Skip To Content

Eating (Jewish) in India

The candles were lit just before sundown, and the Sabbath meal was about to be served.

Down Memory Lane: Cochin was once a center of Jewish culture. Above, a street leads to a synagogue in the city's old Jewish quarter (circa 1950).

Instead of challah, though, we started off with tapioca chips. And there was no sign of brisket anywhere. For we were in Kochi, India (formerly known as Cochin), and the setting for Friday dinner was at one of the famous Jewish sites in that extraordinary country.

Cochin was once a center of Jewish culture and business, and it still has an elegant 16th-century Sephardic temple. But for my wife and me, the destination in this city, a 90-minute plane ride from Mumbai, was a Jewish restaurant.

We’ve made similar stops in Shanghai, in Turkey, in Venice, in Buenos Aires, in Rio.

The place for Jewish food — well, Indian-Jewish with Iraqi roots — is Koder House, which was reconstructed over a 16th-century building site and has been presided over for 100 years by the Koders, one of Cochin’s most prominent Jewish families. In recent times, it has become a six-apartment hotel with a “kosher-style” restaurant known as Menorah. Call it Jinduish food — a meld of Hindu and Jewish.

Our thoughtful tour operator, Abercrombie & Kent, had arranged this detour when I mentioned I was Jewish. It was a 10-minute cab ride from our fancier digs at the noted Taj Malabar hotel.

The Koders’ matriarch, Quinne (pronounced “queenie”), passed on the Jewish family recipes to the restaurant’s current owners. A few years ago, Koder House was taken over by the entrepreneurial Vicky Raj, an enthusiastic Indian businessman who set out to learn about Jewish culture. He joined us for dinner.

The setting was the open courtyard under the Indian stars on a warm winter night this past December. There were several tables alongside a pool, beyond which stood a 3-foot-high menorah. The lighted candles exuded a dramatic, if still, solemnity.

“The family came from Iraq,” Raj said, explaining that the Koders brought with them Iraqi recipes that they fused with Indian spices and dishes.

The waiter announced, “Pineapple salad,” and each course was presented as if it had exotic overtones. The salad was dotted with sweet pineapple, shredded cabbage and carrots, and drizzled with vinegar, olive oil and garlic. The fruit was a welcome counterpart to the other brisk ingredients.

After the salad came the oaf marak — a chicken-vegetable soup that included the soup greens (my grandmother pronounced them “soupen greens”) of my youth. But this one also had turmeric and coriander.

Finally, the main course: oaf mulagirachi, a chicken dish. But this was hardly your grandmother’s Friday night chicken. For one thing, the poultry was halal, or permissible under Islamic law, rather than kosher. (Raj said that, if necessary, the restaurant could actually procure kosher meat.) The tomato-based dish consisted of cubed chicken cooked with ginger garlic paste, chili powder, tamarind juice, turmeric and chili, and various curries. It all came together in a fragrant brown stew.

We topped off the meal with a sweet rice dessert.

The reason the restaurant describes itself as “kosher-style” is that it uses coconut milk instead of real milk. Dinner runs about $11 a person and half-price for children under 12. Every diner gets a tour of the grand old hotel, which Raj renovated in a manner “to keep the heritage of the place.” The rooms, which cost around $300 a night during peak season (October to April) and $150 a night the rest of the year, are built around a huge common living room.

But the Koder House always has more diners than it has overnight guests, and most of the visitors don’t appear to be Jewish. For all they know, they’re having Indian food while gazing at a candelabra. But with the menorah candles flickering, and the waiters hovering above like Jewish grandmothers, it felt like Shabbos to us.

In more than 40 years with The New York Times, Gerald Eskenazi has written about, and eaten at, Super Bowls across the country and Olympics around the world.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.