Local Flavour: Cooking with Sarah Auntie In Kochi’s Jewish Quarter

Potato parcels and two millennia of history. | By Tanya Abraham  
Pastels are Jewish half-moon parcels traditionally filled with potatoes, or tuna. The word pastel comes from the Ladino  language, spoken by Sephardic Jews who are of Spanish descent. Unlike the Cochini Jews who fry the stuffed parcels, Sephardic cooks prefer to bake their pastelicos in the oven. Photo: Sangeetha Subhash
Pastels are Jewish half-moon parcels traditionally filled with potatoes, or tuna. The word pastel comes from the Ladino language, spoken by Sephardic Jews who are of Spanish descent. Unlike the Cochini Jews who fry the stuffed parcels, Sephardic cooks prefer to bake their pastelicos in the oven. Photo: Sangeetha Subhash

As I jostle my way through the tourist-filled streets of Kochi’s Jew Town, a Kashmiri vendor from whom I’d purchased a Pashmina shawl on my last visit, cajoles me into visiting his shop again. But I resist. I am in this part of town for a better reason—to savour pastel. Many years after I first tasted it at a Jewish dinner, the memory of the fried, half-moon parcels stuffed with fish still lingers on my tongue.

Of the few Cochini Jews who remain in the town, I have managed an invitation to learn to make pastel at the home of a grand old lady, Sarah Cohen. It is easy to find her home—the entrance, I know, has the Star of David etched on its wall. Inside, an array of hand-embroidered place mats and Jewish caps are displayed. The latest to her collection are some brass menorahs, for Jewish tourists who pass by to pay their respects to the legendary Jews of Cochin.

Sarah is seated on the red oxide parapet, next to the low windows of her home. “Sarah Auntie,” I call out to her. “Ah, akthotu va,” she replies in chaste Kochi Malayalam, inviting me in. Her home is simple, with antique furniture, an old carpet, and a blue ceramic vase with long stemmed gerbera. “I bought the flowers because you were coming,” she says. A gesture that I know is a lot for someone who rarely leaves her home. I thank her, almost apologetically, for the trouble she has taken. My recipe book clutched firm in my hands, Sarah Auntie motions me to sit next to her. Her chequered lungi and 60s-style sleeveless top are stained yellow from kitchen spices. I open to a fresh page in my book. “Which recipe do you want, tuna or egg-potato?” she asks. “Whichever we will be making today,” I reply quickly. It is to be potato.

It is a Friday evening and we are making this snack the day before the Sabbath. I’ve learnt that pastel is special to the Jewish community. The Cochini version has a slightly altered recipe, tweaked to suit the generations who have lived in Kerala. The snack is a reminder of the history of the Cochini Jews, who came to Kerala after the second destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 70 A.D. They thrived as traders in the port town of Kodungallur, not too far from Kochi, until the Portuguese attacked it in the 16th century. Fleeing oppression under the Portuguese, they sought shelter in Cochin where they built homes and synagogues, and flourished as a tight-knit community called the paradesi or White Jews. In the 1960s the community began dwindling—the older generation having passed on, and many of the others having left for Israel. Many homes in the neighbourhood were sold to local antique dealers. Sarah Auntie is among the few who stayed, and now sells wares to visitors to Kochi’s famous Paradesi Synagogue.

I quickly scribble the recipe down before scurrying into the kitchen behind her. She has the ingredients in bowls: minced onion, potato, boiled eggs, lime juice (from half a lime, she clarifies), pepper, and salt. She mixes them together in a large bowl, intermittently tipping spoonfuls on her tongue to examine the flavour. Next, she makes a dough for the casing from rice flour, coconut milk, and egg yolk.

“Must eat them hot,” she says as she drops the parcels in a wok of bubbling oil. When they take on a golden hue, she serves two on a hand-painted quarter plate as old as the furniture in her room. As I bite into the pastel, steam escapes the puff and its covering sinks down. In every bite I taste a melange of religious traditions, cultures, and personal lives. “It is delicious,” I say. She piles the rest on a larger plate and motions me to the living room, where “If you come by tomorrow, I will give you erachimolugu curry (chilli beef curry),” she says. I promise her I will.

Appeared in the August 2013 issue as “Spice Route”.

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