mt. Abu, and Gujarat at Godhra and Amdavad.  I got introduced to a lot of new foods, so I hyperlinked a lot to make it easier to find out what I’m talking about.

Erev Pesach

Pesach stories start with preparation.  Aside from choosing, printing and copying our 60-minute Haggadah, this one doesn’t start in earnest until the day of the first seder with some produce shopping and a quest for a hair drier. (Yay not being home!) Traditional Ashkenazic (Eastern European Jewish) staples are hard to come by in a rural equatorial setting.  As this area is at 10° North or the same latitude as Costa Rica, Columbia and Venezuela we got to experiment with some new foods on our seder plates.  We decided on cilantro for parsley, Karela (bitter gourd) for bitter herbs, sour lemon pickle instead of horseradish, and raw beet root for lamb shank.  We had some illegally imported apples from Germany that we made into charoset and also made a date and cashew version that was quite mortar-like.

Bitter Gourd

Having neglected to get wine at the duty-free store, we visited the long line at the state liquor store, where our tuktuk (rickshaw) driver asked a man (the entire line was men) at the front of the 20-person line to get us a couple of bottles of wine.  By no choice of our own, we ended up with port, which ended up working quite nicely for our purposes.

For the first seder, we had the pleasure of the fünf Badgers, Ankur’s sister and parents, and our host at the Kuzhupilly beach house, Anish.  With Jew, Jain, Hindu, and Syriac Orthodox, we were missing representatives of only a couple of prophets. Our 60-minute Haggadah still engaged us for 90 minutes before eating with some help from Anish, who took me up on the suggestion to ask questions.   We hoped to enjoy some Pesaha Paal (Keralan Matzah), but Anish told us that only the nuns know how to make it and they only do it on Maundy Thursday.  We could never quite clarify the date discrepancy for him of why our seder was happening on Monday, while his wasn’t going to occur until Thursday. After the seder ended, we got to hear some of Anish’s views on the supremacy of Jews and Russians along with the decline of the USA.

This year’s travels have taken us to many lands with vestiges of formerly vibrant Jewish communities: Germany, Poland near the Belarus border (the pale of settlement), Venice, Vienna, and Cochin, India.  It’s difficult to reconcile with the Elders of Zion type conspiracy theories even when they’re accompanied by prejudice that typically appears diffuse and nebulous. At least in India, I can compare the creation of the state of Israel with Partition and it’s very easy to point fingers at the Brits.

Day 1

We went to Cochin for the day and saw giant chinese fishing nets (of which we sent a postcard to G.G. with a magen david cancellation), a Cathedral that held Vasco de Gama’s remains for 14 years, ate at the Menorah Restaurant, and visited the Mantancherry Palace Museum.  Ankur and I stayed for the second seder with the Chabadniks while the rest of the crew went home to eat and sleep at a more reasonable time.

Day 2

We started off at the Paradesi Synagogue where we foolishly arrived on time for Ma’ariv.  We were soon joined by a novelist, her neuropsychologist husband and anthropology major daughter studying abroad in Hyderabad.  We had plenty of time to get to know each other before the Rabbi and two sons, a long haired dropout, and Darren arrived.  The women’s section was very chatty (all 3 of us) because we were firmly planted under a very loud fan, could hear nothing, and were pretty sure no one could hear us, either.

At the Chabad House, we found the entire Cochin community waiting for us.  Five Bubbes were seated at the seder table, having had their own private seder together the first night.  One of the women, Queenie (Esther)  inspired a recipe in the paper of record. Three children and a Rebbezin were also there. The Chabad family had arrived only a month ago, just after Purim.  She grew up in Bombay until she was twelve, so they were able to get long-term work visas, unlike the previous family who was expelled from the country for working on a visitor visa.

Samuel Koder. Queenie's Father and Cochin Macher.
Samuel Koder. Queenie’s Father and Cochin Macher.
Menorah Restaurant.  Queenie's Childhood home
Menorah Restaurant. Queenie’s Childhood home

The seder was read in Hebrew and supplemented with stories in English.  We were served homemade wine and juice and hand-imported Kedem grape juice.  Somehow they had managed to find lettuce, but it was iceberg, so sweet instead of bitter.

We charged Alice, the novelist, with getting Queenie to tell us more about being one of the last Jews in Jewtown, but Darren intervened.  He wanted to joust over Chabad and where it was going without the Rebbe.  Then he wanted to talk about how and if humans are different from other species on the planet.  He was quite the nihilist and I was disappointed to not hear more Kochi stories, so I turned instead to my study-abroad neighbor for conversation.  After he left, I asked, “Did we ever find out Darren’s day job?”

“Oh, you didn’t hear? He’s Darren Aranofsky.  He made Black Swan.” I guess between that and Noah he’s still got wrestling with the lines between species.  It’s like me and the four sons.  Every year I’m struggling with why the son who doesn’t know how to ask gets the same answer as the wicked child.

After Darren left, we did get a chance to ask Queenie about her Pesach habits.  I was hoping for some insight into Kitniyot.  Kitniyot are legumes and other grains prohibited by minhag (custom) by Ashkenazik or Eastern European Jews, but not prohibited by halachah (Jewish law and tradition). Queenie would never eat dosas (South Indian lentil pancakes) on Pesach.  But in the Times article, she talks about making dumplings with rice flour.  Those are Persian, not Indian, so…clearly, it’s complicated.

So, I would need to draw my own line in the sand for Kitniyot.  Matzah is called the bread of affliction for a reason.  For me, passover is not about what you don’t eat, it’s about what you do eat.  Eating matzah is the reminder of slavery.  Omitting bread is not the reminder. If I’m going to eat matzah as a staple at every meal, which is what I believe is the intent of the prohibition, then I’m going to have to exclude tastier starches.  If I allow ersatz breads, I’m going to eat them and then I won’t need to eat matzah and it will sit in its box on the shelf until next year when I decide it’s still edible.

It turns out there’s a lot of really great matzah replacements in India. Would I rather eat  Palappam (Keralan rice crepes) or matzah? Dosa or matzah? Pappadum or matzah?  Khandvi (amazing Gujarati chickpea rolled crepes) or matzah? Nasta (crunchy chickpea flour snacks) or matzah? If I ate all these delicious foods, I’d never go for the matzah and it just wouldn’t be Pesach. (Don’t worry, I got to eat them all before and after the holiday.)

If legumes are abandoned completely from my diet, I end up eating a lot of cheese, eggs, and more meat during Pesach than I do during the entire rest of the year. That just doesn’t seem the way to commemorate slavery and hardship, so kitniyot seem worth eating, especially while spending the week with vegetarians.  There’s a limit to how hard I can be on myself and still maintain whatever arbitrary rules I’ve eneacted for the week.

How to enjoy some plant protein but not eat foods that are chometz-like?  Not be hungry, but still feel like it’s Pesach?  I think I found my land in the sand, eat whole kitniyot, but not foods from kitniyot that are made into flour.  I ate dal, but not dosas.  I ended up avoiding rice, too, because it usurped my matzah intake.  It worked pretty well for me, although I learned quickly that piling dal or vegetables onto matzah is very messy.   Substitute matzah for a fork only at the peril of one’s clothing.

Also on this day, Scientist Maya learned that elephants have ritualized eating habits.  The ones she saw swung their trunks side to side, down to the side, touched their foreheads, swung between their legs, and then brought the food to their mouths.  14 times she saw this.  Ritualized eating habits, people, animals?

Chol Hamoed and the last days

Our raw beet root got turned into a delicious coconut-beet puree for dinner.  Yum!

We left behind the steamy tropics and flew north to Ahmedabad to see Ankur’s family.  It turns out, sometimes, all you need is the right word to make yourself understood.  The Jain side of the family was on board with the concept of fasting.  It’s kind of a weird fast, but the idea that you don’t eat certain foods for a week resonated.

Isru Chag – Immediately After Passover

I thought real leavened bread would be hard to find, but I picked up the Indian street food version of a veggie burger, vada pao, a spicy potato patty on a Parker House-type bun while waiting for a laser-light show to begin.



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