Kochi’s Foodways Celebrated

Joan Nathan's Cochin Coriander-Cumin Chicken for Passover, adapted from Queenie Hallegua and Ofera Elias - cooked and styled by Andrew Scrivani  NYTCREDIT: Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Joan Nathan’s Cochin Coriander-Cumin Chicken for Passover, adapted from Queenie Hallegua and Ofera Elias – cooked and styled by Andrew Scrivani NYTCREDIT: Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

We are always pleased to see Raxa Collective’s hometown in the news, but especially when the coverage focuses on cultural history in the part of town where we are developing a new property. Fort Kochi’s harbor area, including Bazaar Road where Spice Harbour (a waterfront hotel opening later this year, more on which in a future post) is located and where the spice trade is centered, completes the domestic route of the Malabar Coast’s spice trade. Spices are grown throughout the Western Ghats, they make their way down to sea level for transport in the coastal backwaters, and a large percentage end up on Bazaar Road where merchants, traders, godown (warehouse) keepers and others prepare them for shipment.  This has been the way of the spices for millennia, though Fort Kochi’s harbor has played its role in the spice route only in recent centuries. The New York Times writer Joan Nathan describes a culinary-religious heritage motivation for her visit here (minutes from our office location):

KOCHI, India — Dreaming of spices described in the Book of Kings, I came to this southern port city built in the 14th century to learn about its longstanding but tiny Jewish presence and its food, which some believe dates back to the time of the Bible.

Allan Gerson. A spice shop in the Jew Town section of Kochi, India, formerly Cochin. In the old days, spices were harvested in December and January, then dried in the sun for two or three days, roasted and ground.

Allan Gerson. A spice shop in the Jew Town section of Kochi, India, formerly Cochin. In the old days, spices were harvested in December and January, then dried in the sun for two or three days, roasted and ground.

I left with a better understanding of the people and their history, as well as a chicken dish for Passover, after eating first in the home of Queenie Hallegua, 78, who lives in Kochi’s Jew Town, in what used to be the center of the pepper auction run by Jewish merchants, and then the next day in the home of another accomplished cook. Mrs. Hallegua, whose great-grandfather came as a peddler from Iraq and whose grandfather Samuel Koder, a merchant, is credited by the family with bringing electricity and the ferries to Kochi, lives on Synagogue Lane in a building decorated with ancient Indian signs. Though there are fewer than 10 Jews in her neighborhood now, Mrs. Hallegua remembers what it was like growing up when several thousand lived in the area. Over a glass of her pungent Passover wine, made from boiled raisins blended with water and then strained through a cloth, she told me about how she carefully sifts her grains and spices to clean them in preparation for Passover cooking. “Pesach work began in January, when we bought rice, cleaned and washed it, pounding some into rice flour,” Mrs. Hallegua said. “We also cleaned chiles, coriander, cinnamon, pepper, ginger and cardamom, and set some aside for Passover.” Most spices were harvested in December and January, then dried in the sun for two or three days, roasted and ground. Mrs. Hallegua showed me her separate Passover kitchen, outfitted with a large stone mortar and pestle used to grind spices and a flat granite stone for grinding coconut, chiles and coriander.

Read the rest of the story here.

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times. The author’s Cochin coriander-cumin chicken for Passover.

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times. The author’s Cochin coriander-cumin chicken for Passover.

8 thoughts on “Kochi’s Foodways Celebrated

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