“Sweet Malida: Memories of a Bene Israel Woman” by Zilka Joseph

(zilkajoseph.com) (zilkajoseph.com)

Sweet malida is a dish made from rice grains softened in water mixed with sugar and dried fruit and nuts. It’s enjoyed in Afghan, Indian and Pakistani homes, and it’s also a dish popular with the Bene Israel, a Jewish community with a 2000 year history in India. Zilka Joseph has written before about her Bene Israel background, but her new book, Sweet Malida: Memories of a Bene Israel Woman, is a more vivid account of the origins of the Bene Israel and its many delicious culinary dishes.

In the title poem, “Sweet Malida”, Joseph begins with the ingredients of this dish and goes on to note how food unites:


Cooling, light
on the palate, and
to the body and the spirit,
it was a welcome in the heat
of day or night. We, like
our Muslim, Christian and Hindu
neighbors and friends,
had many foods in common,
and we often celebrated together
their festivals or ours.


Sweet Malida: Memories of a Bene Israel Woman, Zilka Joseph (Mayapple, February 2024)
Sweet Malida: Memories of a Bene Israel Woman, Zilka Joseph (Mayapple, February 2024)

Her poem “Eliyahu Hanabi” is about the malida ceremony in honor of the prophet Elijah; in her author’s note at the end of the book, Joseph explains that Elijah is an important prophet for the Bene Israel. Other poems revolve around sweet dishes like halwa and a raisin sherbet that is used to break the Yom Kippur fast. In “My Cup Runneth Over”, Joseph writes in an essay format to describe how her family made this raisin sherbet or sharbath, as it was called in the Bene Israel community. This is just a small part of the piece:


I am a small child. It is Kolkata in the late 1960s. I would get in the way, trip my silver-haired grandmother up by getting entangled in her sari, but she would never shoo me away. The dusty raisins (that looked like those ugly pig ticks to me sometimes) were obsessively picked over, de-stemmed, washed thoroughly, and soaked in water in a stainless steel dish. Covered and left to soak in the corner of the kitchen.


Joseph’s poems about the origins of the Bene Israel and her family’s history, including her grandfather’s World War I military service in Egypt and Palestine, are just as vivid in the way they tell of her upbringing in India and the stories she heard as a child.

Returning to her food poetry, Joseph writes in “Never Forget the Chironje” about her mother and grandmother cooking together, including the following, which nicely summarizes the nostalgia in this collection.


who knew heaven could be like this
it was never enough to hang around
my mother and grandmother
while they worked
sweat beading their brows
and tempers sharp


but it was my obsession to watch
like a hawk and wrap myself
in the fragrance and to wait
they knew great secrets
I would never learn

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.