Jerusalem’s ethnic food scene coping and thriving amid coronavirus crisis

As corona continues, journey with us through the Holy City's diverse culinary landscape to see how eateries are coping and even thriving

LINDI YUAN, Mandarin: 'There’s not just one taste that characterizes Chinese food.' (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
LINDI YUAN, Mandarin: 'There’s not just one taste that characterizes Chinese food.'
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem’s rich history has made it home to a wide range of nationalities and ethnic groups, all interacting and influencing one another on a daily basis. But its status as a major religious center means it is inherently more conservative than other big cities in Israel.
This seemingly contradicting hybrid of a diverse and multicultural conservative city is probably one of the factors that attract millions of tourists to Jerusalem every year. It’s also the underlying source of Jerusalem’s unique colors, manifested in all aspects of the city, including its cuisine.
Hidden in corners between the limestone-based architecture that covers Jerusalem lies a surprisingly buzzing ethnic food scene. What kind of unorthodox dining options can be found in Jerusalem? Who are their customers? And how did the coronavirus pandemic force these small restaurants to adapt?
One restaurant managed to use the pandemic to its advantage. Located on 7 Heleni Hamalka Street downtown, Jeera is currently the only Indian restaurant in the city, having opened for business during the pandemic. It was established by two young natives of Jerusalem, Tom Schwartz and Tal Lezer, who like many others were forced to stop everything they were doing when corona broke out.

INDIAN PICKLED salad with seasonal fruit and vegetables including black beans, coriander, green onion and celery, at Jeera. (Courtesy: Marc Israel Sellem)
But while most were stuck at home and lamenting their fates, Schwartz saw an opportunity to take advantage of the unexpected situation.
“The idea of doing something with Indian food was brewing in my mind. I felt like I had some quiet for a change, a safe zone to create something of my own,” Schwartz says.
“My vision was simply to cook at home, which would be a good opportunity to make some money in a time when options are scarce. I started everything from my tiny rented apartment,” he recalls.

JEERA OFFERS a changing weekly menu of authentic vegetarian Indian food. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
And it worked out better than he could have anticipated. After posting several pictures on Facebook of his homemade Indian cooking, Schwartz was surprised by the amount of massages he received.
“People were saying how much they missed this kind of food. It was a combination of the ‘nothingness’ caused by the coronavirus and the fact that there was no way of getting Indian food here for a long time,” Schwartz says.
Lezer, who worked with Schwartz in several restaurants in Jerusalem over the years, seized the moment, and together they took the unexpected project one step forward. Finding a small coffee-shop kitchen that had been abandoned due to the pandemic, Schwartz and Lezer rented the space for a daily fee back in April and started cooking. And they haven’t stopped since.
And so Jeera slowly grew from a home-based operation that could handle several deliveries each day at best, to a small restaurant attracting a big buzz, with a growing number of staff, customers and dreams.
Today, Jeera offers a changing weekly menu of authentic vegetarian Indian food – delivered to your house, if you live in Jerusalem, or served to your table, if you fancy a visit. All fresh produce is bought from the nearby market at Damascus Gate, which according to Schwartz helps him stay in tune with the seasonal vegetables that are used as the basis for Jeera’s weekly dishes. But Schwartz notes that it also helped them discover new aspects of Jerusalem and feel more connected to the city.
“The Old City is an area that’s so important in Jerusalem’s existence, but I’ve always felt like a tourist there. This was the first time I felt like I was a part of it. I became a business partner with the locals, and that was a very positive and healthy process I went through.”
When asked about the source of his passion for Indian food, Schwartz describes a journey he went on several years prior. Like many young Israelis who finish their military service, Schwartz decided to embark on a trip abroad without necessarily knowing what he was looking for.
“Something in my identity felt very comfortable in India... something about the religious attitude, the openness and the value of finding your own path.”
He avoided tourist attractions and mostly traveled alone, which is how he learned the secrets of authentic Indian cooking. “I had faith in people and in my journey. People opened their homes to me, they hosted me, and during that time I learned a lot about Indian food,” Schwartz recalls.
Schwartz also indicates that India made him and his cooking go through a process of humbling that changed the way he perceives food in general.

TOM SCHWARTZ begins a busy day at Jeera. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
“I started my journey with a lot of pride as a cook. I was concerned with the artistic aspects of preparing food, but in Eastern tradition, food serves a purpose. It’s meant to feed, and that’s all.”
Schwartz continues, “Something about Western food has lost touch with reality, it tries too hard. The aesthetics of Indian food are simpler and more beautiful than any other. It’s not refined, but the food is rich with spices that interact with each other and combine in truly beautiful ways.”
When asked about the need to adapt traditional Indian food to the local Israeli palate, Schwartz reminds me that “all of the spices used in the Arab and North African kitchen come from India,” but points out that “while they’re spices that we know, the way in which they are used, their variety and interaction, are all different from what we’re used to in the local Israeli kitchen.”
A big part of the Indian philosophy on food, Schwartz explains, is using that which is available, and in that sense, Jeera definitely practices Indian philosophy, experimenting with vegetables that are not classic to the Indian kitchen – like Armenian cucumbers, vine leaves and dates.
“Indian food is so diverse, depending on the geography, and can contain unexpected ingredients, so it’s an integration of their philosophy, really.”
“We are usually more creative with our stews, adding vegetables that are more suitable to the Israeli palate,” Schwartz says, “But the side dishes are all very classic.” These include the famous masala dosa, a kind of spicy stuffed crepe, kachori, traditional fried bread, and kulfi, a delicious Indian ice cream.
Looking forward, Schwartz says he wants to keep experimenting with Indian food, while making sure to keep it relevant and intriguing to the local population.
“Experimenting with different ingredients and learning new recipes is why I’m doing this,” Schwartz concludes, but adds that it should be done carefully. “Jerusalem has a lot of undeveloped or unexplored fields, things that can be done, and people choose not to... because Jerusalem is very conservative, for better or worse.”
Jeera is kosher and open Monday-Thursday from noon to midnight, and Friday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
WHILE JEERA is a new and welcome addition to Jerusalem’s ethnic food scene, other restaurants have been offering uncommon dining options in Jerusalem for years. Mandarin, established in 1958, is one of them.
Located on 2 Shlomzion Hamalka Street, Mandarin was the first Chinese restaurant to open in Jerusalem, and it has remained open for over 60 years.
“The first generation was run by Israelis, the second, by a Hong Kongese and me, the third generation, from Shanghai,” says Lindi Yuan, the current manager of Mandarin.
Unlike Jeera, which has a strong online presence and is directing its marketing efforts toward young locals, Mandarin mostly serves groups of tourists seeking familiar tastes during their visits to Israel.
“Before the pandemic, the local Israelis eating here were about 10% of our total customers. Sometimes Israelis would come, and I didn’t have place for them because the groups were just overwhelming,” Yuan recounts.
Yuan describes with pride the diverse menu that Mandarin has to offer, with over 100 different dishes, all tackling different flavors from China.
“There’s not only one taste that characterizes Chinese food,” Yuan emphasizes.
Mandarin’s diversity and adaptability in face of specific requests is what made it stand out.
“We have groups from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and from Europe. Every group that comes has their background. Taiwanese like sweeter food, so I use more sweets, Cantonese don’t like sweet, but they like very thick soup. Depending on the market, I make the adjustments,” Yuan says.
But once international flights were halted and tourism was put on hold worldwide, Mandarin was facing a serious problem.
“Since March, we are always in a state of minus. We are totally hopeless,” Yuan says regretfully, and mentions that to her understanding, two other Chinese restaurants in Tel Aviv have already shut down because they cannot function without tourism.
Yuan says that she has only managed to stay open thanks to her regular customers who encourage and support her during these challenging times.
“I love my old costumers. Some of them have been coming here since the first generation!
She mentions that people have been suggesting that she turn kosher in order to attract more of the local population, but says that would force her to change the entire menu and would probably hurt her business in the long run, as Chinese tourists would tell the difference.
Real Chinese food cannot be kosher because the spices are different. We use Chinese spices in order to create the real Chinese taste. With kosher food, there are many things that you can’t apply to the food,” Yuan explains.
However, some attempts were made in the past to adapt the Chinese flavors to the Mediterranean palate, according to Yuan.
“The second generation brought a lot of creativity from Hong Kong. He tried to modify the food so it could interact with the Israeli taste and mindset.” She gives the example of a dish called “lemon sauce chicken,” and mentions using different kinds of vinegar to try and combine Chinese and Israeli flavors, but emphasizes that these options are still non-kosher.
THE AUSTRIAN HOSPICE, located on 37 Via Dolorosa Street in the Old City, offers both a familiar experience for foreign pilgrims and a truly foreign experience for locals who wish to experience some of Austria’s unique traditions and flavors.
The building itself covers a rather large area in the heart of the ancient walls, and serves as a guesthouse that includes a big green garden, a cafeteria, a café and a rooftop that offers visitors one of the best available views of the Old City.

JONAS LAMPRECHT, the Austrian Hospice. 'Our local chefs get trained by Austrian chefs.' (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The hospice is owned by the Austrian Church. It was officially inaugurated in 1869 by Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, according to the general manager of the Hospice, Jonas Lamprecht. The building is full of historic artifacts, and the local staff are more than happy to answer any questions you may have.
Lamprecht has been managing the hospice for the last year and says he was brought on to make some changes that will be more suited to modern times.
“We are changing parts of the guesthouse and we’re adapting it to make it younger and add some new influences,” Lamprecht says.
The cafeteria and café sell typical Austrian dishes and desserts, including the traditional schnitzel served with potato salad, cheese spaetzle (an Austrian version of mac & cheese), and various famous Austrian desserts like apfelstrudel (apple strudel) and the Sacher chocolate cake, which “is very famous around the world and became very famous with local people,” Lamprecht notes.

THE BUILDING is full of historic artifacts and the local staff are more than happy to answer any questions. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
However, unlike Jeera and Mandarin, the Austrian Hospice never considered adapting its food to the local palate. On the contrary, the hospice draws a strong sense of pride in its cuisine, and staff members go to great lengths to make sure that they have ingredients they need to prepare the meals according to their original recipes, often shipping in special ingredients that are hard to come by in Israel.
“We stick to our traditional food, which means we are not adapting, we have the real Austrian food. Our local chefs get trained by Austrian chefs,” says Lamprecht, who adds that this serves both tourists looking for familiar experiences and locals as well.
“There are a lot of Israelis who have a history in Austria, or German Israelis who are missing such things here, so they come often to us to get this experience.”

TRADITIONAL AUSTRIAN apfelstrudel served with Viennese coffee. The café remains open for visitors. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
As coronavirus prevented tourists from arriving, the guesthouse was shut down, but the café remained open for visitors.
“Usually there’s a mass crowd of tourists here and you can’t see anything. Even if the expenses are much higher than the income, we wanted to give the locals here the chance to discover this place, and that’s why we stayed open,” Lamprecht concludes.
BUT NOT ALL ethnic restaurants in Jerusalem were fortunate enough to have the budget or the support to keep them afloat during the pandemic.
Lucy, an Ethiopian restaurant located on 12 Agrippas Street, was opened several months before the pandemic broke out and was forced to shut during most of that time. The problematic timing also meant the new business was not eligible for government grants that required presenting income from previous years, when Lucy didn’t yet exist.

INJERA, A form of spongy bread, topped with traditional Ethiopean stews, at Lucy. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
“New businesses were screwed. We’re not getting anything,” Lucy’s manager Eeden Gevro said. “I opened this place with my husband. We have four children and we’re paying rent in two places. It’s scary.”
Before the coronavirus, Gevro says that Lucy’s customers were a mix of tourists and local Israelis. The restaurant serves authentic Ethiopian food that Gevro learned from her mom before moving to Israel 20 years ago.

LUCY IS located on 12 Agrippas Street, near Mahaneh Yehuda. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
“I make it like I used to make it at home,” she insists.
Like Jeera, Lucy also offers a variety of staple vegetarian dishes, specific to Ethiopian cuisine. One example is shiro, usually based on powdered chickpeas and red peppers, which is a big hit among Israelis, according to Gevro.
Unfortunately, Lucy faces an unknown future.
“They could tell us to close again any day, there’s no way of knowing,” Gevro says desperately.
The ability to acclimate is in the DNA of Jerusalem’s ethnic restaurants. They all had to find creative ways of adapting foreign traditions in one of the most conservative places in Israel. But adapting to the new reality imposed by the coronavirus is more complex and requires building a new business model, something that may be hard to achieve in time for the smaller restaurants that depend on a narrow customer base.
Perhaps the only way for the smaller businesses to survive is by making their services more accessible to locals. Expanding their online presence, adding Hebrew menus (that aren’t always available) and offering kosher options alongside their traditional ethnic cuisine would probably go a long way in helping them get by. It may add new colors to their traditions, and it might just save their business in a time when uncertainty is the only certainty in stock.