"The taste of India and best Indian restaurant in Israel, found in Beer Sheva. Taste the art form of accurately balancing and tweaking spices to create special dishes like samosa, Thali, Biryani and more… "
For many, in the UK, for example, Indian restaurants are plentiful across the region, many are accustomed to chicken korma, biryani, vindaloo, sag aloo and more. However, despite the modest Indian population in Israel (around 74,000) we have yet to see and taste this fine cuisine in its entirety – Indian food is still making its Aliyah… But off the beaten track as it were, you can find… desert spice:
If you happen to be passing through Beer Sheva – travelling south towards Eilat or a student at Ben Gurion University – you don’t want to miss out on some real authentic Indian food: Beer Sheva is not just that desert with tumbleweed and a university ;), it’s home to some great restaurants and fast-food joints, appealing to the student population (as well as young families) with affordable, good food that has the potential to keep those hard-working student bellies satisfied and full while they’re away from home…
Introducing Little India (or affectionately known in Hebrew as Hodu Haktana), a vegetarian and vegan restaurant (kosher mehadrin too) that’s situated about 5 minutes’ walk from Ben Gurion University. Being in a student neighbourhood and nestled among a few other fast-food joints and apartments, you should not be so quick as to judge it by its surroundings and overall appearance.
I would not have known about this sweet Little India had it not been for my sister-in-law, who is a student at the university. She knows more about authentic Indian cooking than me from her travels around India and Sri Lanka. In fact, she said it’s the closest thing that takes her back to her days in India.
For the rest of us (who haven’t been as lucky to visit India ;))… The journey begins the moment you enter the establishment, enlighten your senses, your rumbling belly will be eager to sample the many delights from the (almost open) and bustling kitchen, from which, emanates aromatic spices wafting and filling the air…
Simple décor and furnishings: The settings are unpretentious and homey (for a hippy ;)), roof beams give the sense of being in a sort of cabin (which is not far off), dark wooden-floors, relaxed seating – a combination of low-seating with cushions and dark-wood picnic-benches and booths. Indian prints hang on the bright pastel green and lilac walls, some of the Taj Mahal. The waiters are friendly and are usually students from the university. If you’re not a student waitering there, then you’re certainly one of the many hungry students (and locals) that come to eat there! Indian music from the sounds of Bollywood and its quirky décor add that extra charm.
Hanoch Stamker, the star and founder of Little India, is an Israeli chef and Ambassador of Indian cuisine in Israel. His mother, Indian-born taught him the art of Indian cooking. After his release from the army he progressed in his cooking, and spent time in the US in some of its finest Indian restaurants. When he returned to Israel he founded Little India (over 7 years ago), where his menu combines nostalgic recipes from his mother, as well as dishes across India. His dishes appeal to all the locals including one of Hanoch’s Moroccan customers, who loves eating at his restaurant as the food is reminiscent of the food his Indian neighbours used to bring him. Hanoch has also appeared on a comedy reality cooking show called Royal Chef. It’s of no surprise that the restaurant has received rave reviews, even voted as YNET’s best Indian food in the country, as well as in Timeout Magazine.
Click on the images below to see the full (English) menu:
There is something very special in the chef’s dishes – the flavours are unique, refreshing and not the typical “Indian flavours” you would expect from say an Indian restaurant in Tel Aviv. They even have an English-friendly menu, so at least that cuts the decision-making time in half 😉 … that being, if you are as indecisive as me and simultaneously trying to decipher a Hebrew menu, which may prove further of a challenge!
Dairy and vegan variations are found on the diverse menu, as well as numerous fish dishes. All in all, these rich dishes offer a wide scope of Indian street food dishes, which are equally balanced with the right amount of spices.
The starters feature samosas, variations of pakora (a kind of fritter) as either onion, eggs and paneer or the fish pakora, or batata vada, a kind of potato dumpling. Apart from choosing a starter, they each come with a chutney (raita), in my opinion it is more a dip than a chutney – but I won’t argue, it’s highly addictive! The chutney dip, (I feel) is the best part of the dish: It’s a sort of a cilantro dip (spicy with chilies – my favourite) and with a sweetness of coconut milk – don’t miss out on it, it’s oh-so-divine, I could have taken this dip home in buckets! If you choose not to have a starter – I highly recommend you do, or at least ask for a side of this Hulk chutney it certainly adds another dimension to the dishes! Also there is a selection of roti or Indian breads (all tasty) and served with a side of yoghurt – the coconut kolcha is my favourite, but you can choose from paneer, humus or coriander and onion-filled breads, or simply go for plain roti bread – the bread is enough for 4 people as it’s quite rich and filling with the other starters.
Main courses are all served with a generous portion of white fluffy rice. You can find Thali – a good dish to choose, if you don’t often eat Indian food, as it comes with an assortment of delicious curried dishes, flat bread and rice. Malai Kofta – an incredibly rich dish comprised of cheese dumplings (huge!) in a tomato and sunflower seed sauce, the dish has a very unusual, yet deliciously sweet flavor and you can taste the hint of cumin and coriander seeds that lift the dish beautifully. I really love this dish, but I always struggle to finish it – so it may be a good idea to share it! I have a weakness for cheese, including paneer cheese – I love its texture and it’s great in the Butter Paneer Masala dish, served in a very creamy and rich tomato sauce. Other dishes include lentil, chickpea and potato dishes in masala or other authentic Indian spices like cardamom, coriander seeds, chili and garlic cloves. Of course vegetable biryani features too.
The main fish dishes (mostly salmon) are slightly more expensive than the aforementioned rice dishes, but are still far cheaper than what you would expect to pay for a main fish dish in the centre area! Students also receive a discount on the fish dishes with a valid student card. Most of the fish dishes come with roti bread, and all are served with a green salad in tikka masala or other special seasonings, and (depending on the dish) is either fried or grilled. Perch fish curry is something I would like to try next in the winter, with cashew and pine nuts, served with rice.
Find traditional desserts like gulab jamun, a dumpling consisting of milk powder, rose water (not my favourite) and sugar. There is also an option to take a platter of all the desserts, this way you get to try them all and it can easily be shared by everyone at your table. Banufi (banoffee dessert?), a cake with bananas, coconut and caramel is something I also need to try!
The portions are enormous, although I will admit the presentation of most of the dishes is not quite the most aesthetically pleasing, it sure does make up for its appearance in taste and quality! Plus the student population are less concerned about appearance, and (understandably) more concerned on finding affordable food – this is the place.
The 5 of us shared 3 starters: Punjabi samosas, batata vada, fish pakora and chana samosa. The chana samosas were by far, the best of the starters – crisp samosas served on a bed of tasty whole chickpeas (served hot), the many spices together with the crunch of red onion, fresh coriander, spicy chutney and creaminess of the yoghurt all danced around my taste buds, a real winning combination! The fish pakora was enjoyable with the spicy chutney, it was a little too oily for my liking – but I don’t usually eat fried foods, a little dab on the serviette and they were good to go 😉 The salmon was done well overall.
The onion kolcha (roti bread) was lovely and light, and was a great accompaniment for the main rice dishes of Palak Paneer, Dal Makani, Chana Masala, Mix veg and Butter Paneer Masala.
Palak Paneer or rather the Indian Popeye-style dish consisting of creamed spinach with spices and paneer, it’s a great dish but gets a bit tiresome, so you may want to share this one! Dal Makani is a fragrant stew of red beans and lentils in a butter sauce, Chana Masala combines Bombay masala and chickpeas. The Mix Veg consisted of 7-vegetable stew (that changes according to season) with a side of creamy yoghurt – it was the mild dish of them all, with a hint of Indian spices. My dish, the Butter Paneer Masala was incredibly rich, with generous blocks of paneer swimming in a creamy buttery sauce – I didn’t manage to finish it, luckily the rest of the table helped me out! I also had a cold chai drink, which was delicious.
Traditional Punjabi samosas are a very popular starter’s option, crispy shells with a filling of potato and pea spiced with Marsala. The Thali and Malai Kofta are the most talked about and popular on the menu. I have yet to try the desserts – as we are usually too stuffed after the mains … but I heard that the Banufi is delicious. Lassi is also popular and a great drink for the summer.
Attached to the restaurant, you can take a look at their mini-shop of Indian delights, which after your meal, you may be inspired to take home some spices to experiment. Numerous spice jars [if you’ve been looking for star anise, coriander seeds and whole nutmeg and mustard seeds – this is the place!], sauces and condiments align along the shelves, as well as packages of ready-made Indian desserts with cute names like Cham Cham and Kesar Rasbhari and other Indian snacks. You can also find some Indian ale and beers, ghee (clarified butter) and large sacks of basmati rice imported from India. Some Indian jewelry is also displayed in a glass cabin.
While it is important to note, that Indian cuisine should not be characterized by simply its curry and samosas, but rather its broad use of fragrant spices and dishes that are unique to each regional area of the subcontinent. Hanoch’s food is exemplar of true Indian cuisine. Little India is THE place for comfort food, soulful mamma-Africa-style food that speaks to all the senses, I would suggest that you go with a big group, share as many dishes as deemed possible – just know that you won’t require the next meal of the day 😉
Little India also hosts rabbi seminars (shi’urim) for the local students. They take bookings and do take-out, even catering!