Curry favor, flavor on Hanukkah with South Indian cuisine

Is there such a thing as Jewish food? The diverse foods of the international Jewish community have certain commonalities based on traditions and religious practices, with special dishes for Shabbat and holidays. Among them are fried foods for Hanukkah.

Such specialties as Green Fish Curry in Coconut Milk and Neyyappam, a sweet fritter, come from the South Indian Jewish communities of Cochin (now Kochi) and the Malabar Coast, where Jews lived for more than 1,000, and perhaps 2,000, years. Local ingredients and tastes as well as later Sephardic immigrants influenced their food ways, and while nearly all the Jews have migrated to Israel and the West, some of the synagogues are preserved. Meanwhile, the community’s recipes are kept alive in such cookbooks as “Spice & Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews” by Essie Sassoon, Bala Menon and Kenny Salem. I’ve adapted the recipes below from the cookbook.


Green Fish Curry in Coconut Milk

Serves 6

  • 6 whole green cardamom pods
  • 2 to 21/2 lbs. firm fish fillets
  • 21/2 cups chopped onion
  • 2-inch fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced
  • 1 Tbs. chopped garlic
  • 11/2 tsp. ground coriander seed
  • 11/2 cups coconut cream, divided (see notes)
  • 3 Tbs. coconut oil
  • 1 tsp. brown mustard seeds
  • 1 cup finely chopped shallots
  • 6 small, green hot chiles, sliced into thin rounds
  • 1 cup water
  • 1- to 2-inch piece of dried bay leaf or curry leaf sprig (see notes)
  • 1/4 cup grated lemon zest, divided
  • 1 tsp. garam masala (found in specialty stores and some supermarkets)
  • 3/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves, divided
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

Place cardamom on sturdy surface. Whack with side of knife. Peel. Place seeds in plastic bag. Roughly crush with rolling pin. Cut fish into 2-inch pieces.

Finely chop onion, ginger and garlic in food processor. Add coriander and 3/4 cup coconut cream. Blend into a paste.

Heat oil over medium heat in large, heavy pot. Add mustard. Stir until seeds begin to sizzle and jump. Add cardamom and shallots. Fry until shallots brown. Add paste, chiles and water. Cook 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add fish, bay leaf, 1 Tbs. zest, garam masala, 1/2 cup cilantro, remaining coconut cream, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low. Stir occasionally until fish is cooked through. Remove bay leaf. Garnish with remaining cilantro and zest.

Notes: Coconut cream is unsweetened, thickened coconut milk. If unavailable, chill three 15 oz. cans of full-fat regular coconut milk right side up. Remove lids. Scoop out thickened top layer. Stir in remaining liquid to bring to 11/2 cups. Curry leaves are available in Indian markets.


Neyyappam

Makes about 25 fritters

  • 1 cup semolina
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 Tbs. sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup blanched, chopped almonds
  • 1/4 cup chopped, raw cashews
  • 1/4 cup raisins, chopped
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil plus more as needed
  • Toast semolina in a large fry pan over high heat, stirring until lightly golden. Mix with flour, seeds, almonds, cashews and raisins in a large bowl.

Combine 2 cups water with brown sugar, cardamom and salt in small pot. Boil. Pour over dry mixture and mix well. (Add a bit of warm water if needed.) Mixture will be thick. Cover. Refrigerate 24-48 hours. Bring to room temperature.

Form into balls or patties. Heat oil in a wok (for balls) or a large fry pan (for patties) and fry in batches, turning as needed until browned and cooked. Add oil if needed. Drain on paper towels.

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is faithkramer.com. Contact her at [email protected].