Adapted from Joan Nathan's King Solomon's Table
I visited Queenie Hallegua, the doyenne of the now tiny Jewish community of about eight people in Kochi’s Jew Town. A port city, Kochi was built in 1341 C.E. and many of the Jewish spice merchants migrated there from Iraq and then Spain after the Inquisition.
As I sipped Queenie’s pungent Passover wine, which she mixes from boiled raisins blended with water, she told me how much fun it was being Jewish growing up in a country that loves all kinds of religious ceremonies. When Queenie was a child, there were several thousand Jews in the area.
“Pesach work began in January when we bought rice, cleaned and washed it, pounding some into rice flour,” Queenie told me in her clipped Indian British accent. “We also cleaned chiles, coriander, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and cardamom and set some aside for Passover.” Later, the spices which had been harvested in December and January, were dried in the sun for two or three days before being roasted and ground for use.
“In the olden days, we made our own matzo,” she said. “We pounded the wheat collected in fields and people gathered to cook it on a grill over a wood fire in our courtyard -- sometimes in one hundred degrees heat.” For haroset, she still boils down dates to the texture of honey in a copper cauldron. This date jam, called duvo here, eaten topped with cashews, walnuts, or almonds, was used as honey in biblical times.”
“Today Passover comes and goes without much funn,” Queenie told me. Now she can find prepared date jam and machine-made matzos that came from Israel through the consulate of Mumbai.
A day later, I visited Queenie’s synagogue, where, a few years ago, she had the fortune to meet Queen Elizabeth. Taking my shoes off, I walked on the blue tiles and enjoyed the beauty of the Paradesi (“foreigner”) Synagogue of the Sephardic Jews, build in 1568. Queenie told me that the original synagogue was built in the fourth century in Kodungallur (Cranganore) when the Jews had a mercantile role in the South Indian region (now called Kerala) along the Malabar coast. When the community moved to Kochi in the fourteenth century, it built a new synagogue.
Usually, Queenie buys Kosher chicken from Bangalore. Otherwise, she uses one of the two local schochets still operating in Kochi. She seasons her chicken with cardamom, cumin, and cilantro; I have added a fresh masala to her dry one, to liven up and add some color to this already delicious recipe that now tastes more Indian than Iraqi.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Seeds from 4 cardamom pods
6 black peppercorns or 1 tsp ground black pepper
3 heaping tbsp coriander seeds
One 2-inch Ceylon cinnamon stick
½ tsp anise seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp salt
3 large onions, diced into large chunks
2 to 3 tbsp vegetable oil
3 lbs (about 6-8) boneless skinless chicken thighs
3 tomatoes, roughly chopped
4-5 curry leaves (optional)
2 tbsp white vinegar
2-inch piece fresh ginger
4 to 5 cloves garlic
½ bunch (about 1 cup) cilantro leaves, chopped
¼ bunch (about ½ cup) mint leaves, chopped
2 to 3 fresh green chilies, minced
1) Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Toast the cardamom seeds, cloves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, anise seeds, and cumin seeds for about 5 or 6 minutes, stirring often, until they start to pop. Immediately remove them from the pan and grind them in a small blender or mortar and pestle with the nutmeg, turmeric, and salt. Rub into the chicken and let rest in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.
2) In a Dutch oven, saute the onions for a few minutes in about 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat until golden. Add the chicken, tomatoes, curry leaves if using, ½ cup water, and the white vinegar. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until the chicken is soft and cooked through.
3) In a food processor, blend the ginger, garlic, cilantro, mint leaves, and 2 of the chilies. Taste and add more chilies to taste. Add to the chicken and simmer for another 5 minutes.
Serve over rice.