Cooking: Indian-Baghdadi cuisine

Kachori, deep-fried puff pastry (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
Kachori, deep-fried puff pastry
(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
I was recently invited to a special tasting of Indian-Baghdadi cuisine. I wasn’t sure what it would entail, since I had never experienced this culinary combination before.
I had been invited by Elli Benaiah of Kfar Saba, who during the day works as a criminal lawyer, but in his spare time loves to cook dishes he remembers from his childhood.
Benaiah grows his own herbs on the roof of his house, and loves to visit markets in Israel and around the world, where he’s constantly searching for exotic spices and herbs, and ancient pots. His goal is to preserve his family’s unique recipes, which were typical of the Indian-Baghdadi community, whose ancestors were Jewish traders who had arrived from Iraq and other Arab countries in the 18th and 19th centuries, and settled in what was then known as Calcutta.
Although they established their own prayer houses and communities, local customs – including cuisine – began to seep into their ways, and the unique fusion between the two cultures resulted in what is today called Indian Baghdadi cuisine.
It is a cuisine that is rich in fresh vegetables, meat, chicken and fish, and includes a variety of spices and creative concoctions since the community was always strict about keeping its kitchens kosher. For example, instead of using yogurt, as Indians use in tandoori chicken, lemon juice is commonly used in Baghdadi dishes.
Almost all the traditional dishes begin with frying masalas – the spice mixtures used in Indian cooking – in oil, which emboldens their flavors. Most of the dishes are served with sour, sweet or spicy chutney made from green mango, or a hilbeh made with ginger. Fresh coriander appears both in recipes and as a garnish.
If the history of the Indian-Baghdadi community isn’t interesting enough, Benaiah’s personal story is even more intriguing. His father hails from Cochin, and his mother from Baghdad.
Benaiah himself grew up in a neighborhood of Toronto called “Little India.”
He recalls the delights he ate as a child, and loves to go back in time to recreate those memories. Two of the dishes he loves to prepare are roasted potatoes in turmeric, and chicken curry and potatoes in coconut milk.
When Benaiah married his wife Miriam, who grew up in Switzerland, the two decided to share their love of cooking, baking and hosting with the Israeli public by opening up a restaurant in their home in Kfar Saba called Num Num. The Benaiahs also offer catering services for small events. Numnumcurry@, 058-676-7654.
Kachori – deep-fried puff pastry Ingredients
(20-25 pieces)
■ 2 Tbsp. oil
■ 1 spicy green chili pepper, finely chopped
■ 1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, crushed
■ 1 Tbsp. fennel seeds, coarsely ground
■ 1 Tbsp. garam masala (can be bought at spice shops)
■ 2 cups small garden peas, frozen
■ 1 Tbsp. sugar
■ 2 Tbsp. water
■ 2 Tbsp. roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
■ 2 Tbsp. coconut flakes
■ Salt, to taste
■ 2 cups flour
■ 4 cups semolina
■ 2 tsp. lemon juice
■ Pinch of salt
■ 4 Tbsp. oil
■ 1½ cups water, room temperature
Tamarind dip:
■ 1 Tbsp. tamarind extract
■ ¼ cup sugar
■ 1½ tsp. whole cumin seeds
■ 4 medjool dates, pitted and chopped
■ ¼ cup water
■ ½ tsp. salt
Directions: Heat oil in a small pan. Add the chili, fennel seeds and garam masala, and fry gently for 2-3 minutes to release its flavors and aromas. Add the peas, sugar and water. Mix and cook in a covered pot for about 10 minutes over a medium flame. Add the ground peanuts and coconut flakes, and mix. Flavor with salt according to taste. Mash until it turns into a paste.
In a separate bowl, mix the flour, semolina, salt and oil. Add the liquids while stirring. Knead the dough until the texture is uniform and soft.
Cut the dough into 20-25 pieces that are 2 cm. in size. Knead each piece separately, and roll into a circle with a diameter of 5-6 cm. Place a heaping tablespoon of pea mixture on each circle; gather the edges together and pinch them closed. Prepare the rest in the same fashion.
Line a tray with baking paper and align the Kachori so that they’re evenly spaced. Bake for 20 minutes in an oven preheated to 160°.
To prepare the dip, place all the ingredients into a pot. Bring to a boil, lower the flame and continue to cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the mixture is thick. Serve with the Kachori.
Mahashas – Jewish-Indian stuffed vegetables
Ingredients (for 16 pieces)
■ 8 medium ripe tomatoes
■ 2 large onions, peeled
■ ½ kg. ground beef
■ 1 cup basmati rice
■ 1 bunch coriander, chopped
■ 4 cloves
■ 2 garlic cloves
■ 2 frozen cubes of ginger
■ 1 tsp. ground cumin
■ 1 Tbsp. ground coriander seeds
■ 1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
■ ¼ cup oil
■ 1 Tbsp. sugar
■ 1 tsp. turmeric
■ Juice from 2-3 tomatoes
■ 2 tsp. salt
■ Juice from half a lemon
Directions: Remove insides of tomatoes and keep juice in a separate bowl. Make sure to keep all the outside pieces of the tomatoes so you can close them on top of the filling. Cut off sides of onions and boil in water so that you can remove inside layers to make room for filling.
In a medium bowl, mix the filling ingredients well. Fill the tomatoes and onions.
In a flat, wide pot that can hold the stuffed vegetables, heat oil, sugar, turmeric and half the tomatoes. Mix and cook for a minute or two.
Arrange the tomatoes in the pot so that the openings are facing down. Arrange the onions so that they are touching one another. Cover the pot and steam for 40 minutes. (Don’t worry – the vegetables will produce quite a bit of liquid.) Sprinkle the vegetables with salt, pour the lemon juice in the sauce.
Shake the pot a little, cover and continue cooking over a low flame for another hour. If you prefer, you can uncover and cook in an oven for 30 minutes until the vegetables are browned.
Aloo Makala – Calcutta spicy deep-fried potatoes
Ingredients (for 5 servings)
■ 10 small or medium potatoes
■ 1 Tbsp. salt
■ 1 tsp turmeric
■ Oil for deep frying
For hilbe dip:
■ 2 Tbsp. hilbeh (fenugreek) seeds – soaked in half a cup of hot water overnight
■ 1 bunch coriander
■ 2 cubes frozen ginger
■ 1 clove garlic
■ 1 green chili pepper (or to taste)
■ 1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
■ 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (or to taste)
Directions: For the dip: In a food processor, blend the hilbeh and the cold water until smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients, and blend until well mixed. Taste and adjust the seasonings as necessary. Transfer to an air-tight container and store in the fridge.
Peel the potatoes so that they are round and uniformly shaped. Place in a pot and cover them with water. Add salt and turmeric, stir and put over a medium flame. Cook until tender. Drain and place the potatoes on a tray. Make small holes in them with a fork.
Heat oil for deep frying and add the potatoes. Lower flame.
Fry until the potatoes are lightly browned. Shut off the flame and leave the potatoes in oil. Ten minutes before serving time, turn the flame back on and continue to fry the potatoes.
(Be careful not to burn them.) Serve hot with hilbeh.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.