Twenty-five years ago, on a muggy Saturday evening in Tardeo, Mumbai, I was browsing through a cupboard full of books to choose a few to carry back to my hostel. The books belonged to Durgabai Bhagwat – scholar, writer, and champion of free speech. She had been kind enough to lend me a few every week to read.
That evening, I laid my hands on a stack of some very old books. Some of them were in Hebrew, others in Marathi and English. They were classic Hebrew texts, Jewish prayer books, rabbinical commentaries, and sermons. There was also a Hebrew-Marathi Haggadah. All of them were printed in Poona in the late nineteenth century.
The books were gifted to Durgabai by Rebecca Reuben, the great Jewish-Indian writer, and educator. Reuben was the first woman to secure first rank in the matriculation examination for the University of Bombay. She went on to study at the University of London and upon returning to India taught at the Deccan College, and at Huzoor Paga Girls High School. In 1922, Reuben became the principal of the Israelite School in Bombay.
Durgabai quit college in 1930 to join Gandhiji’s Civil Disobedience Movement. The next year she spent a few months in Poona. That’s when Reuben wrote to her that she was visiting the city and would like to spend a couple of days with her.
Reuben was a friend of Sitabai Bhagwat, Durgabai’s paternal aunt. “I was living with one of my aunts in a small room in a chawl in Narayan Peth then. We had carried a stove and only a few utensils from Mumbai with us. My aunt was an excellent cook and I was still learning from her. We knew Reuben would not complain, nobody complained in those days anyway. But we were a little worried because she was visiting us on Rosh Hashanah. It was a special day for her”, Durgabai told me.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It is an auspicious time, meant for new beginnings and good luck.
Durgabai and her aunt cooked rice pudding, “saat padar puri”, fried okra, and bottle-gourd curry. There were pomegranates, dates, and slices of quince dipped in honey. The star of the feast was the black-eyed peas curry with tomatoes. Reuben was overwhelmed at the gesture. She gifted some books belonging to her father to Durgabai.
Jewish families eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah. Also known as cowpeas, they are not peas, but rather a relative of mung beans.
The Talmud states, “Since symbols are meaningful, everyone should eat the following on Rosh Hashanah: “kara” (a type of gourd), “robiya” (black-eyed peas, or fenugreek, depending on how one translates), “kareti” (a leek), “silka” (a beet), and “tamrei” (dates).
The tradition might have arisen in the Middle Ages, out of mistaken identity: the word for black-eyed pea in Arabic, “lubiya”, was confused with the Talmudic “rubiya” (which is actually fenugreek in Aramaic). “Rubiya” was included in the Talmud as one of the simanim (food for good omen) on account of its similarity to “yirbu”, the Hebrew word for “multiply” or “increase”, making the food bearing this name a fitting symbol for fertility and prosperity in the coming year.
Families from Egypt, Syria, and other Sephardic traditions often serve black-eyed peas as part of a “Rosh Hashanah seder” consisting of seven symbolic foods, or “simanin”, each of which receives one of a series of blessings. Bene Israel Jews in India borrowed some traditions from the Sephardic Jews that had settled in the coastal region in the 16th century. One of them was eating black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.
Black-eyed peas are associated with a mystical power to bring good luck. There are plenty of ways in which black-eyed peas can be seen as symbolising abundance: for one, they expand when cooked in water; for another, a dish of black-eyed peas consists of many individual legumes. Black-eyed peas with cornbread represent gold. Stew your black-eyed peas with tomatoes and they become a symbol of health and wealth. Eating them along with collards, with their green colour, represent a financially prosperous new year.
Celebrating the first day of the solar year is more of a global, secular tradition. People the world over have fully embraced the idea that doing something, or having something happen, on the first day of the year would have year-long consequences. If you are eating good food going into the New Year, then you would be good and healthy all through the year.
While collards were served in the Anglo-Indian households in Poona on the New Year Eve, many educated and “Germany-returned” Chitpavan Brahmins in Pune, who were strongly influenced by the Germans, and Hitler in particular, in the last century, often enjoyed cabbage on the first day of the tropical New Year.
Black-eyed peas are a longtime staple, having been cultivated for more than two millennia in Africa, India, and China. Before European contact, West Africans did not have an analogous New Year’s Day food tradition, but as with many cultures around the world, they celebrated auspicious days with symbolic food. Black-eyed peas were frequently on the shortlist for special occasions.
Enslaved West Africans brought their food traditions and beliefs to the American South. Slave ships departing West Africa were provisioned with black-eyed peas to sustain the captives during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. The enslaved grew black-eyed peas in their plantation gardens. A few decades later, both the enslaved and slaveholders were eating black-eyed peas on a regular basis.
No one knows for sure exactly when and how this happened, but the various ingredients blended to create a new New Year’s Day tradition in Southern kitchens. While Sephardic Jews kept eating their traditional black-eyed pea dishes, African – Americans in the South began eating the beans on January 1, most commonly in the form of “Hoppin’ John”, as a symbol of their hope for a prosperous new year.
Dr Gangutai Bhide came to know of these traditions while studying for the FRCS degree in Dublin in the late 1930s. When the persecution of Jews began in Germany and elsewhere in the 1930s, many Jews sought refuge in Britain and in the US. They brought with them what they could of home – language, cuisine, culture. Bhide befriended many Jew students and professors in Britain and from the US. She learned about their customs and traditions and brought some of those to Pune with her.
So, in 1958, when she invited Durgabai and her sister Dr Kamal Sohonie, the first Indian woman to receive a PhD. in a scientific discipline, for lunch on the New Year’s Day, on the table were fritters, soup, and curry made of black-eyed peas, along with okra, cabbage, and wheat flatbread.
Durgabai had requested Bhide to give her the recipes for the soup and the fritters. She had cooked black-eyed peas curry for many years on Rosh Hashanah after the day Reuben had visited her. I assume Bhide never stopped cooking fritters on New Year Day either.
The process of cultural diffusion, borrowing, appropriation, although often messy, coalesces into the tradition we have now.
“I am not superstitious. I know certain dishes are not going to bring me any luck. Don’t you think it is important to carry on certain traditions, especially those involving food, of those who have come before us? These rituals bind us to the people we love”, Durgabai said and asked me to help her look for the recipes Bhide had given her decades ago.
Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org