Meir Eliahu opens the gates leading to the numerous hothouses in the fields of Moshav Shahar. To the right of the path is a field of turmeric plants with big shiny leaves; to the left, young ginger is growing; Indian okra and Thai black-eyed peas wind around poles between the furrows. Hanging from the green vines covering the hothouse ceiling beams are bitter gourds, resembling large cucumbers covered in tiny lumps, like a flock of exotic yellow-and-green birds. The plants have all been neatly set out by the diligent farmer, but as tropical plants are wont to do, they insist on transcending their boundaries, lending the place a somewhat wild and most beautiful air.
We keep going until we reach one of the cassava plots. Eliahu, who is not very tall, nearly disappears amid the high shrubs. The cassava roots will shortly reach their peak – the brown outer peel, covered with clumps of dirt, conceals another, delicate pink peel – and will be pulled from the earth. “It was a common food back in India,” says Eliahu, recalling his childhood there. “Even rice was too expensive sometimes, so we ate cassava twice a day – usually boiled into a mush with coconut milk and bananas.”
The tropical plant (also known as manioc or yuca) originated in South America, and the starch-rich root has been consumed by humans since prehistoric times. For thousands of years, it was a key dietary component in South and Central America, and by the 17th century, after European explorers came to the New World, it also found its way to Southeast Asia and India. Tapioca is about the only cassava root product that made its way into Western cuisines (tapioca beads are made from the liquid starch that remains after the cassava root is rinsed before being pounded and ground into flour), but in Asia and South America, it is used in many other ways as well.
Meir’s wife Esther, who was also born in India, is eager to demonstrate to visitors nearly all the ways in which cassava root can be adapted and cooked. The breakfast table in the couple’s modest home is soon piled with heaping platters of cassava chips, made from paper-thin slices of cassava deep-fried to perfection (these are totally addictive); fried cassava and vegetable patties; cassava with curry and mustard leaves; delectable cassava-flour crepes with various vegetarian fillings; and sautéed slivered cassava served with coconut milk and a variety of sweet fruits. As we dine, the couple speaks of fond memories of the Jewish community of Cochin. We drink delicious turmeric tea – Meir’s fingertips are stained yellow from the fresh root – and talk about the culinary culture of the old country.
The last optimist
Meir Eliahu was born in 1943 in Parur, a small town north of Cochin in southern India. His parents and their ancestors before them were farmers who cultivated rice, coconuts and bananas. Eliahu, the second of six children, came to Israel on his own in the mid-1950s. At first he lived in a school run by the Youth Aliya program, and when his family later made aliya, he joined them on Kibbutz Na’an. The family later moved to Moshav Shahar in the Lachish region.
“In the beginning, my parents worked at menial jobs
offered by the Jewish Agency,” says Eliahu. “Later, they and other families from Cochin who came to the moshav were able to purchase, with the Jewish Agency’s assistance, 20-dunam plots. They grew cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans. There wasn’t such a big variety as there is today. Then they said there was a crop we could grow – gladioli. The moshav saw it was profitable, and almost all the families switched to growing flowers for the local market. When the price of gladioli fell, they said there was another new thing that would be profitable – growing roses for export. We had a month-long training course and then we started growing roses. That lasted for nine or 10 years, and when that business collapsed we switched to growing house plants.”
In the old days, farming know-how was passed down from father to son. In the modern world of sharp fluctuations in local and global markets, farmers in Israel and around the world have to change their specialty every few years. Eliahu: “The house plants lasted for almost 14 years, and then the Ministry of Agriculture came to us with a new proposal – go back to roses. Ten families on the moshav built big hothouses at a huge investment, and it was a tremendous disaster. Everybody else stopped doing it when the big crisis hit, and I was the last one left, until I finally gave in too.”
Michal chimes in: “My father was always the last optimist.” She is one of the Eliahu’s four daughters, and is now trying to help her parents sell their produce directly to restaurants and home consumers.
In one of the big hothouses that were built for growing roses, one of the other local farmers now grows edible orchids. Meir Eliahu has switched to growing ornamental plants. “It was going well until about two years ago, but then it fell apart due to the worldwide currency crisis and the entry of farmers from Africa into the field. I had to find something else in order to survive.”
Like many families of Indian background, the Eliahu family had always grown some of the herbs and vegetables from the old country in their home garden. Now they’re trying to make Asian vegetables – which have become more commonly known in Israel over the last few years – into their main source of income. “Five years ago, I started growing cassava, which I knew from India, on a small scale, along with other Asian vegetables and herbs. I prepare the saplings myself and acclimate the crops. It’s not always easy, because some of the tropical plants need a lot of water and aren’t originally suited to growing in Israel.” (“He’s a farmer in his soul,” says Michal, gazing lovingly at her father, who is no longer a young man but still goes out to work in the fields every morning).
The eight-dunam cassava plot will very soon yield its first commercial-scale crop. “South Americans and Indians know this plant, but the general public isn’t so familiar with it and doesn’t know what to do with it. I hope they’ll learn,” says Meir. When cassava season is over, the finger-like ginger and turmeric roots will come up out of the earth. Most of the ginger and turmeric sold in Israel is imported. Regulations require that these imported plants be dipped in chlorine to speed the preservation process, but over time, the roots naturally shrivel and lose some of their initial juiciness. There are some local growers, but on a tiny scale, and Eliahu also has just a couple of dunams for now – but if you are ever fortunate enough to taste the fresh roots, you’ll be on cloud nine. Eliahu has planted a few rows of other experimental crops, including colorful Asian and Indian black-eyed-peas, Thai eggplants, melons, soy broad beans and various herbs.