Harnek Pabla, the Punjabi Sikh owner of Pabla Indian Cuisine in Renton, rattles off the names of loyal customers as if reading a synagogue bulletin: Greenberg, Levy,Pollock, Birnbaum. He and manager Joy Somanna talk about which kid went off to New York for school and who went where for Pesach like a couple of bubbes catching up at shul. With kosher certification from Va’ad HaRabanim of Seattle, and locations in Renton and Issaquah, Pabla serves as a de facto community restaurant for Jews in Seattle who keep strictly kosher.
It is far from the first time Indians and Jews have mingled: India historically provided a home for many Jewish populations, from the Cochin Jews who arrived to southern India after the destruction of the second temple to the 19th century arrival of the Baghdadi Jews to Bombay (now Mumbai), along with the mysterious Bene Israel, whose lore tells of a long ago arrival via shipwreck. It is considered one of the few sites of the diaspora without pronounced anti-Semitism. Each Jewish society in India developed its own cuisine, adapting local ingredients to kosher dietary laws. In Kerala, coconut milk added non-dairy creaminess to curries. Further north, grape leaves were scarce, so Baghdadi Jews wrapped dolma in the plentiful cabbage leaves.
Pabla wasn’t aware of that long history, but admits that since he first began the process of turning his vegetarian restaurant kosher, he’s “done a lot of learning.” Somanna, who grew up in Bangalore, was more familiar with it, remembering the visit of Benjamin Netanyahu (then in Israel’s foreign affairs ministry) to Bombay, and has discussed the old synagogue in Kerala with local rabbi Simon Benzaquen. Pabla, however, came to running a kosher restaurant through his own adherence to religious dietary restrictions.
The original Pabla restaurant opened on Second Avenue in downtown Seattle, in 1995, just five years after Pabla himself arrived from India. In 1997, he decided to be more observant as a Sikh, which meant eating vegetarian. He adjusted his restaurant to reflect his personal diet — and that of his Indian customers. Soon, he found this worked better in Renton — where the location (opened in 1998, just blocks from the Sikh temple) drew more of his fellow religious vegetarians, including Sikhs and Jains. (The Renton location also serves no alcohol, in accordance with Sikh and Jain requirements, while the Issaquah location offers kosher beer and wine.)
Becoming kosher certified with little prior knowledge presented challenges for Pabla, but Somanna and Pabla met them head on: when a cheese supplier failed to receive certification because the equipment also processed meat, they made their own cheese in-house.
Since 2001, when Pabla became certified kosher, the restaurant and accompanying grocery store have catered bar mitzvahs all over the Northwest, sent traveling Jews off to the airport with frozen food, and hosted many business meetings to accommodate a kosher participant. (When they’re not sure where a big group came from, Pabla says, “then we’ll see one of them, with the cap,” noting the kippah tips them off to why they chose Pabla.) Their popularity, like the food, has traveled: Jews from around the country have begged Pabla to open closer to them; a rabbi from San Francisco offered to fund and make all the arrangements if they’d move there. But Pabla doesn’t want to be stretched that thin.
When Pabla first opened downtown, he assumed all Americans wanted meat, and he opened a restaurant that catered to that. Twenty years later, he knows better: by embracing his own religious diet, he’s created a culinary haven for local Sikhs, Jews, Jains, vegetarians, and vegans.