The Lost Cuisine Of India’s Largest Jewish Community
Image Credit: iStock, Malida is prepared with poha, along with dried fruits and coconut, and plated with an odd number of fresh fruits and flowers.

There are five types of Indian-Jewish communities: the Jews of Cochin, Baghdadi Jews, the Bene Israeli, the Bene Menashe and the Bene Ephraim. The largest of the five, the Bene Israelis, reached India in 175 BCE. It is believed that there had been a shipwreck on the western coast of India, i.e. the Konkan strip around 2200 years ago. This ship came from Northern Palestine in order to avoid persecution and was found wrecked near the Khanderi Islands. A lot of things like prayer books and scriptures were lost in the shipwreck. However, the men and women who survived continued the practices of Shema, Shabbat, kosher and circumcision, based on what they remembered. They adopted the local culture including food, clothing and language (Marathi). 

Mumbai has had a tremendous influence on the culinary practices and food of the Bene Israeli community. Due to proximity to the Konkan coast, a lot of food was influenced by the use of coconut and coconut milk. Friday evenings were special, since the best foods were reserved for Shabbat. As per Jewish dietary laws, it is not allowed to mix milk with meat. However, coconut milk is different and is allowed. Since normal milk comes from the cow, it cannot be used for the preparation of any Jewish food. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to put yogurt on the table even in a container, so as to avoid its proximity to meat.

In an online presentation about the food and customs of the Bene Israeli community, Leora Pezarkar, a Jewish academic, talked about how Kosher is Herbew for “fit” or “appropriate” and described the food that is suitable for a Jew to eat. Milk and meat are never mixed together. The Bene Israelis practice kosher slaughter, cooking and consumption of meat and maintenance of the kosher kitchen. With regards to Kosher slaughter, the throat of the animal has to be slit in a way that is least painful for the animal and drains all the blood. 

Fish, meat, rice, curry, eggs and a select variety of vegetables are staples. Dried fish (especially bombil) is very popular. Spices are used heavily and there is also the use of local ingredients like coconut, coconut milk, kokum, raw mango and legumes. Toor dal is the only dal eaten in a Bene Israeli household. Regular meals include mutton curry, kadhi, bhaat, chawli, macchi and bombil curry. Mutton and chicken were prepared for elaborate family get-togethers or festive meals. Coconut milk is an important part of the cuisine, used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Since the Passover meal consists of unleavened bread, rice bhakris (rotis) are made then. Rosh Hashanah sees the preparation of traditional halwa. Different families meet and exchange halwas. There is also symbolic food: like fish (which symbolises the abundance of Jews in the world), apple with honey (in the hope of a sweeter year ahead), pomegranate (shows unity, that the community is still one cluster), etc. 

Shabbat meals are also very important. Families make cakes and sweets before Shabbat. Grape juice and wine are also present. Kanavali, made with semolina and coconut milk (also called Shabbat cake) has become rare now. Festive sweets like karanji and sandan (made with rice flour, coconut milk and fermented with toddy) are common.

“Evolution and changing ingredients are part of the Bene Israeli food tradition,” says Leora Pezarkar. Wine has prominent mentions in the Torah. Hand crushing black grapes after boiling them in water is how traditional Bene Israeli grape juice wine is made. Malida is made before an auspicious occasion, like that of marriage. It is offered along with prayers to the Prophet Elijah.

Malida is prepared with poha (rice flakes), along with dried fruits and coconut, and plated with an odd number of fresh fruits and flowers. There are different types of malida, too: Vanaspaticha malida (offered on the day of Tu B’Shvat) and Pozpeer cha malida (associated with a “Peer” from the village of Pezari, offered in the month of Paush).

In Rachael Rukmini Israel’s book The Jews of India: Their Story, Bene Israeli recipes include kiddush (unfermented raisin juice prepared for Shabbat prayers and the Seder service), hamotsi (khakda or unleavened bread), malida, halwa, puris and birda. Here is the recipe for malida, which is served at Eliyahu Hanavi thanksgiving prayers:



  • 100g flattened rice (poha)
  • 10g powdered sugar 
  • ½ a fresh coconut (grated)
  • Almonds and pistachios
  • A handful of sultanas
  • Powdered seeds of 3-4 cardamom pods
  • Washed rose petals 


  1. Wash pressed rice in a colander and let it drain. 
  2. Mix sugar and grated coconut. 
  3. Add blanched and chopped almonds and chopped pistachios, washed sultanas, and pressed rice. 
  4. Lastly add cardamom and decorate with rose petals.