There is almost nothing overtly Jewish about the book called “Masala Mamas.”
The book called “Masala Mamas” is a deeply, overwhelmingly Jewish book.
Both these things are true at the same time.
How can that be?
“Masala Mamas,” written by Brooklynite-turned-Israeli Elana Sztokman, is a cookbook featuring kosher vegetarian Indian recipes. It’s an art book, full of lusciously, extravagantly colorful photographs of food and the women who create it. And it’s a storybook, telling the tales of those women’s lives.
The Masala Mamas are Indian women who moved from villages to a massive slum called Kalwa, itself a tiny part of the massive city of Mumbai. They’re all poor and uneducated, at least if you count only formal education; they’re all rich in life experience and knowledge.
These women take care of their families, and then they come to a central kitchen in Kalwa to prepare meals for schoolchildren.
That’s all local.
They’re funded by a group called Gabriel Project Mumbai, founded by Dr. Sztokman’s husband, Jacob Sztokman. Jacob was a high-tech marketer in 2012, when he went to India and was affected by what he saw there to the point where he could not let it go. “So he started the organization to help the kids he saw; to help fight child labor and promote education.
“Jacob found kids working in sewage,” Elana said; she meant that literally. Children had to work if they and their families were to eat, and the sewage —well, that’s what was underfoot. “He wanted to get them out of the sewage and into class.
“He started working with NGOs” — nongovernmental agencies — “and he found that he had to provide them with food.
“It’s very simple,” Elana said. “If schools provide food, the children will go to school.” Once they’re in school, they can eat — and once they’re not hungry, they can learn.
“Literacy is everything. A kid who has literacy and math skills and some English has opportunity. That changes everything. It changes their whole life trajectory.”
Just as Jacob was realizing that the most productive thing he could do would be to get children food in their schools, “he met a group of women who were looking for an enterprise. It was a good shidduch.”
So Gabriel Project Mumbai “outsources the project of feeding the kids,” Elana said. “We pay the women to do it. They do all of it.” They make the meals, and they deliver them. Altogether, she said, they feed about 1,000 3- to 14-year-olds in the three schools that Gabriel Project Mumbai runs every day.
Dr. Sztokman is a writer and anthropologist; she’s also “a supportive spouse,” she said. Just as the women’s need for work and the children’s need for food came together, so did her background and talents.
She’s written three books; “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World” won the National Jewish Book Council award for women’s studies in 2012, and the next year her “Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools” won another award from the council, this time for education and identity. (It’s rare for a writer to win the award twice, much less in consecutive years.) Her doctorate is in sociology and anthropology, and she specializes in gender studies, so it was both a logical and emotional decision to write about the women. “I really wanted to write from a cultural perspective,” she said. “I really wanted to show the world of women’s culture.
“My dissertation was about education as an arm of culture, and here I’m writing about food as the arm of a culture — and particularly women’s culture, and most particularly women’s hidden culture.
“I was coming at it not as an expert, not as an anthropologist, but just trying to convey the women’s love for what they are doing, and for who they are.
“These are women who so often are completely unseen,” she continued. “They are not literate. Most of them got married in their early to mid teens. They are women who nobody thinks about or cares about. But they carry so much life with them! They carry tradition and ideas and dreams and passions. I really wanted to show that.”
Almost all of the photographers whose work illuminates the book are volunteers, amateurs, although you wouldn’t know that to look at the photos. The layout was done by an Israeli artist, Shoshana Balofsky, who had the idea to edge the pages in every section with a pattern from a sari one of the women was wearing. Each section displays a different women’s sari pattern.
“The real Jewish story about this is that Gabriel Project Mumbai is the only Jewish organization tackling poverty in Mumbai,” Dr. Sztokman said. “We are the only Jews there.
“There are a lot of Jewish organizations that talk the Jewish talk about social justice, but this is the only one running programs that actively engage on that issue. But we have been encouraged by Rabbi Efraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the UK. He has visited us, spoken about our work, and sent a group of young adults to volunteer. When we were opening a new building, and he affixed a mezuzah on our door.
“We bring Jewish volunteers to work,” she continued. “They’re with JDC Entwine.” That’s the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Project Entwine, a “one-of-a-kind movement for young Jewish leaders, influencers, and advocates who seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues,” its website tells us.
“It sends dozens of volunteers from all around the world and exposes these young Jewish adults to the issues of global poverty, global hunger, global malnutrition, and child labor,” Dr. Sztokman said. “We are the gateway for young Jewish adults who want to get firsthand experience understanding these global issues.
“The Jewish volunteers come from around the world,” she added. “From every continent.
“But we don’t want to overemphasize the Jewish connection,” she said — but she said so reluctantly, and only after being pressed to expand on the Jewish connection. “We don’t want to say ‘Look how great we are!’ We want to say ‘Look at how great these women are.’ That’s why we did the book the way we did it.
“We don’t want to be insensitive to them. We don’t want to be the great white Jewish saviors, coming in to rescue them. That’s why we play ourselves down.”
And that’s because she, like her husband, like Gabriel Project Mumbai, exemplify not only the Jewish value of tzedaka — of giving charitably, both of tangible objects and of your time and energy and love — but also of tzniut. Of modesty. That’s a value often thought to be connected only to physical presentation, but also has to do with the less tangible refusal to show off and preen.
In “Masala Mamas,” the very Jewish Elana Sztokman expresses that Jewishness by providing the Indian women whose work and love suffuse the book to define that Jewishness for and with her.
Mysore Bhajji (Yogurt Fritters)
By Jayshree Kondwal
1 cup all-purpose flour (maida)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup grated fresh coconut
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 inch ginger, grated
1 tsp jeera (cumin seeds)
1/2 tsp chopped coriander
2 small green chili peppers
1 cup soft white cheese, either paneer,
cottage cheese or ricotta
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking soda.
coconut, sugar, salt, ginger, jeera, and coriander. Add
chopped and deseeded chili peppers — and remember to use rubber gloves when handling them.
2. Add the cheese. and knead well. The dough should
not need any liquid other than the liquid in the cheese. Set aside for 1-2 hours to rest.
3. When the dough is ready, make golf ball-sized balls
out of the batter. Heat oil in a pan or pot, and deep fry the balls in oil until they are brown on all sides, around 4-5 minutes each. Turn in the middle. Remove the bhajjis from the oil with a slotted spoon and rest them on paper towels to continue to drain excess oil.
Serve with your favorite chutney.
Palak Paneer (Spinach and White Cheese Stew)
By Kalpana Gawde
1 cup spinach, chopped
1 green chiii pepper, chopped
1 inch ginger
2 cloves gariic
1 tsp oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 cup onion, finely diced
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt
8 oz paneer, cubed
1. Boil a pot of water and cook the spinach for 2-3
minutes. Drain the spinach and blend green chili pepper, ginger and garlic in a blender or food processer. Drizzle water to aid in the blending process, but not too much — that will make it too liquidy. It should form a paste.
2. In a frying pan, heat the oil over a high heat.
Add cumin seeds, turmeric, and onions. Cook over a medium heat until the onions are brown, approximately 6-7 minutes.
3. Add spinach paste. coriander powder, garam masala and salt, and cook for 5 minutes.
4. Add paneer. Cook for five minutes.
Garnish with cheese.