Indian cuisine reaches Haifa

Residents of the North no longer have to drive all the way to Tel Avivto sate that special craving

indian metro feat 88 224 (photo credit: Wendy Blumfield)
indian metro feat 88 224
(photo credit: Wendy Blumfield)
It is a mystery that in spite of the popularity of Far Eastern cuisine in Israel with numerous Chinese and Thai restaurants, and the number of Israelis who have visited India, there is such a dearth of Indian restaurants in this country. Apart from the over-priced and over-rated chain that operates in some cities, there is only a scattering of authentic small family-owned restaurants in the center of the country. However, until recently, attempts to bring Indian cuisine to the north have failed. Getting my husband to travel anywhere is a challenge, but with the promise of Indian food he has been known to venture to Tel Aviv. His love of Indian food goes back to university days when the cheapest and most nourishing meals were to be had at Indian restaurants in Oxford. On our honeymoon, he bought me an Indian cook-book and we spent some hours choosing the spices and herbs that so vary the taste of this cuisine. The golden rule in my cook-book was never to use curry powder, because that is why standard English restaurant curries always taste the same. Instead, one has to vary the use of turmeric, garam masala, hot or red pepper, coriander, cumin, cardamom, ginger and all the exotic spices that at that time were only available in places like London's Soho, but in Israel are stocked in abundance in our local markets. Add some chutneys and chilis, and every meal will have its own identity. It was on my birthday that my son and daughter-in-law led us on a surprise tour of the Haifa suburb of the French Carmel, up two flights of stairs in a regular apartment building, with some tantalizing smells giving us a hint of what was to come - and opened the door into Bet Marvah. Before even examining the menu, the ambience, the low tables and enormous cushions welcomed us to a relaxing evening. Greeted by the proprietors, Batya Gutman and Simon Marriott who explained the menu, we enjoyed an unusual vegetarian meal with many dishes that were new to us. Contrary to the opinions of the uninitiated, Indian food is not necessarily mouth-burning. According to taste, the dishes can be prepared hot or mild, and in fact the basic spices are not the peppers and chilis but the more delicate variations. The concept of Bet Marvah, as created by Gutman and Marriott, is not just a restaurant but a venue for happenings and workshops, and an opportunity for artists and writers to expose their work. Meanwhile, the limitations of working in a private apartment and the opposition of neighbors, who were less than enchanted with the proximity of an Indian restaurant, forced the owners to close, but while they are searching for new premises, they continue to provide a take-away service and cater for home celebrations. Guests at our recent welcoming party for our new grandson were pleasantly surprised at the unusual and decorative vegetarian Indian buffet. Even the baby was impressed, if a little gassy, at the novel taste of his mother's milk. Guttman, aged 55, is a ninth-generation Sabra on her father's side and her mother immigrated from Iraq. She has a degree in psycho-biology and worked at the Sleep Laboratory at the Technion. For many years she specialized in alternative education and worked at the Citizens Advice Bureau on educational issues, but her connection with India through her travels there and her life-long interest in food led her to a career change. "I was always in charge of food on trips with friends," she says. "I also saw that vegetarians always lose out when there are barbecues or meat-based meals." Twenty-five years ago, Gutman was in Japan and met Orit who married Marriott, a British chef. The couple set off to travel the world in their yacht and eventually landed in Israel. Marriott was also passionate about Indian food, having spent years with his family in Sri Lanka. They met again with Gutman and dreamed up the concept of a restaurant which would offer more than just food. Although they did not have store-front premises for passer-by customers, word soon spread in Haifa and the north that at last there was a place to enjoy authentic Indian food. Since no meat or fish is served, Gutman, who is traditionally observant, was satisfied that there were no kashrut problems and that religious diners could also experience their dishes. There were enthusiastic reviews on the Internet and an article in the local Hebrew press set the telephone ringing. With a set menu changed every couple of weeks and refills provided by the willing waiters, including her own two sons, the price of NIS 45 including desserts and a bottomless tea-pot probably made this the most economical quality meal in town. However, with the closing of the premises, Marriott sailed on in his yacht and Gutman had to make some decisions on continuing the business, which had acquired such a good name. With a mailing list of 600, she now sends out regular newsletters, listing the new menus and publicizing activities. She constantly experiments with foods from different regions of India with the varied use of spices and ingredients. She also runs workshops for those interested in Indian cookery. One of her friends organizes alternative tours to India, including meditation and other natural healing processes, and Gutman invites the participants to workshops beforehand in order to understand the food of the regions they are visiting. "Food has a central place in culture," she says. "In every religion and nation there are traditions and ceremonies concerning food." Gutman is now searching for suitable premises to re-open Bet Marvah as an "open house." She envisages a place with several rooms for intimate meals, to continue the tradition of providing a meeting place for workshops on Indian cooking, and for artists and musicians and writers to expose their work not only on Indian themes. She yearns for a garden where she can grow some of the herbs and ingredients she uses. Meanwhile the home catering and take-away service continues. Gutman has catered small parties and even a wedding, and while she serves the food she answers questions and explains the ingredients. Take-away should be ordered the previous day, because she does not cook quantities and stock in the freezer. The menu is a set meal but for groups she will take special orders. The portions are large and most hosts have plenty left over for the next day. A typical menu from Bet Marvah: As the season changes, Gutman offers soups and dishes which can be served hot or cold and uses autumn vegetables. To open the meal: * Mango lassi - with yoghurt or other fruit in season * Starters: Tomato Soup *Masala Sticks - spicy semolina Main Dishes: * Kashmiri Dum Aloo - potato in thick yoghurt sauce * Louki moong dal kofta - spicy pumpkin lentil balls in rich tomato sauce * Mutter Kachodi - pastry balls filled with piquante peas * Basmati Rice Served with breads: * Garlic Naan and Poppadoms, chutneys and Raita, a refreshing yoghurt dish. Desserts: * Black Plum halva * Indian sweets * Mitha Khaja - cookies with cardamom and almonds Served with Tchai Masala (tea) Bet Marvah 077-7877737 - (Not Shabbat)