Bene Israel – The Jews of Mumbai, India

Chef Dennis Wasko explores the rich history of the Bene Israel and how they adopted the cuisine of their Maharashtra neighbors.

Mangoes  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Legend claims that the Bene Israel arrived in India 2,100 years ago when 7 families, fleeing persecution in the Galilee, were shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean. The survivors were cast ashore on the Konkan peninsula, south of what is today Mumbai. Another theory is that the Bene Israel are an offshoot of the Yemenite Jewish community. There is documented contact on both sides between the Yemenite community and the Bene Israel. Which ever story is true, the descendants of the original settlers adopted the customs, names, dress, language, and cuisine of their Hindu neighbors.  The Bene Israel lived in virtual isolation until the 18th century. 
Some claim that the ancestors of the modern Bene Israel were oil pressers in the Galilee and earned the nickname “Saturday Oil Pressers” because they abstained from work on Shabbat. Their presence and origins were unknown to the outside world until the 18th century when they were “discovered” by traders from Baghdad.  At the time of first contact, the Bene Israel were practicing a few outward forms of Judaism, which led to their recognition.  The Bene Israel maintained the practices of Kashrut, circumcision, and observance of Shabbat as a day of rest.  The community had no scholars of their own and did not learn mainstream Judaism until the 18th and 19th centuries through the efforts of teachers from the Baghdadi community and the Jewish community of Cochin.
By 1830, it was estimated that there were about 6,000 Bene Israel living in India.  That number rose to 10,000 by the beginning of the 20th century. By 1948, it was estimated that there were 20,000 Bene Israel. Since then, most of the community has made aliya and only about 5,000 Bene Israel Jews remain in India today. In 1964, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared that the Bene Israel were "Jews in every respect."  The Bene Israel community has always claimed that they are descendants of the Kohanim, and in 2002, a DNA test confirmed that the Bene Israel do in fact share the same hereditary markers as the Kohanim.
As mentioned earlier, the Bene Israel adopted the cuisine of their Maharashtra neighbors.  From their neighbors, they learned the use of spices and the method for assembling curries while maintaining their distinct identity through adherence to Kashrut and the customs of their ancestors. Coconut milk, hot chilies, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, and garam masala are the hallmarks of their cooking. It is Indian through and through.
Green Mango Salad is a staple in the Bene Israel kitchen; both tart and refreshing, this salad is the perfect accompaniment for meat or fish dishes. The following recipe is my version of this classic salad. Green mangos can be found at Indian grocers and are common in countries where mangos are grown. If green mangos are not available, the salad is equally delicious using riper mangos, though you may not need much sugar.
Green Mango SaladServes 6 – 8
2 green mangos, peeled and diced1 medium seedless cucumber, diced1 medium onion, chopped¼ cup grated fresh coconut1 small chili pepper (such as Fresno), seeded and chopped 1 teaspoon sugar or to taste½ teaspoon kosher saltJuice of half a lime1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves cut into chiffonade (thin ribbons)
Mix all ingredients together and serve immediately.