By Joan Lipinski Cochran
The Kosher Café in Shanghai’s Hongqiao district holds eight tables, each draped in white linen and covered with clear plastic, the kind your Aunt Sadie uses to protect her good sofa.
Two middle-aged businessmen, one in a yarmulke, chat quietly over their fish and chips. A teenager in a black fedora looks up from his computer as I enter the room. He nods and returns to work.
I’ve just arrived in China’s most cosmopolitan city and, curious about Shanghai’s Jewish food scene, am trying the café at Chabad’s Shanghai Jewish Center.
After a few minutes, a waiter hands me a menu with pictures of colorful dishes. Kung pao chicken and chow mein, matzo ball soup and Israeli vegetable salad. When he returns, I point to the dumplings.
I know it’s a bit late, but ask the businessmen what they’d recommend. It turns out I made the wrong choice — my dumplings are bland.
Even so, it’s a conversation starter and Michael Kann, a New York businessman with a manufacturing plant in Shanghai, tells me that as far as kosher meals go, the Kosher Café is the only game in town.
It wasn’t always that way.
In the 1930s, when 20,000 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution came to Shanghai, certain neighborhoods resembled New York’s Lower East Side, with kosher butchers, delis and bakeries, according to Israeli Dvir Bar Gal, who has led Shanghai Jewish Heritage tours for more than 15 years. Virtually all of those Jews left after the communists took over.
With the opening of Shanghai to international business and trade in the 1990s, a new Jewish community of 2,000 to 3,000 businessmen and diplomats, professors and students arrived. Those who keep kosher can dine at the Kosher Café, pick up Shabbat meals at the Sephardic Jewish Community Center, or shop at Chabad’s two kosher markets.
While most cook the same cuisine they eat in their home countries, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, who opened the Shanghai Jewish Center in 1998, said many Chabad members train their housekeepers to keep kosher and encourage them to prepare Chinese dishes.
Most Jewish expats, however, eat out or order from online sites that deliver western-style meals.
“It’s a lot easier to go to a restaurant than to cook if you want good quality food,” said Hannah Maia Frishberg, who coordinates an organization of progressive and Reform Jews, Kehilat Shanghai.
Every Friday, for example, the Baltimore native joins 10 to 20 Kehillat members in a small room at the back of a Chinese restaurant to light candles and recite the Sabbath blessings.
Many Jewish ex-patriots, like Frishberg, turn to vegetarian restaurants to avoid the pork and shellfish so pervasive in Chinese cuisine. One of her favorites is Happy Buddha, originally opened in a small bike shop but now located inside a natural foods store in the former French concession.
Owner Lindsey Fine, who focuses on “American-style comfort food,” says she and her husband, Bryan, moved to Shanghai because he wanted to live in the city where his Polish-born grandmother found sanctuary decades earlier.
Vegetarian Lifestyle is one of the oldest and most popular vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai.
Located in the upscale Xintiandi district, Vegetarian Lifestyle’s chefs have earned a reputation for skillfully recreating pork dishes such as spare ribs and sweet and sour pork using vegetarian products.
This winter, French Israeli chef Stephan Laurent became one of two Israelis to open a restaurant in Shanghai. Unfortunately, Boya, a Middle Eastern restaurant, closed in late spring.
Laurent’s Bread etc. meets some of the demand for Middle Eastern food with such specialties as crispy cheese-filled bourikas and shakshuka, eggs poached in a spicy tomato-pepper-onion sauce.
But most people come to the modern café with exposed brick walls and a hip European vibe for the challah, baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat Laurent bakes on the premises. The Avignon-trained chef, who owns the bakery, Bread and Co. in Tel Aviv, plans to open a second location in Shanghai this summer.
Other options for avoiding pork and shellfish include American upscale chain restaurants such as Morton’s The Steakhouse and Ruth’s Chris, where you can order salmon. Tocks, which features Montreal-style smoked meats, including pastrami, is as close as Shanghai gets to a Jewish deli.
And younger ex-pats frequent American-style sports bars such as Cages and Boxing Cats, which broadcast western sporting events popular with its clientele.
The bottom line?
You won’t find Brooklyn-style delis in Shanghai. And assembling a kosher meal can be daunting in a country where pork and shrimp reign supreme and fresh bread, never mind challah, is still a novelty.
But the Jewish traveler who wants to avoid pork and shellfish has some pretty solid options.
And if worse comes to worse, try what Frishberg and her friends do: Order a vegetable-based Chinese dish. Then tell the waiter, who is more likely to know a vegetarian Buddhist than a kosher Jew, that you’re a Buddhist who cannot touch meat.
(Click here for a recipe for stir-fried Shanghai noodles with chicken and napa cabbage.)
Joan Lipinski Cochran is a freelance writer based in Boca Raton, Fla.