On a recent Jewish Heritage press trip to Switzerland, we spent a few days in Basel visiting the synagogues and prosperous neighborhoods where Jews thrived during the 20th century, and where a small community is still active today. While Basel was a hub of Jewish activity in the past, most recently only one kosher restaurant has survived.
We ran into a glitch since it was pre-Pesach and the restaurant numnum dEllicious! was closed for cleaning prior to the holiday. What a conundrum! Not so for owner/chef Elli Benaiah and his wife Mirjam. They did the mensch thing and opened their kitchen and their home to perfect strangers on the day before they were to leave for Israel to celebrate the holiday with their family.
Benaiah is a true Renaissance man with a background as exotic as his food. He was born in London where his parents met during his father’s British Army service. His mother was born in Halberstadt, Germany into the famous Auerbach rabbinic family that fled during the Holocaust years to what was then known as Palestine. His father was born in Calcutta, India, to a Baghdadi Iraqi family.
Baghdadi Jews are descendants of Jewish families who migrated from Iraq and other Arab countries and settled in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the population initially sought to maintain its cultural identity by establishing its own prayer houses and communities, the customs and cuisine of the adopted country slowly began to influence the community. Resulting from the determination to remain strictly kosher, but seduced by Indian cooking methods and ingredients readily available in the country that was now their home, a whole new fare emerged and the melding of the two cultures resulted in what is today called Indian Baghdadi cuisine.
Benaiah’s cross-cultural roots were influenced by being born in London, returning with his family to Israel, and finally immigrating to Toronto when he was still young. In Canada, he studied and practiced criminal law before the desire to return to Israel led him to continue his career path as an eminent practicing attorney in Tel Aviv. All the while, Benaiah nurtured his love of cooking and his desire to keep alive his culture and the foods he grew up enjoying on Friday night Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations.
Benaiah dispels the vision of a traditional Jewish kosher chef preparing Mitteleuropean, or even Middle Eastern, dishes familiar throughout the world. He brings a whole new dimension to “kosher” cuisine, embracing his culture through a love of cooking he learned from his Indian grandmother – and melding the cuisines of Israel and Canada into his own special kosher milieu.
“I learned to love cooking from my Indian grandmother, but it was the multicultural Israel-Toronto experience that solidified my love of multiculturalism and gastronomy,” he said.
His wife Mirjam also has a storied background. She was born and raised in Basel, Switzerland where her family settled after escaping from Austria during the Shoah. The couple met in Israel.
Once married, they opened their home in Kfar-Saba to cater Indian family-style kosher meals for private groups. At one point they were one of the top featured local restaurants on Trip Advisor and received many write-ups in the Israel press. Eventually, Elli gave up his law practice in Tel Aviv and relocated to Basel with Mirjam, where they followed their hearts and stomachs and opened a kosher restaurant – becoming the official kosher caterer under the supervision of the Rabbinate of the Israelitische Gemeinde Basel (IGB) – the Basel Jewish Community.
How Shabbat begins
OUR SABBATH dinner began with the sharing of homemade challah loafs and dips made from apple chutney and halba (fenugreek relish). After breaking bread came the de rigueur chicken soup but with kreplach instead of the more typical matzo balls that are familiar to me being of Ashkenazi descent. Otherwise, the soup tasted just like my Ukrainian grandmother used to make and which we called “Jewish penicillin” (as do millions of other Jews around the world) knowing it could cure whatever ailed us. We then moved on to the unfamiliar main dish, mahasha which is Baghdai Indian chicken-and-rice-filled tomatoes and onion skins. This was a first for me and the presentation was as beautiful as the dish was delicious. Plump tasty tomatoes and onions cooked together were eye candy.
Another first for me was mafrum, a Libyan beef-filled eggplant and potato dish similar to Greek moussaka. Black Indian basmati rice complimented the dishes we savored along with sparkling conversation, sharing our life experiences and love of traveling and good food.
The meal ended with homage to one of Switzerland’s world-honored treats, Swiss chocolate. The chocolate mousse was topped with fresh fruit. Since this abundance of food was prepared just prior to the Benaiah’s departure for the holiday, Elli and Mirjam insisted on doggy bags for the leftovers that we could not possibly have consumed that evening even with the help of long-time Israel friends of the Benaiahs, Jehuda and Michelle Landau.
The food was delicious but more so was the gracious hospitality extended to Jewish travelers in a foreign country. We were as comfortable and chatty as if we had spent a lifetime with these people. This spoke to me of the unbroken traditions that connect Jews throughout time and space and the humanity of a religion where food and fellowship unite people.
Sadly, just recently the IGB, due to its diminishing Jewish community, has withdrawn support for numnum dEllicious! But the Benaiahs are undeterred in their commitment to continue providing a kosher opportunity to locals and tourists alike.
In the coming months, they will be reorganizing having been given permission from the city to open a kosher in Basel’s main city square stand selling hand-rolled bagels. From there, desire and demand will determine their future course for another kosher kitchen in Basel, Switzerland.