By 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 is 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
For example, instead of using yoghurt, 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
Most of the dishes are served with sour, sweet or spicy chutney
made from green mango, or a hilbeh made with ginger. 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 grew up in a suburb 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 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.
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.