Malida, Sweetened Poha Breakfast Cereal or Ceremonial Offering?!

I was agonizing over what my first post of 2011 should be?! I could have posted about my victory over macaron. These elusive, as I once thought glorified meringue, would be a perfect subject matter. I was doubly challenged, as I needed to replace the almonds with another pantry ingredient.  The sheer challenge is fascinating but macarons are French, or better yet Italian origin, and my ancestral roots are in the East. I will give you an account of my, at first unsynchronized, attempt and how I, slowly got into a seamless, rhythm of the macaron some other time.

My mom to the right, standing. 20 years of age
I have images burnt in my mind from childhood, some are memories of real events, and some are memories of dreams I had at a very young age. I knew the first post of 2011 should be a glimpse of a food with a story that was an integral part of me and illustrates the essence of being Indian and Jewish. Often I am asked what Indian Jewish food is, and often I answer taking regional dishes and ingredients and tailor fit them to the Jewish dietary laws. Tweaking them or creating from locally sourced and available ingredients your own new dishes based on your own religious, cultural traditions, rituals and needs, while respecting and trying not to offend the local customs and beliefs. A fusion of sorts.

My mom and dad on their wedding day (1963)
Growing up in Israel, in a predominantly Marathi speaking Indian Jewish community, I knew of three Indian Jewish communities who were separate and distinct from each other. You can read a brief summary here. Later on two more Indian Jewish communities were discovered in India.  Our community, the Bnai Israel (sons of Israel), descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, was the largest and believed to be shipwrecked at their eventual destination on the Konkan coast just south of Bombay in Maharashtra. Believed to have arrived in India before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (70AD).  Legend has it that the prophet Elijah helped the small group washed onto the shores, known as the 'Shenwar Telis', oil pressers, who did not work on the sabbath, practiced circumcisions and recited the Shema. They lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors and never suffered persecution as a minority in a majority Hindu India. Later on many moved from the villages on the Konkan Coast to Bombay. As the Bnai Israel population became urbanized they rose high in the ranks of military, government, film, poets and scholars. Majority of Indian Jews about 60,000 immigrated to Israel and only about 5,000 Bnai Israel are left mostly in Bombay.

 Left with only the knowledge of the five books of the  bible, and mostly isolated from any news of developments out in the spiritual Jewish world, the Bnai Israel continued the traditions and oral history carried from generation to generation. The Siddur, prayer book, was a transliteration, Hebrew written in Hindi characters. When we got married in Israel at an Indian synagogue, a Siddur was given to Jonathan to follow the services, only thing it was written in Hindi characters. He couldn't follow the happening at his own wedding although he embraced the entire experience and culture way before I embraced the Indian in me.  There were many parallels between Indian and Jewish traditions. A central ritual for both communities was offerings, In Hinduism to many gods and in Judaism the offerings brought during the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. To the best of my knowledge and experience with many different Jewish communities from diverse ethnic backgrounds in Israel and in the United States, to this day, the Bnai Israel community is the only one carrying on that tradition.

The offering was the Malida. Consequently the dish and the ritual were called interchangeably Malida. If there is a dish that defines Indian Jewish cooking it would be the Malida! The dish is made of parched, flattened thin rice flakes, called Poha, sweetened. Coconut, cardamon and blanched and thinly sliced almonds and pistachios added to the sweetened Malida and piled on a thali with five fruits and vegetables (dates, bananas, oranges, apples or any other fruit in season), to pray over what god has given us from the ground and from the tree. Malida is celebrated mostly on a joyous occasion, at a bris (circumcision ceremony), engagement, a henna ceremony (which in Israel is not the actual wedding but celebrated a day or few days before the Jewish wedding), a house warming party and a graduation. Once in awhile when times are bad and you are down on your luck or you encounter sickness in the family we celebrate with a Malida ceremony to turn the tide. Usually the woman would vow to fast and once it is fulfilled we celebrate with a Malida ceremony to mark the accomplishment. If were a happy occasion we use rose buds as spices and perfume to put at the center of the Malida thali but if it's a sad one we used cloves. Elijah the Prophet is central during the ceremony there is a prayer, a chant some say a hymn we recite for Elijah the Prophet during the Malida Ceremony. Elijah the Prophet was fundamental to Bnai Israel core Jewish beliefs and identity.

This is me one of handful photos (salvaged) I have of my childhood. Dressed up as Queen Ester for Purim I was a preschooler about 4-5 years of age.
 Imagine me wide eyed little Indian girl experiencing all these life cycles with a thread of Malida is as a common denominator, often at the cramped quarters of our apartment or my grandmother's place, or a neighbor's, with twenty to fourty people at the time, blankets are all spread on the floor and some pillows propped. at least ten adult (13 bar mitzvah age and older) men including the Hazan (cantor) as a Minyan*, as the Bnai Israel community didn't have any trained rabbis, conducting the Malida with the men at the living room and the women in the kitchen, bedrooms and porch and many kids running in and out to make for a great commotion. The Malida is served after all the blessings and a full Indian meal of curry and rice is served shortly thereafter! There was sometimes drama!

Many non Jewish Indians I met over the years had Poha as a savory not a sweet dish. I believe a sweetened poha dish (the Malida) is a distinctly southern Indian specialty, similar to a morning cereal. At a Challah and Chutney, cooking Demonstration and Tastings, I was invited to host at Sixth and I Historic synagogue in DC, The audience of 60 or so was not necessarily all Jewish. I would estimate half was Jewish and half was not, but few in the crowd were Indians, after all they did grow up with the food I grew up on or a version of it, and they potentially could be my biggest critics. As it turns out they were gracious, complimentary of all the dishes they tasted, and in fact were surprised as they never seen a sweet poha dish only a savory.

Many thanks to my friend An @bakerstreet29 with the help as I was writing this post!

Poha can be found in your local Indian grocery store or online here.

Malida - Sweetened Poha Breakfast Cereal

4 Cups Poha
1/2 Cup sugar
1/2 Cup unsweetened coconut flakes
10 Cardamon pods, shelled and ground
Handful golden raisins (optional)

For the tree nut allergic:
Defrosted edemame peeled and sliced (optional)

For the no tree nut allergic:
Handful raw almonds, blanched, peeled and sliced (Optional)
Handful raw pistachios, shelled, blanched, peeled and sliced (optional)

Note: I make the dish at home and serve it at tasting without nuts and edemame to rave reviews. Also keep in mind these are suggested measurements, if you like it sweeter add sugar, feel free to adjust measurements to your taste.

Immerse Poha in cold water for four minutes until softens.  Keep in mind some like it al dente, crunchy, I don't! Be sure not to over soak and turn mushy and flake will lose its silhouette. Run through a sieve to drain all water out and press on top lightly to rid of excess water. In a large bowl, add the drained Poha and sugar and flake with  a fork or with your fingers to fluff the mixture. Note  Add the sugar immediately so it will blend in and not stay grainy. Add the cardamon and coconut and mix well. Note: I only use my hands or a fork to keep the integrity of the shape of the flake. Garnish with nut, edemame and golden raisins. Keep refrigerated until serving. Can keep in refrigerator for a few days.

*Minyan: Ten adult (after Bar Mitzvah age 13) males needed to proceed with prayers. Reform and some conservative movements count women.