O Calcutta – in Mahaneh Yehuda

There’s no set menu at vegetarian Indian restaurant Ichikanada. Lehava Hermann simply cooks whatever suits her mood and hopes to make customers forget they’re in Jerusalem for half an hour.

Indian restaurant Ichikanada (photo credit: Barry A. Kaplan)
Indian restaurant Ichikanada
(photo credit: Barry A. Kaplan)
Lehava Hermann was born in Calcutta, India, where she was raised by a mother from an Orthodox home and a father from a liberal Jewish home. From the age of 15 to 17 she attended a boarding school in Darjeeling while various members of her family were moving to Israel. She came to Israel in 1979 for three months and then went back to school.
“At the age of 17, I was given a choice of moving to Israel or staying on in India and doing my Indian bagrut [matriculation],” she explains.
In 1981 she made aliya and suffered “severe culture shock.” She went to the Anglican School and did her A-levels, and was then accepted to the Hebrew University’s Mechina (year-long academic preparatory) program, “where I began to understand who I was in relation to Eretz Yisrael.”
She studied literature and theater.
On the day we visited, the featured plate contained laffa (the closest thing to chapati, Indian bread, which the rabbinate will not allow her to make unless she has a separate kitchen); rice with cumin; potato with zucchini, carrots, peanuts and coconut; coconut and lemon dish; eggplant with tomatoes; sweet potato; chickpeas; yogurt; green chutney with coconut; apple chutney; green chutney with peanuts; cooked tomato chutney; and cooked onion chutney.
This was followed by a dessert plate with banufi (caramel-coconut-banana cake adored by children in northern India); shrikhand (a sweet yoghurt dessert) in a shot glass, a yogurt “ice cream”; date, cashew nut, anise and ginger candy; coconut and chocolate cake; and demitasse glasses of chai (spice milk tea).
How it started and experience
She then went to the US and studied textile technology at the Fashion Institute of Technology, specializing in color.
“Cooking has a lot of color and texture, and my mother was a big foodie. I’m a vegetarian, and as a small child I used to eat with the servants and get Indian vegetarian food.”
Being vegetarian, Hermann began to learn to cook, in order to eat the way she wanted to eat.
After four years in England, she came back to Israel, met and married an Israeli and had two children, now aged 12 and seven. She worked for an arts and crafts manufacturer and a furniture designer and then as a social worker.
In 2006 she decided to open an Indian restaurant and looked for a place in the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
“When I found this place, my family took me seriously, my husband left his job, and we opened it up together. He helps with the peeling and cleaning up. I came from a very health-conscious background and Jerusalem didn’t really have a vegetarian place to eat.”
Name and decor
The name Ichikidana is gibberish, but the décor is very eclectic. The restaurant seats 24 inside and out. The tabletops are shellacked with pictures from newspapers and magazines in collage style; the chairs are green-trimmed and wooden. A cafeteria-like serving station in the back keeps the food – which Hermann cooks in the tiny kitchen in the back – hot. One wall of cork and mirrors holds announcements of all kinds. Flags, flowers, scarves, dolls and mobiles hang haphazardly. Lehava calls it a dhaaba, the kind of restaurant in a neighborhood or on the road for truck drivers where the food is like at home and very fresh and no one worries about decorations.
Cuisine Hermann calls it “what we would eat at home in India – thali, the plate the food comes on.” If there are yogurt or milk products, they are in an additional dish, so that pure vegans can get a full meal.
Hermann adds that there is Indian Jewish cuisine, but that is not what she does. The Jews from her native Calcutta came there from Syria and Iraq and have a specific cuisine that is also Middle Eastern with use of chili and turmeric.
Most popular dish on the menu
Batata kalwa – a dish with sweet potatoes, raisins, cashew nuts, ginger, chili and gram flour (made from chickpeas).
Favorite item on the menu
Palval – a cabbage, coconut and lemon dish.
Biggest accomplishment
“I’ve succeeded in bringing a little bit of India here.
Some of the pressure fades and people can believe they’re in India for half an hour and feel a great love for India.”
Hermann adds that her customers are Indiaphiles of all sizes, shapes and ages and people “genuinely interested in good food and vegetarian food and particularly those who are lactose intolerant.”
Best part of the job
“Being my own boss and doing whatever I feel like! I buy produce and cook fresh every day. I don’t repeat myself. There is no set menu. I make whatever vegetarian dish I feel like – except batata, which I make every day.”
Who cooks at home?
Hermann offers cooking lessons if the organizer finds a group of friends and a big enough kitchen.
Each group is custom made, depending on level of interest, motivation and what they want to learn.
If individuals want to learn to cook from Hermann, they can come and talk with her in the kitchen of the restaurant while she cooks.
Ichikidana is located at Rehov Eshkol 4 in Mahaneh Yehuda. Tel: 050-224-6060 or 050-224-7070. Kosher.
Open Sunday through Thursday, 12 noon to 8 p.m. in winter, 12 noon to 10 p.m. in summer. Friday, 12 noon to one hour before Shabbat.