PASSOVER IN INDIA : Why is this night different from all others? Because we're eating coconut rice.

On the tropical west coast of India, tucked away amid the vast Hindu population, there is a tiny but ancient community of Jews. You won't find chopped liver, potato pancakes or brisket of beef there, nor matzo ball soup. They serve molagachi (mahogany chicken with black pepper), ellegal (spice-rubbed fish in cool herb salsa), masalachi (mutton braised with garlic and coriander) and appam (coconut crepes with date sauce).

The oldest colony of Jews in India is known as the Bene Israel. Their origin is shrouded in mystery, but their traditions say they came in the second century B.C. and were shipwrecked at Konkan on the Malabar coast. The seven men and women who survived the disaster established the community, and today a memorial stands where, according to tradition, the bodies of those who were lost at sea are buried.

The second group--known as the Cochini Jews--say they arrived on the Malabar coast shortly after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Pardesi Synagogue in Cochin, which is of undetermined age--the present building dates from the 16th Century, but it preserves stone from a more ancient structure--has been designated a National Treasure of India. Iraqi and European Jews came later, in the last several centuries.

The Bene Israel and Cochini Jews remained relatively unknown to the Western world until recently, when they began to make an exodus from India to Israel and the United States, where they settled mainly in Los Angeles and New York City. Although temperamentally and linguistically similar to the Hindus, Indian Jews possess distinctly different customs and traditions, as well as a cuisine that is a wonderful amalgam of Indo-Jewish flavors.

"We are religious, of course," Sattoo Sabattai Koder explained to me in his centuries-old family house in Cochin, "but not orthodox." A stately looking gentleman dressed in a mondoo (the Malabari sarong), Rabbi Koder belongs to a family that traditionally provides wardens of the Pardesi Synagogue. He explained that Indian Jews strictly observe the Sabbath and its customs as well as Kashrut (Kosher laws), and the major Jewish festivals. But they have also adopted elements of India's secular spirit.

Hindu India, where everyone is born into one caste or another, not only allows but positively encourages ethnic groups to maintain their own traditions. As a result, Indian Jews socialize freely with other communities, celebrate each other's festivals and feast together without suffering from the ancient fear of unknowingly violating a dietary law. "It is commonly understood that everyone will respect and abide by mutual dietary codes," said Koder.

For the past two years I have had the good fortune to be invited to celebrate Passover with Indian Jews at Congregation Bina in New York City. I have watched spellbound as the congregation made its holiday preparations. The men in the congregation softy hummed songs of Exodus to Indian melodies while women in flowing silk saris and sparking jewelry prepared the Seder platter.

This platter has six ritual foods: lamb shank bone and roasted eggs to symbolize sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem; romaine lettuce in remembrance of the bitterness of slavery; celery for hope and the new growth of spring; date jam with walnuts to represent the mortar and bricks with which Jewish slaves worked for the Egyptians; lime juice to represent the tears shed by the Jews during this period of slavery; and matzo, the unleavened bread baked hurriedly by the Jews in exodus.

"Our ceremonies are never so ultraconservative that they interfere with the spirit of the people," explained Elijah E. Jhirad, co-founder and president of Congregation Bina. Jhirad had very kindly made me, a non-Jew, a member of his congregation.

"It is traditional to prepare lamb this day," said Julie Samson, a congregation who had prepared this Seder feast. "It is a Sephardic custom followed in remembrance of the paschal sacrifice."

It was impossible not to be intoxicated by the hypnotic scents of spices and herbs that emanated from the Seder table laden with dishes such as lamb braised with spices and fried onions, a layered casserole of hot sauteed fish and cool greens perfumed with dill and mint, a soul-soothing pot of spicy okra and a plate of coconut rice.

Since the Jewish communities in India are generally coastal, their cuisine is based largely upon the fish that abound in coastal waters. In addition, Indian Jews are rice-eaters, and they include rice at Passover in innumerable delicacies, from elaborate meat pilafs and casseroles to puddings, muffins and cakes. Non-dairy products such as coconut, almond and soybean milk are used for making gravies and creamy sauces, while fragrant oils of peanut, mustard, and sesame seeds lend light, spring-like flavors to dishes. Indian Jews, like other Indians, love tropical fruits--juicy ripe mangoes in particular.

"Our Seder does have special flavor or mood," observed Elias Levi, rabbi of Congregation Kahal Joseph in Los Angeles, "one more like a carnival."

This spirit of joy and vibrancy is unique to Indian Jews, according to Prof. Joan Roland, author of "Jews in British India" "Ashkenazim (Western Jews) in Europe," she explains, "were always under the threat of anti-Semitism and so remained restrained and ineffusive, often subduing their celebrations for fear of offending their neighbors. Indian Jews didn't suffer those restrictions."

When I recall the Seder I shared with Indian Sephardic Jews in New York, it is not the grandeur of the room, the decorativeness of the Seder platter nor the brightness of the candelabra that fills my memory. What I remember most about the event is the remarkable delicacies and the joyous optimism of the Seder service.

JULIE SAMSON'S LAMB BRAISED IN CILANTRO SAUCE

(Masalachi Mutton)

1 cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, packed

6 large cloves garlic

1 (2-inch) piece peeled ginger root

4 hot green chiles, stemmed

1/4 cup oil

2 cups finely chopped onions

3 medium tomatoes, pureed with skin

4 bay leaves

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 to 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut in 1-inch pieces

Kosher salt

Samuel Sabattai Koder's Coconut Rice

Finely mince cilantro, garlic, ginger and green chiles, using food processor if desired. Heat oil in large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Saute onions until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Add cilantro mixture and tomato puree and continue cooking until tomatoes lose raw fragrance, about 5 minutes.

Stir in bay leaves, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and cayenne pepper. Add lamb and kosher salt, mix well and bring contents to boil.

Lower heat, cover and simmer gently until fork-tender, about 1 1/2 hours, stirring frequently. Add water as necessary. Serve lamb with green salad and coconut rice. Makes 8 servings.

SAMUEL SABATTAI KODER'S COCONUT RICE (Narli Bhat)

1 1/2 cups long-grain rice

3 cups Coconut Milk

1/2 cup grated coconut

Combine rice and Coconut Milk in medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook rice, partially covered, until most of liquid has evaporated and surface of rice is covered with steamy holes, about 10 minutes.

Cover pot tightly and reduce heat to lowest point. Steam rice 10 minutes or until rice is fully cooked and remaining liquid is fully absorbed into rice.

Turn off heat and let rice stand 5 minutes. Uncover, fluff rice with fork and fold in grated coconut. Makes 8 servings.

Coconut Milk

2 coconuts

4 1/2 cups boiling water

Pierce eyes of coconuts. Drain liquid and discard. Whack coconuts with hammer until shell cracks into several pieces.

Using paring knife, release coconut meat from shells and remove traces of rind. Mince coconut meat, about 1 cup at time, in food processor. Set aside 1/2 cup chopped coconut for garnish.

Add boiling water to remaining coconut meat, soak 1/2 hour. Grind coconut with water in food processor in several batches and drain through sieve, squeezing residue to extract juice. Makes 4 1/2 cups.

FLOWER SILLIMAN'S FISH CASSEROLE WITH DILL AND MINT (Anjuli)

6 tablespoons corn oil

1/2 pound white non-oily fish fillets (cod, scrod, sole etc.), cut in thin 2-inch pieces

1 small eggplant (1/2 pound), cut in slices, salted and drained

1 teaspoon chopped green chiles

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped mint

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped dill

1 teaspoon chopped cilantro

1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced, salted and drained

1 bunch green onions (both green and white parts), thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups Coconut Milk

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Dill sprigs

Heat 2 tablespoons corn oil in skillet. Add single layer fish fillets and fry on both sides until lightly browned. Remove fish with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Continue with remaining fish and eggplant slices, using additional oil as necessary.

In 2-inch-deep serving dish, layer fish, eggplant, chiles, mint, dill, cilantro, onion and green onions. Combine Coconut Milk, lemon juice, kosher salt and sugar and pour over rest of ingredients. Serve immediately or refrigerate few hours. Serve garnished with dill sprigs. Makes 8 servings.

JULIE SAMSON'S SPICY OKRA (Bhindi Masala)

2 tablespoons corn oil

2 medium onions, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon chopped ginger root

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon chopped fresh hot green chiles

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 pounds okra, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

2 teaspoons vinegar

Kosher salt

Combine corn oil, onion, ginger, garlic, chiles, turmeric and cumin in large skillet and cook over medium heat until onions are glazed, about 10 minutes.

Add okra and mix well. Cook covered until okra is tender, about 15 minutes. Uncover, stir in vinegar and salt and continue cooking until excess moisture evaporates, 1bout 5 minutes. Makes 8 servings.

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