Mizrachi cookery redolent of spice, legend

At a recent cooking class featuring a few dishes from the family of Bombay-born Pearl Sofaer, the stories threatened to eclipse the food.

“My mother was a secretary of Gandhi,” she said, as a student browned chicken parts on the stovetop. “He gave her a sewing machine. She wanted to take it to the U.S. when we left, but my father wouldn’t let her.”

The class, held at the Berkeley home of Rabbi Yehuda Ferris and his wife, Miriam, was co-sponsored by Chabad of the East Bay and JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), where Sofaer is on the speakers’ bureau.

Sofaer is the author of “Baghdad to Bombay: In the Kitchens of My Cousins.” The 2008 book is very much like the class was, full of stories with some family recipes included. Sofaer learned how to cook from her mother in the United States — because in India they always had a cook.

The author, cantorial soloist, artist, mother and grandmother lives in Greenbrae; she has been in the United States for most of her adult life. While she and her mother were born in Bombay and her father in Rangoon, Burma, all are of Iraqi descent.

“I’m a Mizrachi Jew, who came from between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,” she said, and then broke into the song about the waters of Babylon.

“When Babylon disintegrated, that’s when they moved to Baghdad, which became a major center. It was where the Hebrew alphabet was first written down, and the sofers (Hebrew for scribes) did that writing. I feel extremely fortunate to be from this heritage because it’s so very rich.”

The food she made was less rich, using no oil at all. While Indian cuisine is heavy on oil and ghee (clarified butter), she said Baghdadi Jews do not cook that way. We made a simple salad of diced tomatoes, dressed only with lemon juice, chopped cilantro and salt and pepper.

Same with a beet salad with caramelized onions; again, it was dressed with lemon juice, a bit of cranberry juice (the addition comes from her cousin in Toronto, not from India), and salt and pepper.

Sofaer was clear that all leaves should be plucked from the cilantro stems. “Never serve your guests cilantro like this,” she said, pointing to the entire stem. “I can’t stand lazy restaurants that do that.”

Pearl Sofaer (right) works with Frances Kalfus during a Berkeley cooking class. photo/alix wall

Before participants plucked, Miriam Ferris put the cilantro through a vigorous wash-and-soak in water and vinegar to make sure it was free of bugs, as kosher law dictates. She then laid it out on a light-box — normally used by photographers — to check it again. It had to go through the rinse process a second time when a bug was found after the first wash.

The main dish was made for the next night’s Iraqi Shabbat dinner. It was an Indian version of hameem (also spelled hamim), a Mizrachi version of cholent, also called t’bith in Arabic.

A whole chicken is rubbed with ground turmeric and cardamom and then browned. Tomatoes that have been parboiled and mashed are added, along with rice. Later, parboiled carrots are added, along with their cooking water, additional water, salt and pepper. The dish is cooked first over a flame and then later in the oven, where it can remain overnight.

Given that Sofaer was born in 1934, there were very few houses in India that had ovens during her childhood. “We had a charcoal brazier, and made hameem the night before,” she said. “We’d cover it with big burlap bags to keep it warm and cook it like that all night, and then eat it when we came home from synagogue for lunch.”

She also recalled mashing grapes by hand in a colander to make grape juice for Kiddush. “No one had wine in those days in India; they had Scotch every now and then.”

By cooking the hameem in the oven for many hours, she said, the chicken disintegrates, but is still delicious. The rice develops a crispy crust, which some people fight over because it’s their favorite part.

“In my family, my kids all know how to make it; even my grandchildren know how to make it. It’s a very good dish if you have a lot of people coming. You have your meat, your starch and your vegetables.”

Sofaer noted that she lived in a Bombay that exists only in her memory. At the time, there were a million people. In the city now known as Mumbai, most of the Jews are gone, and the population is 21 million.

“My life in Bombay was so perfect, idyllic,” she said. “We never experienced any anti-Semitism. The first time I heard the word ‘kike’ was in my British boarding school.”

An aside: When I told Sofaer I remember eating lunch almost 12 years ago at the home of an elderly Baghdadi Jew in Mumbai named Freddy, to whom all foreigners were always invited after Shabbat morning services at Kenesseth Eliyahoo, she not only knew him, but reminded me his last name was Sofaer. Of course, they were cousins.

SMALL BITES: I’ve been following the surreal journey Gabi Moskowitz has taken since she became the inspiration for a television sitcom. “Young & Hungry” stars Emily Osment as a young personal chef working for a high-tech entrepreneur. While most of the plot twists are fictional, the writers have come to San Francisco so Moskowitz could show them around her favorite foodie haunts, and she has been regularly visiting the Los Angeles set to give input. Moskowitz is the author of two cookbooks, a former J. food columnist and author of the blog BrokeAss Gourmet. The show premieres at 8 p.m. on June 25 on ABC Family. … “Brisket, Pork and Tempeh: Stories of a Jewish Foodie in Oakland” is the title of a talk I’ll be giving at Temple Beth El’s second Jewish Cultural Festival on June 22 at the Aptos synagogue. While my talk is at 3 p.m., there will be plenty of music and other stuff to enjoy from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., including lots of Jewish food. Admission is free. For information, visit www.tbeaptos.org/content/jewish-cultural-festival.


Indian Hameem

Serves 6-8
1 whole roasting chicken (5–7 lbs.)
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. ground cardamom
4 medium tomatoes, parboiled, peeled and mashed
2 cups white rice
salt and pepper to taste
1 large carrot peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces and parboiled in 2 cups of water (save the water)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rub the chicken well with turmeric and cardamom; brown in a large pot over medium heat without oil. Move the chicken to a plate after browning. Add mashed tomatoes to drippings and stir quickly. Add rice to the tomatoes, stir quickly, and move rice to side of the pot. Return chicken to pot. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the chicken. Stir all together quickly. Gradually add carrots and water from the carrots to the pot. Add more water depending on amount of rice used (2 cups water to 1 cup rice).

Cover and cook for 30 minutes on low to medium heat.

Once rice has absorbed all liquid, place covered pot in the preheated oven for 1 hour.

Reduce oven to 250 degrees and cook for 4 more hours. Chicken can cook from morning to evening at a lower heat if you will be out all day. Dinner will be ready when you return.

Some families add peeled hard-boiled eggs placed in a metal dish on top of the chicken. The eggs absorb the flavor of the chicken and come out in different shades of brown.

With permission from Pearl Sofaer’s “Baghdad to Bombay: In the Kitchens of My Cousins” (Paper Jam Publishing)

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."