To find the Shanghai Jewish Center on a recent trip to China, I drove by a guarded gatehouse, past a series of windowless buildings to a large white villa with an elegant marble staircase and grand portico. Inside the brightly lit foyer, a Chinese woman escorted me through heavy wooden doors to what must have been the living room, but was now furnished with eight tables and a wine cabinet. Two businessmen — one in a kippah — chatted quietly over their dinner.
I had arrived at the Kosher Cafe, the only restaurant where I or, for that matter, any of Shanghai’s Jewish residents and visitors can dine out on kosher food.
It’s not that the Chinese government discourages Jews from entering the food service industry. But with only 2,000 to 3,000 Jewish residents and visitors in a city of 24 million, there’s little demand for kosher food.
Eighty years ago, when Shanghai was a refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, it was a different story. Dvir Bar-Gal, who’s been leading Shanghai Jewish heritage tours for more than 15 years, said that in the 1930s, sections of Shanghai resembled the Lower East Side of Manhattan with kosher butcher shops, delis and bakeries. Even before these German, Austrian and Polish Jews arrived, the city was home to thousands of Baghdadi Sephardim who started businesses in the 1850s, and Russian Ashkenazim fleeing the Bolshevik revolution.
Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, who opened the Shanghai Jewish Center in 1998, said many Jews who’ve come to Shanghai since the 1990s, when the city opened to foreign business, purchase kosher food at the cafe or at one of Chabad’s two kosher markets. Shabbat meals also are available through the Sephardic Jewish Community Center.
But most young families and single people find that “if you want good, quality food, it’s cheaper to go to a restaurant than to cook,” according to Hannah Maia Frishberg, who coordinates an organization of progressive Jews called Kehillat Shanghai. The Baltimore native said that while members of Kehillat are “perfectly comfortable picking up a carton of eggs or fruit at the market,” many rely on Shanghai-based online stores for expat-friendly items such as non-GMO foods and hormone-free chicken.
Frishberg said that she and other Kehillat members turn to vegetarian restaurants to avoid the shellfish and pork that pervade Chinese cuisine. One of the oldest and most popular of these is Vegetarian Lifestyle, whose chefs are recognized for their skill at using meat substitutes in traditional Chinese pork dishes such as ribs and sweet and sour pork.
Happy Buddha, located in the former French concession, specializes in what Frishberg described as “American vegetarian comfort food.” Although the restaurant does not cater to Jews in particular, owner Lindsey Fine moved to Shanghai with her husband, Bryan, in 2010, because he wanted to live in the city where his grandmother found sanctuary during World War II. The two were married in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
For a few months in early 2017, Shanghai boasted two Israeli-owned restaurants. Unfortunately, Boya, a Mediterranean cafe, closed in late spring. French-Israeli chef Stephan Laurent, however, is in the process of opening his second Bread etc., a European-style cafe and bakery. On most mornings, the modern cafe with exposed brick walls is redolent with the aroma of fresh-baked challah, croissants, baguettes and pain au chocolat. Bread etc., which Frishberg described as “a magnet for young Jews and Israelis,” also serves Middle Eastern specialties such as shakshuka, a spicy tomato, pepper and egg dish, and crispy filled bourekas.
Although it’s not the Carnegie Deli, Tock’s-A Montreal Deli draws a fair share of Shanghai’s Jewish residents and visitors with its lox and bagels and matzah ball soup. The walls at the deli are covered with Canadian flags and sports memorabilia, so it’s not surprising that most customers — 85 percent of them Chinese, according to owner Richard Tock — come for the Montreal-style smoked brisket, chicken and duck that have earned the restaurant top rankings on TripAdvisor.
Finally, as with many international cities, Shanghai houses a selection of upscale American chains, like the steakhouses Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris. Also popular with Jewish expats, Frishberg said, are American-style sports bars and breweries such as Cages and Boxing Cat. These broadcast major Western sporting events and fill up at 6 in the morning — 6 at night, U.S. time — on Super Bowl Sunday.
The evening I visited the Kosher Cafe, I’d dined on Chinese food for three nights straight. So when the waiter came over with a “picture menu” that featured colorful images of Western and Chinese food, I pointed to the matzah ball soup and schnitzel. The food was good, but more important, it was familiar and bright with the flavors I associate with home. And much as I love to travel and sample exotic cuisines, there is something indescribably comforting about a traditional Jewish meal in a foreign land. JN
Joan Lipinsky Cochran is a freelance travel writer based in Boca Raton, Florida.