by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – “I love cooking. It’s in my heart,” says Chef Akiba Charikar, who has been dishing up traditional Jewish, Israeli and Indian takeout at Beth Tzedec Congregation since the synagogue expanded its kosher culinary services in May.
“In addition to our wide range of ritual, educational, social and cultural opportunities, we know that another important path to Jewish hearts is through our stomachs,” quipped Beth Tzedec CEO David Inhaber, who has long believed that Beth Tzedec’s dairy and meat kitchens – where kashrut is supervised by the congregation’s spiritual leader Rabbi Cantor Russell G. Jayne – should be deployed so as to provide a community service beyond the synagogue doors.
Akiba – who had already been engaged by the Synagogue to prepare Shabbat Kiddush meals, lunches and congregational Shabbat dinners – began offering a uniquely flavourful menu of fresh and frozen takeout dishes that have received rave reviews from congregants and members of the community at large.
Top of the list during Chanukah and popular throughout the year are Akiba’s potato latkes. Among his other offerings are fresh or frozen soups, entrees and side dishes as well as dips, spreads and salads.
Akiba, who was born and raised in Mumbai, India is no stranger to the Calgary Jewish community or Beth Tzedec, where his family have been congregants for many years and where he proudly works alongside two of his children. Daughter Jennifer Girvitz has served the congregation in a variety of capacities, most recently in a dual role as executive assistant to Rabbi Cantor Russell Jayne and event manager. Son Adi Charikar serves on the congregation’s operations team.
Because their responsibilities dovetail, “Team Charikar” – which occasionally includes Akiba’s wife Yerusha – works hand in hand in helping to create a warm family atmosphere at Beth Tzedec.
When he was first hired by the Synagogue a few years back to provide in-house catering, Akiba continued to offer the traditional fare the Synagogue had been providing for years.
“Slowly, slowly I started introducing my East Indian dishes and people liked them,” Akiba told AJNews.
Those are some of the dishes Akiba grew up with in Mumbai, where he learned how to cook at the knee of his mother, Elisheba. Accompanying her to the local markets from a young age, Akiba became adept at choosing the freshest vegetables, fish and kosher meats.
As a young man, Akiba helped his mother by manually grinding the spices the family used in all their cooking. He has fond memories of the large grinding stone on which they ground fresh cilantro, ginger and garlic. For dry spices, like those combined in garam masala, the Charikars first roasted their spices before grinding them.
Sadly, the grinding stone – a family heirloom too heavy to bring with them when they left India – is but a memory. These days, Akiba has access to commercially ground spices that are of very good quality for the dishes he crafts at Beth Tzedec.
“But at home, we still roast our spices and grind them fresh,” Akiba said, adding that many of the foods his family eats date back some 2,000 years to when the Bene Israel people first migrated to India and adapted to local customs while maintaining kashrut.
“It makes my life easier….I really know what I’m doing,” said Akiba of his transition to cooking in and managing Beth Tzedec’s kitchens.
Back home, the Bene Israel Jews had some unique customs, Akiba said. For example, they did not mix fish with dairy dishes. Akiba and Yerusha, who was born and raised in Pune, India, did not even consider fish to be pareve until they immigrated to Israel – one year after their 1978 marriage – and lived on a kibbutz where dairy and fish were served together.
The Charikar children were born in Israel, where the family eventually moved to Rishon L’Tsiyon before immigrating to Canada and settling in Calgary in 1991. They have always taken joy in sharing their proud Indian Jewish heritage. Nowhere was this more evident than the weddings of daughters Jennifer and Caroline, which included elaborate pre-wedding henna parties, homage to Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet, for whom the Bene Israel have a particularly strong reverence), and traditional Indian wedding garb.
“I called them our East Indian-Israeli-Canadian-Jewish Big Fat Weddings,” Akiba recalled with a chuckle.
Prior to joining Beth Tzedec in a professional capacity a few years back, Akiba managed the Oakridge Boston Pizza for 17 years. Before that, he managed the catering department at Sunterra in Bankers Hall and served as duty manager at the Carriage House Inn on Macleod Trail.
Demand is growing for Akiba’s takeout soups, salads, entrees and side dishes. He hopes that over time Beth Tzedec can expand its catering into the neighbourhood, serving nearby businesses.
As he continues to cater the weekly Kiddush Lunch following Shabbat morning services as well as Synagogue events including Shabbat dinners, Akiba tests new dishes. Those that hit the spot may eventually find their way to the takeout menu.
A November Beth Tzedec family dinner attracted some 350 participants, most of them youth and young families. Many told Akiba that his tasty dishes have reeled them in.
Two crowd pleasers are mac & cheese and lasagna. “I was a little bit worried,” recalled Charikar, thinking back to when he first tried his hand at these comfort foods. Though they fell outside his own culinary traditions, he gave them a whirl after receiving encouragement from his daughter Jennifer and collecting tips on YouTube.
“The response when I made the mac & cheese was so great,” recalled Akiba. “It rocked.”
The lasagna, based on a recipe Jennifer uses at home, was an instant hit too. Akiba has since gladly filled many orders for his pasta dishes, some of them for staff lunches just footsteps away at The Calgary Jewish Academy. He says spaghetti is coming next.
International favourites include aloo gobi – a classic Indian dish that brings cauliflower and potatoes to new heights – and chola, which marries potatoes with chickpeas. Among other dishes, his Israeli specialties include falafel, hummus, matbucha, and Israeli and chickpea salads.
Akiba’s lentil and pareve matzo ball soups are made from scratch, the latter from a slowly simmered vegetable broth. Those who prefer their matzo balls light and fluffy are in for a real treat!
Among future takeout plans is the addition of meat-based dishes including traditional Shabbat meals.
Meanwhile, David Inhaber wants congregants and community members to know that in addition to simchas like brisses, baby namings, b’nai mitzvah and weddings, Beth Tzedec is a great location to host business and social events including private Shabbat dinners.
“As we say on our website, the Beth Tzedec kitchens are open for business,” Inhaber told AJNews.
If you feed them, they will come…especially when Chef Akiba Charikar is doing the cooking!
For the Beth Tzedec takeout menu or to order online go to https://bethtzedec.ca/catering/
For more information on event planning at Beth Tzedec, contact Jennifer Girvitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.