There are many foods and dishes that help define the space of a holiday—that help to give the celebration many layers of sensory textures. Because of that relationship, such foods sometimes turn into a symbol of the holiday and carry memories and connotations whenever they appear in a grocery store or meal.
I found myself experiencing such memories and longing for familiar flavors as I celebrated the High Holidays this past fall in Tamil Nadu, Southern India, while studying abroad for the semester. I was living in Auroville, an international city/eco-village near Pondicherry, and the food was incredible: locally grown, organic, primarily vegan, and brimming with all sorts of exotic spices and flavors.
Suddenly, foods that were once a ‘treat’ at home, or reserved for special holidays, were readily available: we had fresh, juicy pomegranates every morning for breakfast, the most delicious bananas—about as long as your thumb, bright yellow, plump with such a flavor!—hot milky tea infused with cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, homemade curd, and ragi porridge… and that was just for breakfast! Having experienced primarily North Indian cooking in the States, I was introduced to the Tamil cuisine and quickly came to love the mounds of steaming rice topped with vegetable sambar(a spicy lentil and vegetable soup), the dosa (a savory crepe made from rice flour), idli (steamed rice flour cakes), chappati (grain pancake), and cool, creamy coconut chutneys.
As the High Holidays came closer and closer, I found myself indulging in memories, thoughts of teshuvah, and humming tunes of Kol Nidre as I peeled pomegranate slices in the morning. I was satisfied and excited by the delicious food around me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that apple cake. So for Rosh Hashanah, some friends and I celebrated the holiday with a mixture of traditional, symbolic foods and new ones that marked the holiday as separate from the rest of our experience. We searched for a treat made from apples and found an apple pastry at a French bakery in Auroville; we dipped apples in honey, and made Kiddush over ‘grape juice’ made from grape syrup and water. These flavors, smells, and textures, helped me identify the warm, tropical evening in Tamil Nadu, India as erev Rosh Hashanah. But we also dipped our apples in jaggery, a local plant derived sweetener, indulged in an Indian dinner that night, and bought Indian candies to help mark the celebration. We chose a coffee flavored candy to symbolize ‘being wide awake’ to all that the New Year has in store. Since we had pomegranates every morning for breakfast, we decided to use dates instead to further mark the evening as a special time.
As time went on, it was wonderful to also experience the treats and foods that make Indian holidays special. At the school I worked at we sampled the sweet pongal (warm, sweet rice dish) and freshly cooked chickpeas offered to the Hindu goddess Saraswathi on the Saraswathi Puja holiday; at Diwali I was showered with all sorts of treats, savory and sweet, that family members of the women I worked with made especially for the holiday. This experience reminded me how essential food is to any and all religious celebrations, and of the power it has to influence our experience of the world. My Tamil co-workers were so excited to share the holiday treats with me, and I was so grateful to be able to share the celebration with them through the food.
It has been exactly one month since I left India and I still miss all those flavors and textures, and probably will until I return again. As I reflect on my experience of celebrating the High Holidays in Tamil Nadu, I realize that it was very important to me to recreate some of the familiar holiday experience. While there was no nearby synagogue to go to, I could create some of the atmosphere I was missing in the moment through surrounding myself with familiar flavors and foods. But at the same time, I realized that perhaps more important than jogging positive memories, atmospheres, and associations through ritual foods, was marking the time as separate and special. I learned that I could do this with brand new foods that I had never before associated with the holidays; for in the space that I was in, it was these new seemingly unconnected foods that marked the time as different. So perhaps this will be a new Rosh Hashanah tradition from now on: in addition to the famous apple cake, I will try to have a completely new dish or food never before associated with the holiday to further mark the time as different and special.
Ilana Cohen is a senior in the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary where she studies the anthropology of Judaism through a Women and Gender Studies lens.