Saturday, 29 October 2011

Jews in the land of Coconut

Kerala, God’s own country also known as “the land of coconut”. Even though scholars says the etymology of this word is related to the Chera kingdom, Cheralam later vocalized as Keralam. The beauty of Kerala says it is really the land of coconut.

A cloudy day in Kerala

The influence of coconut in the cultural and traditional heritage of the Keralites is well known but its influence on Kerala jews, is a less discussed topic. Unknown to us but we can probably imagine that the first Jewish houses and prayer houses in Kerala would have been roofed with the woven Coconut leaves and how many Smoky flavoured matzos would have griddled or baked using dried coconut husk as fuels…

I am rephrasing a proverb, unknown is an ocean and known is a drop, and we’ll discuss about those known drops…. It is said that Western wall of the Pardesi synagogue was erected with mortar (A local plaster made of treated marine bivalve mollusc of the Mactridae family, known as “ithil” in Malayalam language is widely found in the vicinity. It is treated by a process known as “Neettil”, and a powder or paste form plaster known as Kummayam or Chunnamb is made. Then it is mixed with fine gravel and water) mixed with Tender coconut water instead of plain water. 

Western wall of Paradesi Synagogue.

This first hand information is mentioned by Cochin Jews Abraham Barak Selam in his book - Cochin Jew Town Synagogue, 1929.

The reason behind using Tender coconut water as explained by Cochin Jews is that, it is one of the purest forms of water and it was used to keep the place holy. And Adv Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi, in his book The Shingly Hebrews, explains, Maharaja of Cochin, who took an active part in its constructions, ordered his labours to use coconut water to prepare the mortar.

Whatever the reason be, the significants and benefits of the Coconut tree and its products are numerous. It is known as “Kalpa Vriksha” in Sanskrit means “All Providing tree”, 

In India one of the most common offerings in a temple is a coconut. It is also offered on occasions like weddings, festivals, the use of a new vehicle, bridge, house etc. It is offered in the sacrificial fire whilst performing homa. The coconut is broken and placed before the Lord. It is later distributed as prasaada. The coconut is broken, symbolising the breaking of the ego. The juice within, representing the inner tendencies (vaasanas) is offered along with the white kernel - the mind, to the Lord. In the traditional abhishekha ritual done in all temples and many homes, several materials are poured over the deity among those tender coconut water is inevitable. And Tender coconut water is used in abhisheka rituals since it is believed to bestow spiritual growth on the seeker.

The coconut also symbolizes selfless service. Every part of the tree -the trunk, leaves, fruit, coir etc. Is used in innumerable ways like thatches, mats, tasty dishes, oil, soap etc. It takes in even salty water from the earth and converts it into sweet nutritive water that is especially beneficial to sick people. It is used in the preparation of many ayurvedic medicines and in other alternative medicinal systems. Modern day science explains that:
Coconut water is a universal donor. It is identical to human blood plasma. It can be used as an I.V. It is more nutritious than Whole Milk. Less fat and no Cholestrol.
Coconut water is naturally sterile and as the water permeates though the filtering husk. If compared with a water purifier the water is filtered a 1000 times and gravity also plays a part in this process. So it is the most purest form of water or the 1000 times filtered water with adequate amount of nutrients.

These may not be the exact reason why they had used Tender Coconut water for mixing the Mortar. But simply it was to keep the place most holy in any aspect, and another reason was the influence of Hindu traditions.

Along with this, other significance is that Coconut oil was used to light the Ner-tameed all synagogues of Kerala.

Ner-Tameed of Pardesi synagogue.

On the eve of Friday to indicate the time of Sabbath the black granite receptacle stuck into all Jewish houses in Cochin, lighted in the evening using Coconut oil. Still those can be found in Jew Town, Cochin. But now this tradition is replaced by lighting electric bulb.
Aalvilakku (Lighted specially for Simhat Torah) on left and Kalvilakku (Black granite reptackle) on right.

Yom kippur lamp, belongs to the Jews of Parur, Kerala.
Photo courtesy to Magnes museum

Yom kippur lamp, belongs to Jews of Cochin, Kerala.

Hannukah lamp, belongs to Koder Family of Cochin
Photo courtesy to

Even other festivals like Simhat torah, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah the lamps used were lighted by coconut oil later some were replaced by candles.

Culinary influence of the Coconut is also very much visible in Cochin jewish cuisine. Most of the Cochin Jewish recipes call for coconut oil which was safe like olive oil in the matter of Kashurath.

 The other significant coconut product is coconut milk, which is an all time substitute for diary milk or milk product for Jews of Kerala, while cooking meat products. Example Kadathala (a thin rice batter crepe) is mixed with coconut milk while other crepe recipes call for diary milk, where the coconut milk enables them to fill meat products to make Kadathala pasthel. 


Kadathala Pasthel with meat fillings.

Some more meat based dishes like Cochini Hamin (Cochini style Cholent), Manja Choru (Yellow rice, flavoured with chicken fat and stock) often calls for coconut milk in its recipe. Would like to repeat the proverb once again "Known is a drop and unknown is an Ocean" we will search in that ocean for more..... 


  1. Good post, Thoufeek,

    It is interesting to note that there is no mention of 'keralam' in ancient Sangam Literature, although Emperor Ashoka's edicts mention a south Indian dynasty named Kedalaputho in 261 BC. Roman historian Pliny called the western Indian coast Caelobothras in his Natural History and the fabled Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mentions Cerobothra ("Keralaputhra").

    One theory says that the name Kerala or Keralam is derived from two words the Sanskrit kera and alam. Kera means coconut tree (Cocos nucifera, family Palmae) and alam means 'land of' or 'abode of'. So, word Keralam means the Land of Coconuts

    Jews who were dispersed in the Caribbean region also made extensive use of the coconut (Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados, Suriname etc.) I have a friend, who calls himself a 'Jewmaican', and he usea coconut in many dishes, including famous desserts like the Coconut Toto, which is great with ice-cream!

    Bala Menon

  2. An interesting post! Cochin Jews who had arrived in the 1st Century would be expected to have assimilated coconut in their daily diet much more than has been described here. Or, are we discussing the adaptation of coconut by the later White Jews? As you suggest, more research is needed.A good beginning, indeed.

  3. Hai Bala,
    thanks for additional details on the etymology of Kerala. It literally added colors to the topic and I even thinks that the theory mentioned about the Kera alam, is very much acceptable but the origin of the word Keralam is still a mystery as both Kera alam and Chera theory of origin is acceptable. And according to me both are parallely suiting with the etymological explanations.

  4. Hai CKR,
    This topic talk more about the white jews, but more details about the old malabari jews is unknown to some extend that was why i used or rephrased an old proverb "unknown is an ocean and known is a drop, and we’ll discuss about those known drops…" as you suggest more research is required but we can create a story but real history is pretty hard to scrape out from the past.....
    I am even writing a post with a fictional shade about the culinary history of jews of Kerala as it cannot be considered as history. It is a narration about their arrival and birth of a cuisine which I visualized in my mind or it can be called my perspective...
    hope that will be interesting to you...

  5. Interesting! Since I haven't done any research on the Jews, I cannot contribute much- whatever I know is from what my Mom told me and interaction with the Jews from my generation--I loved their cuisine and upto today cook a lot of them. Like it is mentioned above, coconut milk is used for kadathala, Meen Mollie, Used in a kind of fish salad using Chala and koorka.. I haven't really eaten any chicken preparations with coconut milk--but perhaps they made it during festivals. I'm hoping to eat a lot of them again on my visit to Israel shortly and I'm also interested to see if they have adapted to the changed circumstances.

  6. Hai Usha,
    research is just a medium to know about a topic but upto me each and every moment you spend with your mom is similar to that.... as it was a first hand info.
    Well even i have not found much meat recipe with coconut milk in it. but their observance of Kashurath as told by Sarah cohen if they are having meat based dish for breakfast they will avoid tea with milk, instead black tea is prefered. similarly they use to omit milk in that way so instead of using milk products they used coconut milk as for Kadathala pasthel.

  7. Yes, Jews do not mix milk/ milk products with meat.. So all our Biriyanis made with curds/ yogurt in the masala is all alien to them..If they have a chicken dish on the table, there is no yogurt anywhere close by... But with fish, yes, in fact they make the yogurt when they have fish...

  8. Yes you are right about mixing meat products with milk. but a three months before I had prepared a fish biriyani from Sarah aunties house but as she told i had omitted using curd instead I used coconut milk and a little bit of vinegar. and even instead of simple raitha, i had prepared Pulip ( Cochin Jewish usage for salad) flavored with cumin and soured with vinaigrette, which became her favorite thereafter. Even gammy uncle and Reema auntie joined to have that Kosher fish Biriyani prepared by a Muslim and Reema auntie was telling she was having biriyani after a long 6 years....
    Really touched my heart...
    By the way, back to topic they use to omit milk with fish also but not sure about the Cochin jews settled in Israel.