Why almond flour was used in the cake made for a Jewish Passover Seder Feast in Mumbai and no, the answer is not Ketogenic!

The divine cake made with almond flour by
Kat for a Seder dinner in Mumbai

Almond flour! But why?

The picture that you see above is of a cake made with almond flour. It is one of the most delicious cakes that I've had in a while and K harbours similar sentiments about it. 

I had taken my first bite of the cake a bit tentatively, I must admit, the night I took this picture. Not knowing whether I would like it or not. If I did not, then it would be a waste of the very minimal dessert quota that I should be allowed. 

Turned out that I loved it!  

The cake was delectably moist inside. The chocolate used in it was was dark and brooding and almost as intense as Amitabh Bachchan as the 'angry young man' in countless 70s Bollywood flicks. The balance of sweetness (of the cake) was just right. Rumours that I was responsible for eating the missing half in the picture might or might not be entirely true.

Almond flour cake? Have I slipped over to the dark side you ask? The world of Keto diets which are in vogue today? Or the gluten free one that was the dietary buzzword before that?

Not really! Not yet!

The story of the Seder 

I had this cake at a Seder dinner in Mumbai last Saturday. Seder, as I learnt that night, is a ceremony which is a part of the Jewish holiday of Passover. This was the first Seder that I had ever attended. 

The evening was that of a lot of new learnings for me. My knowledge of Jewish culture so far was largely based on books that I have read, sitcoms and soaps that I have watched and movies that I have seen and frankly the spectrum between Leon Uris to Larry David, with a bit of Woody Allen and Seinfeld and Fiddler On The Roof  thrown in, doesn't really qualify one to speak much about Jewish traditions or food at this point.

Hummus...Hummus ...hummus ... at Tara's
(sung to the tunes of
Tradition, Tradition in Fiddler on the roof)

I did try to go to a Jewish restaurant in the Jewish Quarter of Prague during our holiday there sometime back but the place was packed and the menu offered things like mezze and baba ganoush and that didn't make much sense to me as I get enough of that back home in Mumbai. So I went in search of some nice Czech steaks that night instead, medium rare of course, and didn't eat at the Jewish restaurant.

I recently attended a cooking class by Chef Moshe organised by Israel Tourism in his cooking studio at Alibagh. We learnt how to make hummus (!) there and also learnt a bit more about Israeli food traditions of smoking vegetables, similar to our bhaarta nor begun pora, and shwarma and stuff. Very Arabian in flavour, bound by a shared geography I guess.

My dinner plate at the seder at the Tennebaum's 

At the Seder this weekend, our host Tara Deshpande Tennebaum, an actress and a passionate food writer, who is a local Hindu and is married to an American Jew, explained some of the Jewish traditions to us. 

To start with, she explained that the food on offer in the potluck dinner that night represented various Jewish strains. 

One was that of the Shephardic Jews who originate North Africa, Turkey, Middle East etc and this included dishes such as the hummus and baba ganoush which a guest named Rachel had made according to Otto Lenghi's recipe and whose smokiness was hypnotic and had me in its spell.

There was hummus too. Made by Tara using her mother in law's recipe. 'My mother in law's is nicer though,' said Tara with a smile.

Baba ganoush

Then there were the  Bene Israel Jews who had settled in the Malabar coast of India and from whose repertoire that day came the fish cutlets and rather Mangalorean gassi like fish curries. 

The other dishes came from the shard memories of the Ashkenazi Jews who were originally from Eastern Europe. Most of the guests at the dinner that night were expat American Jews who belonged to this sect as their forefathers had migrated to the US from Europe. The lox (smoked salmon) and potato salad which was a part of our dinner was an example of that. It was delicious and dished by Tara who is obsessed with salads it seems and has written a book on them recently. 

Then there are the Kolkata Jews who are Baghdadi Jews though very few of them are still around. The founders of the legendary bakery in Kolkata, Nahoum, belonged to this sect. Representing Kolkata on the table, strangely enough, were dishes that were ordered from Pia Promina Dasgupta Barve, who belongs to the Kewpie's family of Kolkata and lives in Mumbai. These were peppers stuffed and aubergines with rice called Mahasha from her and a lovely vegetarian dish made with root vegetables called Tsimmes. I said 'strangely,' as Pia is not Jewish but has learnt Jewish recipes from a family friend of their's from what I understand. Pia is a Bengali Brahmo married to a Maharashtrian but food connects us all as we know by now.

I will not attempt to give you more gyan on Jewish traditions in this post and at the end will leave you with a link to an article for that. It was written by Rituparna Roy Deshpande for the Hindu on the  after interviewing Tara and has more details. 

A plate representing seder traditions which was
 part of the ceremony that evening

The mystery behind the almond flour in the cake

I must tell you about the reason for the use of almond flour in the cake though. 

At the dinner, I bumped into an American gentleman who calls India his home now. Turned out that he is one of the earliest readers of my blog. We met for the first time that night though we had interacted with each other for years.

He explained the reason behind almond flour in the the cake, the maker of which, Kat, had actually bought and crushed whole almonds to obtain almond flour, and who had tested many recipes before she landed this divine cake for the dinner. 

It was truly a labour of love.

Kat who made the cake (reading out the
Seder story from the book)
What I learnt from our friend and also during the reading and singing that happened at the dinner table that night was that Seder commemorates the time when the Jews escaped from slavery in ancient Egypt. My own decoding of what was expressed in the parts read out from the books that evening was that the festival celebrates values of freedom, hope and peace but I would love to learn more about it.

How did these values of 'hope and joy' find their way into the cake that Kat made you ask? 

Well, as my friend explained, when the Jews of yore escaped Egypt, they didn't really get to carry all their belongings, including grains and provisions, with them. In memory of this, their descendants don't use flour such as wheat, rye or spelt during seder.

The only bread you can cook on this occasion, he told me, is Matzah, an unleavened bread and that too under strict religious supervision. This is apparently the bread that the Jews had apparently cooked while on their journey to escape slavery. 

"There was not time for the bread to rise and hence it was made in a hurry without yeast."

The explanation seemed so simple when I heard it and yet so full of respect and gratitude on the part of those who observed it.

The Matzah bread that we had at Seder

Which explained why midway through the Seder ceremony we got the cracker like Matzah bread taken out of sealed packets and with which we made a 'sandwich' with Charoset. This, Tara explained, is a Cochin Jewish dates and resin based chutney. The dish reminded me of the lagan nu achar of the Parsi which was rather ironic given the similarities one has felt between the way Jews are depicted in popular culture and the way Parsis are here.

This also explains why Kat used almonds to make her divine cake and not flour. No, it was not for any Keto sensibilities as we have established by now!

Food lies at the heart of love

The expat Jews of Mumbai and their seder in March 2018
There were two things struck me that evening at Tara and her husband Dan's place.

The first was when I looked at the group of largely expat Jews at the table. Many of whom I was told didn't even know each other till that evening. Yet, I saw them smile and nod happily as they read out from the seder books, sang, drank wine and then ate. I was told that not all of them followed the same Jewish traditions as these vary geographically at times. Yet, they looked so happy together and at home in a foreign land.

What I saw that evening reminded me of photographs in our family albums from the mid 1970s in UK from the time when I was a baby. Pictures of Bengalis who had got together from across the island nation they had recently home to celebrate festivals such as Durga and Saraswati pujo. As at Tara and Dan's seder, rules were bent at times in the Bengali festivals too in acknowledgment of their new realities. I was told as a kid, for example, by my dad that he would recite some of the scriptures for the puja as he had learnt these from his mother as a kid. However, as he was not a Brahmin, a Brahmin friend of his, and a fellow doctor, would sit beside him for symbolic reasons And, unlike in the pujos of Kolkata, the image of Durga shipped in by Air India would not be immersed in water after the pujas back then. They would keep it in someone's house to be used again next year. 

Jugaad is allowed when away from home I guess!

Tara and Dan who welcomed us to their home and hearts for the seder

The joys of culinary diplomacy

There was another childhood memory of mine that came back when I watched our gracious hosts, Dan and Tara, the evening while they made us feel at home and made an effort to explain what was happening to K and me, who are not Jews, so that we would not feel left out.

This was of a time in the early 1980s when I wanted to invite Robert, a Polish classmate of mine from school in Calcutta, home. I was just eight years or so old then but still remember how my parents tried to make them feel at home in Kolkata and help them understand our city and our culture better.

This was during durga Puja and my father had paid for and organised khichuri bhog from the local pujo for them. My father bought baatik shirts from Khaadi Bhandar shop for Robert, his elder brother and their father and a baatik saari for his mother and my mother helped her wear it.

This was a short while before my father had passed away but those lessons have remained with me more than three decades later.

Lessons to always open ones heart to those different from us and to build bonds of friendship in the process. Lessons that my father had lived by in the UK, then in Iran and when he returned to India too. Lessons that till today drive the way I look at the world.

I must add, that among the many great things that follow if one does so, getting to have some delicious food lies right at the top.

Let's call this culinary diplomacy!

Reading from the Seder book
Singing seder songs
There were delicious devilled eggs and this reminded K and me
of our late Jamshed uncle who would always order them for us
at nearby RBYC

Some of the spread at the Cedar table. Green peas, the fish curry from the
Shephardic Jewish kitchen, Pia's tsimmes with root vegetables, the
lox and potato salad & fish cutlets. They had kept meat away from this dinner
given the dietary preferences of some of the guests I was told
The Mahasha by Pia

K and me with Tara Deshpande and Mark Tennebaum

Update (4th April 2018): A Very Goan Easter in Mumbai

A Goan eastern lunch courtesy Roger D'Souza of That Goan Guy

During my weekly chat with Annie Marwaha, which we broadcast on her show on Wednesday afternoons at 1 pm, I realised that how the two meals that I had this weekend and spoke to her about which showed how food takes influences from all across the world.

We saw earlier in this post how culinary traditions from all over seeped into the Jewish Seder dinner that we had on Saturday in Mumbai. Now look at what happened the next day.

On Sunday, we got to have an Easter meal sent over by Roger D'Souza which featured food from the Goan community who form one of the major constituents of the Christian community of Mumbai.  Food which was once Portuguese influenced and which since then added to the richness of the Indian culinary repertoire. 

Goans, who like us Bengalis, are football crazy and would hopefully appreciate my attempt to recreate a football formation with my flatlay pic that I took for Instagram, even if it was not very symmetrical.

Bringing in the 'defence' along with the bun was a very well balanced, and not too sour, Goan sausage fry and the pork sorpotel, one of the nicest I have had in a looooooong time. It was spicy and the quality of the pork was outstanding.

In the 'midfield' was an amazing fish cutlet, redolent with the flavours of mackerel and buff roast and then a ros omelette which blew my mind off with its flavours. 

Leading the 'attack' were the mutton meat balls and the chicken cafreal where I was impressed by the subtlety of flavours in the curries.

I mentioned in my Instagram post that I was happy to be the goalie as running is not my thing. A Bengali who saw the picture then asked if a few players had been red carded as we didn't have eleven. I replies, saying yeas and that they were the vegetarian dishes!

This delicious fare was most kindly sent to us by Roger D’Souza whom I met at the recent #IFBA2017 event. He dreams of setting up a Goan food truck and given the food I tasted today I am that the truck will run like a song. If in Mumbai you can call him at 9167587018 to place orders.

Thanks for this Roger. Here’s a fun fact, some of the British doctor colleagues of my father would call me Roger when I was a kid in the UK as they found my nickname of Raja unfamiliar to them I was later told.

This made me wonder, what would be considered as Easter food in other parts of the world. I would not be surprised if the Christians of Kolkata would have some pulao and mangsho on the day or perhaps some club like roasts and vindaloo!

There's more to this post: 

I have some great news to share with you. HT Brunch recently did an article on food and food bloggers this weekend and one of the blogs featured was mine. Big thanks to the HT Brunch team and to the writer of the piece, Deepika Nidige. It is lovely to see the work of bloggers being acknowledged by mainstream media. Synergy between the two, I feel, will lead to more wonderful stories from the world of food being told I am sure. It is also great to be acknowledged in the Brunch in particular as that is where the column of Vir Sanghvi, whose food writing I really admire, comes out. Above all, big big thanks to all you readers who have indulged me while I blogged away furiously down these years. Our being invited to the Seder on the same day in a way is due to my blog as that is how Tara and I connected.

I also got featured in the award winning 'Baking With Shivesh' blog written by the very talented young Shivesh Bhatia. The article features the stories of some of us who have made the transition from being in a full time corporate job to leading the life of an independent food blogger and writer. A life I feel most thankful to lead today and I would be happy if my stories gives some direction to anyone else planning to do so too.

Also read:

  1. My mother Rekha Karmakar's blog post on the Durga Pujas of UK in the 1970s
  2. A blog post that I had written on my father, the Late Dr Mukul K Karmakar, way back in 2008
  3. Rituparna Roy Deshpande's article on seder at the Tennebaums
  4. Phone number of Pia Promina Dasgupta if you want to order and try Jewish food in Mumbai: 9920370638 She's based in Bandra
  5. Link to order Tara's latest book, An Indian Sense of Salad
  6. Link to the HT Brunch article
  7. Link to the post written by Shivesh Bhatia on his excellent blog Baking With Shivesh which features my story too among those of the three people who made the transition to having a full time corporate job to becoming a freelance food writer through their blogs
  8. My post which mentions going to Moshe Shek's workshop
  9. An old post of mine on how to make begun pora, the Bengali baba ganoush and the cousin of the bharta
  10. My post on our recent discovery of ros omelette