Khichdi, khandvi, bhindi: When Netanyahu wanted to turn vegetarian like ‘friend PM Modi’
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu hosted Narendra Modi for dinner, which was an elaborate vegetarian spread, including the PM’s favourite khichdiindia Updated: Jul 06, 2017 22:33 IST
At a dinner hosted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Beit Rosh HaMemshala – the Israeli PM’s residence — Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t spot his favourite fish dish on the menu. Reena Pushkarna, responsible for catering arrangements during the high-profile visit, had served up an elaborate vegetarian spread at the July 4 dinner hosted by Netanyahu and his wife Sara.
Netanyahu was hoping to savour Pushkarna’s signature fish dishes, since fish and eggs qualify as vegetarian under ‘kashrut’ — Jewish dietary laws.
“Where is my fish, Reena?” Netanyahu asked. “Fish counts as non-vegetarian in India. So no fish,” replied Pushkarna, who was born to an Indian Army colonel and made Tel Aviv her home 33 years ago.
On the table instead were khandvi, moong dal puri, malai palak, kurkuri bhindi, maa ki daal and kumbh ka pulao, and the Israeli PM seemed to have a change of heart.
“I think I should turn vegetarian like my friend PM Modi. There’s a lot of variety there,” Pushkarna recalls Netanyahu’s reaction, while speaking exclusively to HT from Jerusalem.
This was not the first time Pushkarna, known as the curry queen of Israel, cooked for Modi. She was responsible for catering when Modi visited Israel 11 years ago for a business event as the chief minister of Gujarat.
This time, Pushkarna and her team of seven chefs were responsible for preparing three meals daily for the Indian PM, whether or not he ate at the seven-star King David hotel where world’s top leaders put up while visiting the country.
“The Indian PM loves the traditional khichdi more than anything else. That’s the simplicity of the man. I feel when you are proud of your food, that’s where the respect for your country and heritage starts,” says Pushkarna, adding that Modi would begin his day with a light meal of either idlis, upma or poha.
Her brief was to serve “simple vegetarian food” to Modi. But the meals were cooked in a paste of cashew, with liberal sprinklings of dry fruits.
“It had to be a royal treat”, says Pushkarna. Other members of the delegation were served one fish dish every day.
The challenges in her catering assignment were largely due to two factors: first being ‘kashrut’ laws, which require different kitchens for meat, dairy and vegetarian foods.
And second was the extremely rigorous security checking. “Every ingredient, every grain was checked. Also choosing ingredients was a rigorous drill. For instance, if I was looking for 20 kg of tomatoes, they would choose each tomato from a stock of 50 kg. Food would be taken away for checking after it was cooked,” says Pushkarna, one of the 20 organisers at the Indian community event held on Wednesday.
The renowned chef and restaurateur is the convener of the Israel chapter of the Overseas Friends of BJP and had flown down for PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2014.
At the diaspora event, Modi drew attention for his attire, particularly his blue jacket. “That too became a fashion statement because of the blue in the Israeli flag. Everyone was talking about his sharp sense of dressing,” she says.
What’s her impression of Modi after seeing him from close quarters during the last three days? “He is very approachable. He doesn’t look at you from above, no matter who you are. He looks you in the eye when he speaks to you,” she says.
Her restaurant in Tel Aviv, called Tandoori, was the setting for Norway-mediated talks between the Israelis and Palestinians that led to a historic peace accord in 1993. It’s the same restaurant where a young Benjamin took Sara out on a date 30 years ago. Netanyahu made a mention of that dinner date during his joint press conference with Modi.