Believe it or not, in the country responsible for the hottest cuisine these days (Israel), people do eat more than just hummus, falafel and shakshuka. At least sometimes.
In the past two years or so, in particular, Israelis have been on an Indian food craze, with the children of Indian immigrants and non-Indian chefs alike opening new restaurants.
The Israeli love affair with all things India—food, yoga, meditation—goes way back; for decades, Israelis have traveled to India, often for six months or more, on their post-army backpacking trip (I wrote a thesis on the topic), with India standing for everything the army doesn’t: loose, colorful clothing instead of stiff uniforms, mindfulness and relaxation instead of pressure, chaos instead of, well, a different kind of chaos.
But for over three decades, only one restaurant in Israel has truly satisfied the India-imprinted palate of returning Israelis, as well as foreign workers: Maharaja.
In 1984, David Ashtivkar, a native of Mumbai and a member of the Bene Israel community who felt that the second generation was losing its food culture, along with his wife, opened the first Maharaja restaurant in Ashdod to serve the Indian community there. Realizing that Israel lacked many of the ingredients essential to the Indian kitchen, they began to import them, filling a gap for the Indian families in the area with special types of flour, spices, frozen products and cooking utensils and dishes.
In 1989, a second Maharaja opened, this one in Ramle, a town in the Israeli periphery with another Indian community, with a small store, too. The Ashtivkars also began recruiting farmers to grow special Indian ingredients, such as curry leaves and the long okra favored in Indian cuisine (unlike the baby-finger Middle Eastern okra).
At its peak in the 1990s, Maharaja had five restaurants all over the country, from Netanya to Eilat, each staffed by a chef specially brought from India. While the exclusively vegan and vegetarian menu was unusual at the time, the restaurants garnered a following. However, the logistics of running restaurants all over the country wore Ashtivkar down, so he gradually closed them, leaving only the Ramle restaurant and shop open.
In the last decade or so, his son Elazar, who was just a baby when the first Maharaja opened and grew up in the restaurants, has taken over running the Ramle location and import business.
One compromise Elazar isn’t willing to make: employing Israeli chefs who don’t have Indian spicing in their blood. Since first opening, the restaurant has always relied on Indian chefs. That’s why in early 2016, just as it seemed like the Israeli taste for Indian food couldn’t be satisfied, the hallmark Indian restaurant in Israel shut its doors. The visas for new cooks had been stalled, and it became too much for Elazar, who has young children, to run on his own.
He remained optimistic, however, and continued paying rent. Loyal customers were shocked to find the restaurant, which had just celebrated its 30th birthday, closed. In early 2017, he reopened for lunch only, which he cooked, and then, when the chef’s visa got approved, the restaurant was back in business for both lunch and dinner.
As when it first opened, the menu focuses on simple Indian food and remains vegetarian—mostly vegan, in fact—which not only no longer raises eyebrows, but is actually embraced, as Israel, especially Tel Aviv, has become known as a vegan mecca. Classics like the chickpea stew chana masala, aloo gobbi with potatoes and cauliflower and spinach with paneer (cheese) or paneer in tomato curry star, as do Indian breads, including naan and paratha, and fried snacks, like samosas and batata vada (spiced potatoes fried in a crispy chickpea batter). The lunchtime thali, with a little bit of each, is a popular choice. Despite originally opening to serve the Jewish Indian community in the country, the menu, Elazar stresses, is Indian, not Jewish Indian. The no-frills décor echoes the focus on basic street food.
Would Maharaja do better in Israel’s big city? Maybe, but right now Elazar and his wife, who also works in the shop and restaurant, are set on continuing to serve the local community and the loyal customers who are willing to make the trek, while also seeking franchisees for the shop. And all those new Indian and Indian-inspired Tel Aviv restaurants? Who do you think provides their curry and okra?
Maharaja, +972-8-922-3534, Sderot Herzl 87 Herzl, Ramle, Israel, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 10 am–9:30 pm, Tuesday 10 am–5 pm, Friday 9 am–3 pm. Vegetarian/vegan. Not kosher.
Top photo: Moong dal (Courtesy of Maharaja)