KOCHI, India — Dreaming of spices described in the Book of Kings, I came to this southern port city built in the 14th century to learn about its longstanding but tiny Jewish presence and its food, which some believe dates back to the time of the Bible.
I left with a better understanding of the people and their history, as well as a chicken dish for Passover, after eating first in the home of Queenie Hallegua, 78, who lives in Kochi’s Jew Town, in what used to be the center of the pepper auction run by Jewish merchants, and then the next day in the home of another accomplished cook.
Mrs. Hallegua, whose great-grandfather came as a peddler from Iraq and whose grandfather Samuel Koder, a merchant, is credited by the family with bringing electricity and the ferries to Kochi, lives on Synagogue Lane in a building decorated with ancient Indian signs.
Though there are fewer than 10 Jews in her neighborhood now, Mrs. Hallegua remembers what it was like growing up when several thousand lived in the area. Over a glass of her pungent Passover wine, made from boiled raisins blended with water and then strained through a cloth, she told me about how she carefully sifts her grains and spices to clean them in preparation for Passover cooking.
“Pesach work began in January, when we bought rice, cleaned and washed it, pounding some into rice flour,” Mrs. Hallegua said. “We also cleaned chiles, coriander, cinnamon, pepper, ginger and cardamom, and set some aside for Passover.”
Most spices were harvested in December and January, then dried in the sun for two or three days, roasted and ground. Mrs. Hallegua showed me her separate Passover kitchen, outfitted with a large stone mortar and pestle used to grind spices and a flat granite stone for grinding coconut, chiles and coriander.
“In the olden days we made our own matzo,” she said. “We pounded the wheat collected in fields, and people gathered to cook it on a grill over a wood fire in our courtyard — sometimes in 100-degree heat.” The matzo, similar to that of Yemenite Jews, is thicker than the machine-made variety sold in the United States.
These days, Mrs. Hallegua goes to the mill and buys prepackaged rice, rice flour and spices, which she cleans again for Passover. But she still boils down dates to the texture of honey in a copper caldron to make her haroseth. The date jam, used as honey in biblical times and called duvo here, is eaten topped with chopped cashews, walnuts or almonds.
Around the lace-covered table in her dining room, Mrs. Hallegua served me her celebrated pastels, thin pastries made at Passover with rice flour, filled with potatoes and flavored with cilantro, onions, garlic and fenugreek. I also sampled her coriander chicken, a staple at her Seder, which tastes more Indian than Iraqi.
Mrs. Hallegua said she buys kosher chicken from Bangalore. Otherwise, she gets her meat from one of the two local shochets, men trained in the laws of Jewish meat slaughter.
In search of one of the shochets the next day, I traveled about an hour to the teeming marketplace of Ernakulam and entered the Cochin Blossoms tropical fish and plant store, housed in the ancient Kadavumbagam Synagogue, where the few remaining Jewish merchants steal away from their businesses to pray. The minute I arrived, the shochet, Elias Josephai, rode up on his motor scooter. And when I mentioned that I was looking for recipes, Babu, as he is known, hailed an auto-rickshaw to drive to his home to meet his wife, Ofera.
She makes a chicken dish similar to Mrs. Hallegua’s at Passover. But, in the manner of Bene Israel Jews from Mumbai, where she hails from, she adds a fresh masala of sautéed onions, cilantro, mint and tomatoes. The recipe here is one I adapted from those of both women . This year I look forward to serving the chicken and other Indian dishes at my own Seder.
Cochin Coriander-Cumin Chicken for Passover
Adapted from Queenie Hallegua and Ofera Josephai
Total Time: 60 minutes, plus 2 hours’ or overnight refrigeration
Seeds from 4 cardamom pods or 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
5 to 6 cloves or 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
5 to 6 peppercorns or 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds or 3 tablespoons ground coriander
1 1-to-2-inch cinnamon stick, broken into pieces, or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds or 1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 large onions, cut into large chunks
3 pounds (9 to 12) boneless, skinless chicken thighs
3 tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped, or 1 15-ounce can whole tomatoes
4 to 5 curry leaves (available in Indian or spice markets)
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger
4 to 5 garlic cloves
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1/2 cup mint leaves, chopped
2 to 3 (or to taste) serrano or other small fresh green chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced
1. If using whole spices, heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, anise seeds and cumin seeds; stir until the seeds start to pop, about 3 minutes. Grind them in a small blender, coffee grinder or mortar and pestle along with the nutmeg, turmeric and salt. If using ground spices, simply mix them all together in a small bowl. Rub the mixture into the chicken, transfer to a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
2. In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onions and sauté until golden. Add the chicken and sauté for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, curry leaves, vinegar and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, until the chicken is soft and cooked through, about 20 minutes.
3. In a food processor, blend the ginger, garlic, cilantro, mint and 2 of the chiles. Taste and add more chiles if desired. Stir into the chicken and simmer for another 5 minutes. Serve over rice, if desired.