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Anshu Kujur - Esther David's Book of Rachel

Recipes/Food as enabling in Esther David’s Book of Rachel 

Migration engenders complex changes in the deep structures of peoples’ everyday lives where in certain respects they celebrate the transformations and in other aspects they desperately seek rootedness. “Home” for migrants is a complex place—they hope to rebuild their homes a new, bring some of the old home with them and also fantasize about leaving their traditional homes. Migrant food practices reflect this ambivalence.                                                 (Krishnendu Ray 1998:105)

The Bene Israel1 diasporic community grew out of the seven surviving members of a group of people who landed on the western coast of India around 6th century BCE to 7th century CE and are supposed to be running away from persecutions in their own land. They lost their Torah scrolls or their religious texts and whatever they retained of their religion was the Shema Israel a prayer that they remembered and chanted as part of their religion. Apart from this they also remembered the Jewish dietary law2. Over the years they interacted with their Indian Hindu and Muslim neighbours and developed food habits which co-opted the best from their neighbours alongside their own Jewish rules. What emerged was a culinary structure specific to the Bene Israel’s that re-defined their identity in the host society anew. As Suneja Gunew states, ‘The evocation of a community (and particularly its women) is through food and through the language of the region’ (Suneja Gunew 2000:234). In fact Esther David through Book of Rachel (2006) brings before its readers a Jewish food culture specific to this community, on which also rested the ethnic identity of this community. Through David’s novel with frequent mention of Bene Israeli dishes the reader comes to realise the integrated food culture with its distinctly unique Bene Israeli flavours. In this paper I have tried to analyse their culinary habits and look into Rachel’s character as the producer of these dishes who through her knowledge and expertise transforms the simple dishes into something enabling alongwith being nourishing.

Book of Rachel stands out for the simple reason that each chapter begins with a recipe by the author. One could suggest various reasons for such a beginning. It could range from—reinstating the various cuisines of this community or could be suggestive of the merits of that recipe and how it acted as a connecting thread between the protagonist Rachel and the various characters in the novel. Furthermore, each recipe in the beginning is not a mere mention of the ingredients and manner of preparation rather it seems closely related to the content of that particular chapter. For example in the third chapter named ‘Mutton Curry with Tamarind’ (17), is followed by a narrative where the author gives a piece of Rachel’s past and what significance the tamarind tree in her in-laws' courtyard held for her and her husband Aaron. The ingredients of the cuisine are suggestive in a way as it seems to be a link to the content of the chapter that follows it.

Furthermore, the story records the procuring the recipes from oral tradition which had been handed down from mothers to daughters and mother-in-laws to daughter-in-laws, and accord a degree of literality to it thereby imprinting it within the paradigm of a written narrative. In doing so the author Esther David, not only suggests the arrival of this diasporic community some fifteen hundred years ago with its own distinctive customs, cultures and food habits, and later an integration of the Jewish and other Indian cultures resulting in its present stage. Moreover the recipes act as a marker of their ethnicity that followed the basic tenets of Jewish cooking- like not mixing meat and milk as Rachel suggests, ‘She enjoyed eating an unusual combination of sticky rice .... mixed with a sumptuous helping of ghee, although she had a vague idea that it was against the dietary law’ (7), or not using the animals blood for cooking or eating non-kosher meat. These suggested their difference from their Konkani neighbours and simultaneously marked them as a distinctive group of people. Their interactions and associations with the Konkani’s forged a new framework for the Bene Israeli kitchen, where they not only utilised the agricultural and other edible products available to them in the new land, but also borrowed certain culinary know-how to work with the abundant yet unique availability of the host-land. So we find an emerging Bene Israeli culinary structure that tried to blend the Jewish and Konkani culinary habits. These recipes that were prised out from memory of Rachel served to mark the ethnic distinctiveness.

As we proceed further into the text of the novel we come across mention of recipes. Rachel as a matriarch reigns over her kitchen and thereby is the sole provider of delicious dishes specific to their community. Through the narrative David suggests the enabling nature of Rachel’s recipes which come from a kitchen considered subversive as opposed to the power driven public sphere. At various stages in the text we find mention of the secretive powers that Rachel’s cooking had on its consumers. In fact as Suneja Gunew states ‘Food becomes the catalyst for precipitating communication—in some ways magically’ (Suneja Gunew 2000:230), she serves certain dishes to certain characters for the express purpose to encourage them to communicate with her. For instance the morning after her daughter consumes the ‘puranpoli’3 made by Rachel, Zephra feels attracted to Judah, her brother’s friend and a lawyer helping Rachel in restoring the synagogue (the Jewish prayer house) in Danda from being demolished. She wakes with a desire to consume something bitter like birda 4, to neutralise the effect of the sweet ‘puranpolis’ that she felt had ‘...secret ingredient in the filling which attracted her to Judah. Perhaps Rachel knew magic portions like the one she had used to ensnare her reluctant fiancé’ (123). The magic portions that her daughter mentions had earlier been served to her father Aaron who was invited by Rachel’s family for supper after he had broken his engagement to her. The ‘puranpolis’ prepared by Rachel for Aaron had served to restore the broken engagement and introduce sweetness and love into their relationship. The dish encouraged Aaron to communicate the misunderstanding that had arisen between his mother and himself leading to the breakup of his engagement with Rachel. It also helped him to decide on marrying Rachel. The dish that was heavily sweetened by Rachel supposedly included magic ingredients as suggested by her daughter that filled its consumer with emotions, where Aaron was attracted to Rachel and Zephra towards Judah. The dish according to its preparation seemed as a mere sweet dish, but with Rachel’s own secretive additions that Zephra refers to, made it a woman’s magic portion that helped her gain her heart’s desire.

The various dishes that are served to the characters in the novel were done so to evoke a desired result from its consumers. Cooking, serving and eating were not mere simple tasks for Rachel; rather she did it with love towards its consumers. It provided nourishment to the partaker of these dishes but more importantly it was aimed to produce a certain effect on them. Food for Rachel was not a matter of simple nourishment rather it was to assist her in creating a desired effect within its consumers and also to augment a situation in the direction that she would have expected. Therefore, when she serves Judah the fried ‘bombil’ or ‘Bombay duck’, she does so in order to assist him and provide him with the courage to ask her daughter’s hand in marriage. The fried ‘bombils’ cooked by Rachel with lot of care contained something magical and secretive aimed to encourage Judah. It was one among the popular dishes that was relished by various characters in the novel. Moreover when she prepared to make ‘bombil’ she always aspired that it would help her in the present predicament or the consumer thereby bringing the situation to a desired conclusion. Further in the novel, the same ‘bombil’ is once again prepared to help Aarti Chinoy, Zephra’s friend to discuss the matter of the synagogue with her husband Satish Chinoy, an estate developer who had planned to buy the synagogue and the area surrounding it to convert it into a health resort. Satish relished ‘bombils’ and it seemed easy to cajole him to give up his deal with Mordecai (synagogue committee member) to buy the synagogue. Yet that was not to be, as Satish himself was trying to close the deal urgently. Although Aarti tried to make him see the situation from Rachel’s perspective who was opposed to the selling of the synagogue but Satish’s business acumen disallowed him to decide in Rachel’s favour. But it did make him rethink about the deal and also to re-look into the legal documents that Mordecai had produced suggesting the land of the synagogue belonging to his ancestors, while in actuality it belonged to Rachel’s ancestors that was ‘... given to Haeem Robenji Dandekar by Shivaji Maharaj’ (165). This Rachel informed the ageing synagogue committee who expressed surprise at this disclosure. The meeting of the committee members that was called by Zephra was spearheaded towards a desired conclusion by serving the members Rachel’s samosas, fish fry and mince cutlets with scotch. The snacks served by Rachel proved to be a catalyst that assisted them to accept the truth and seek Mordecai’s resignation who had planned to cheat the committee by selling the synagogue passing it as his personal property. The meeting which was punctuated with the snacks proved to be a success that roused its members from inactivity towards becoming active members planning to work towards restoration of the Danda synagogue.

Rachel’s recipes that her daughter suggests contained magic portions had produced a certain effects in its consumer as she had expected. The ‘bombil’ fry had proved fruitful in the situations where Judah and Satish were cajoled to address the issue in Rachel’s favour. It was also instrumental in opening a channel of trust between her and Aarti. Susan J. Leonardi in her essay where she looks into one such recipe sharing in her study of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, suggests that according to the protagonist Rachel (different from Book of Rachel) sharing of recipe was suggestive of a certain trust between the giver and the receiver. The recipe sharing between the two women in Book of Rachel suggests a similar kind of shared trust that leads to building of a bond between her and Aarti. This bond proves to be an added advantage for both Rachel and her lawyer Judah who saw it as an opportunity to influence Satish’s decision on the synagogue. 

Apart from the magic ingredients that her cooking carried she also utilised the medicinal qualities of the food. In one such incident Rachel uses a local vegetable to cure her son of his annoying habit. Jacob, Rachel’s second son had a habit of sucking his thumb till he was four years old. No amount of cajoling, threats and scolding could persuade him to forego this habit. She discussed such matters with her friends who provided her numerous suggestions. In sharing their own knowledge to help Rachel overcome her problems, there seemed to exist trust between her and her Jewish women friends. Armed with knowledge shared by her friends Rachel readies herself to bring into practise the home-made remedies that thrived within the womenfolk of this community. She eventually applies a mixture of castor oil and fenugreek powder that cured Jacob of his malady. Fenugreek or ‘methi’ as it is known in India connected the mother and son. As local produce Rachel finds its curable aspects, where it becomes a cure for her son. Therefore through Jacob’s story we are made to acknowledge another way that Rachel used the raw produce used in cooking to cure a malady. Rachel with her insight and knowledge about various cooking ingredients uses them efficiently in a manner that helped her overcome various situations. In yet other instance she serves roasted goat tongue, hoping her son to reveal his insecurities in relation to Ilana an Israeli Jew he was in love with. Rachel served him this recipe hoping it would allow him to open before his mother that would provide her with the knowledge as to what ailed him. As it turns out Jacob confesses to her mother about Ilana, and his fears of being rejected if he confessed his love to her. The dish as a catalyst helped Rachel grasp the matter better that eventually allowed her the opportunity to help her son by speaking on his behalf to a cousin of hers who played in Ilana’s band in Israel. Therefore, the recipes and the dishes that Rachel served to the characters provided them with nourishment but at the same time they had a veiled purpose to fulfil, wherein she cooked her food with care so as to produce an effect that would either allow her to solve a problem in case of Satish, Mordecai, committee members and also to help others to speak openly without inhibitions like in case of Judah, Zephra and Jacob.

In putting these recipes as openings for each chapter Esther David tries to prise them out of memory into written word thereby providing a kind of literality to it. This written word which foregrounds the cuisines embodies the identity of this community within the consumers and makers of these dishes. Concomitantly the recipes also work towards situating this diasporic community through its food habits and manner of cooking within the larger cultural framework of the Konkan region. Food here therefore not only serves to nourish, at the same time allows one to see this community as a separate ethnic entity. A community that had thrived and blossomed over the years in India and emerged with its own culture and food habits that borrowed from its Konkani neighbours alongside remaining true to the dietary laws that they had inherited from the land of their origin. Moreover, Rachel through her knowledge and love for cooking for her family and friends builds a case for the dishes that always had an alternative motive beyond nourishment. In her attempts to serve these dishes she was not merely influencing its consumers rather she uses it towards attaining results that were aimed at greater good and not individual whims and fancy of Rachel.

Works Cited:
David, Esther. (2006). Book of Rachel. New Delhi: Viking/Penguin.

Douglas, Mary. (Winter 1972). “Deciphering a Meal”. Daedalus: Myth, Symbol and Culture. Vol. 101, No. 1. pp 61-81.

Gunew, Suneja. (2000). “Introduction: Multicultural translations of food, bodies, language”. Journal of Intercultural Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3. pp. 227-237. 

------------- (2005). “Mouthwork: Food and Language as the Corporeal Home for the Unhoused Diasporic Body in South Asian Women’s Writing”. Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Vol. 40, No. 2. pp 93-103.

Isenberg, Shirley. B.(1988). ‘Traditions and Theories of Origin’ in India’s Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Source Book. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

Katz, Nathan. (2000). Who are the Jews of India. Berkely, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Kehimkar, Haeem, S. (1937). The History of the Bene Israel of India. Tel-Aviv: Dayag Press Ltd.

Leonardi, Susan. J. (May 1989). “Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster a la Riseholme, and Key Lime Pie”. PMLA. Vol. 104, No. 3. pp 340-347.

Ray, Krishnendu. (1998). “Meals, Migration and Modernity: Domestic Cooking and Bengali Indian Ethnicity in the United States”. Amerasia Journal Vol. 24, No. 1. pp 105-127.

1 The Bene Israel (children of Israel in English) of Konkan Coast and Greater Bombay: The legend of the Bene Israel ( children of Israel) suggests their arrival in India as group of people between 6th century BCE to 7th century CE and they are believed to have come from Palestine, Yemen or Babylonia. The Bene Israel legend suggests their ancestors were shipwrecked off the port of Cheul near Nawgaon. From the port town of Nawgaon, the Bene Israelis spread to other parts of Konkan villages where they began work as oil-pressers and as they observed Sabbath they were called Shanwar telis (Saturday oil-pressers) and were inducted into the caste as a teli within the Hindu caste system. 
2 Disallows mixing of milk and meat in cooking, meat cooked in its blood and certain animals.
3 A sweet dish famous in the Maharashtra region made of sweetened crushed gram filling into a roti and cooked with plenty of ghee. 
4 Made of val beans or field peas, that is prepared to break the fast for the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem.


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