B’nei Menashe Celebrate Rosh Hashanah With Traditional Food
Updated: Sep 18, 2020
(September 16) Even in a time of partial lockdown, food is food and Rosh Hashanah is Rosh Hashanah. What will Israel’s B’nei Menashe be eating on it?
Our correspondent Jessica Simte posed this question in the days before the holiday to five housewives from Manipur and Mizoram. All told her that they intended to serve festive meals based on traditional Kuki and Mizo cooking. Although common Israeli foods are standard fare in the B’nei Menashe kitchen in Israel, from chicken schnitzel to French fries and from cold cuts to pasta, a holiday meal calls for the dishes that resonate most. These are the ones learned and passed down from mothers and grandmothers. Most make use of typical Kuki-Mizo ingredients: vegetables grown at home or foraged for in nature, lots of hot chilies, and a bed of rice to pour everything over. Meat, once used sparingly because of its expense, is now often included, too.
In one of the most popular of these dishes, known in Manipur as mepoh and in Mizoram as buhchhiar, the rice is mixed into the food as it cooks. Sarah Touthang, who lives in the town of Ofra in Samaria, plans to serve mepoh on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “The holiday wouldn’t be complete without it,” she told our Newsletter. “It’s not something I would make every day, because it takes time and attention – you can’t just stick it in the oven with a timer.”
In the old days, mehpoh was made with smoked beef that had been hung above the cooking hearth of village homes. Sarah browns the meat in her oven to get a similar effect before covering it with boiling water and stirring in pre-soaked rice, vegetables, and seasoning. “The trick,” she says, “is to keep stirring the pot with a wooden ladle until the mixture has the consistency of a porridge. If you turn your back on it for too long, it can solidify – or worse yet, burn.” One of the vegetables she plans to add to her mehpoh is jonglha, a bitter-tasting tree bean widely eaten in southeast Asia. “I just happen to have some stashed away,” she told Simte. “And oh, yes, I almost forgot: I also have some changkha for a side dish. I plan to fry some and boil the rest. You know how fond we are of bitter things.”
Changkhai is a bitter gourd, generally found in Israel only in B’nei Menashe kitchen gardens, although it and jonglha can sometimes be obtained in southeast Asian specialty stores that cater mostly to Thai workers. Such a garden is kept by Shira Haokip of Kiryat Arba. As an accompaniment to her changlong bongsa, a beef and banana-stem dish that Shira plans to make for the main course, her Rosh Hashanah dinner will include a side dish of homegrown sapmalcha or habanero chilies and aithanglou, the strong-smelling-and-tasting leaves of the chameleon plant. Because her four Israeli-born children, she says, are not fond of such dishes, there will be some fried chicken and shawarma for them. “I’ll also be making some Moroccan-style fish for the first night of the holiday,’ she told our Newsletter. “It falls on a Friday night, and fish is a must for our family at Shabbat dinners.”
Shira will also be serving a singju, a meza-like Manipuri salad, with the changlong.. When our Newsletter spoke to her, she hadn’t yet decided what would go into it, but she sent us a photograph of "what that might be".
A Manipuri singju. In the center are chopped black sesame seeds. Proceeding counter-clockwise from the chickpeas are chopped green chilis, sliced onion, chameleon leaves, cabbage, a condiment of spicy, ground dried peas called mangal, and strips of dried fish.
Rosalyn Hmar of Nof ha-Galil was debating what to serve, too, hesitating betwen two versions of baih, a traditional Mizo stew. One, she says, is a banana-stem baih, the other a bitter gourd baih; the ingredients for both would come from B’nei Menashe friends. She is also thinking of making a traditional bal or taro root dish. Due to the lockdown, she, her husband, and their small daughter will be eating alone on the holiday’s first night and it’s a lot of work to prepare such food for just three people. “Still,” Rosalyn says, “special occasions call for special food, and Rosh Hashana is as special as it gets.”
From left to right: Rosalyn’s banana stem baih, her bitter gourd baih, and her taro dish.
Traditional Kuki-Mizo cooking is thrifty and tries to make use of every part of a plant or animal, and Esther Colney, who lives in Bet-El, will be using a different part of the colocasia plant in her stir-fried colocasia-stem dish. Although stir-frying is not a traditional Kuki-Mizo way of cooking, she sometimes likes to cook with it. This is also what she plans to do with the bitter eggplant – another vegetable unknown outside of Asia – that she will be serving on Rosh Hashanah, too
Joujam Manlun of Ma’alot is looking forward to something that, as she says, “I’ve been wanting to make for a long time.” Although on ordinary weekdays, she told our Newsletter, she never has time for anything but easy-to-prepare supermarket foods, this Rosh Hashana she plans to make sasung or cow stomach. “Most people,’ says Joujam,” wouldn’t touch such a thing, but for us it’s a delicacy. I’ve had to put in a special order to my butcher for it. I’ll fry it with onion, garlic, ginger, spices, and a generous amount of our native hot chili. I’m already drooling at the thought of it.”
Joujam will be cooking this Rosh Hashanah for seven: her mother-in-law, her husband, his two younger brothers, herself, and her two small children. For those less fond of sasung than she is, there will be standard Indian dishes like beef curry or tandoori chicken. She is also thinking of a spicy fish curry with a hot chili condiment.
“In the good times before Corona,” Joujam recalls, “we had very big family gatherings every Rosh Hashana. It was always so enjoyable. In Israel everyone is busy, we all live far from each other, and holidays like this are our only chance to be together. This time, we won’t be able to do it the way we would like. But we’ll try to have a good time anyway, and I’m sure we will.”
We’ll all say “Amen” to that.
Sarah Touthang’s Mepoh Recipe
Ingredients: beef, rice, a handful of string bean leaves, 2 or 3 sections of bamboo shoot, soda bi-carbonate, green chillies, ginger, basil, luisa, salt to taste.
Take a kilo of beef, preferably with bones, and cut it into 2-inch cubes. Wash them thoroughly and brown them in the oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about an hour-and-a half. When this is done, turn off the oven and let the meat stay in it.
Measure out two cups of sticky rice. (In Israel, this is generally calrose rice, which is perfect for Asian cooking.) Soak the rice in water for about 10 minutes. Put a large skillet on the stove and add the browned beef with all its juices. Take some hot water and rinse the pan in which the meat was browned, scraping its leavings into the liquid and pouring it into the skillet. with the beef. It is important to do this because that’s where much of the flavor is concentrated. Cover the meat with water until it is half-an-inch below the surface and bring to a boil over a high flame. As the water begins to boil, gradually add the soaked rice and stir until it softens. While the rice is being cooked, take a handful of string bean leaves and 2 to 3 bamboo shoots, cutting them to the desired size. Add chopped green chillies (this is optional), salt to taste, and a pinch of bi-carbonate of soda. This is a substitute for changal, a cooking soda made from the ashes of a firewood stove, that was traditionally added to help give the mepoh its consistency.
Keep stirring and cooking over a low flame for another 15 to 20 minutes. Take a piece of whole ginger about the size of your thumb and cut it into thin strips, crush 6 or 7 basil leaves (more if you like), and sprinkle them over the mepoh while stirring all the while. Another 10 to 15 minutes and it’s ready!