Middle Eastern Restaurants in Heidelberg by Tobias Caldwell, Rio Siegle, Anna Schudack
When it comes to food and dining out, it is evident, that cultural diversity sells in our
globalized world. As an immigrant country, Germany is the host to many different
cultures and their respective cuisines – this is visible in the various ethnic restaurants
German cities have to offer.
The average consumer is looking for an ‘’authentic’’ experience when dining out at an
establishment which is perceived to be exotic – he or she is likely to link the food to a
distant place, evoking some sort of nostalgia based on his or her expectations of that
respective place. According to geographers Ian Cook and Philip Crang, ethnic
dishes, or food in general, is not a static product which remains the same wherever it
is being recreated. Rather, foreign foods and imported cuisines are adapted to their
new environment, where they are likely to become a commodity (COOK AND CRANG,
Within the frameworks of this seminar, we decided to take a closer look at
Islamic/Arabic restaurants in Heidelberg for our group project. What we were most
interested in, were the memories associated with the food, and to what extent the
food serves as a community-forging instrument.
After introducing the survey area, we will briefly explain the methodology for this
research project. Afterwards, we are going to discuss our conducted interviews, and
finally come to our conclusion.
Islamic / Middle Eastern Restaurants in Heidelberg
II Survey Area
Our survey area included food places in Heidelberg’s Altstadt and Bergheim which
offer Islamic and/or Middle Eastern cuisine. We therefore created a list of restaurants
and eateries, which proclaimed their food to be Moroccan, Lebanese, Syrian,
“Oriental”, or even Arabic in a broader sense. Turkish food places, such as Doner
Kebab shops were excluded from this project, since they are a distinct fast food
phenomenon closely tied to the immigration of Turkish guest-workers in the 1960s.
We identified six restaurants/takeaways in Altstadt and Bergheim, which fit our
criteria. Five of these six places are located in Altstadt, and the one in Bergheim is
run by one of the Altstadt’s places owner. Except for Nazar Restaurant at
Bismarckplatz, and Arabic Restaurant at Friedrich-Ebert-Anlage, the examined
restaurants in Altstadt are all located within 300 meters, close to Universitätsplatz.
In order to investigate, whether there is a pattern in the choice of location and
whether the owners modified their food, we conducted interviews at two places. In
both interviews we used a standardized questionnaire, but added more questions
during our conversations whenever necessary. The restaurants we chose to interview
were Safari/Sahara (owned and run by the same company) and Mahmoud’s, whose
owner also runs two small eateries in Heidelberg.
During our interviews, we took notes since the interviewees had not given us
permission to record. Later on, the notes were translated into English and then put
into transcripts as best as possible. We then compared the answers so as to find
similarities or discrepancies, and then identify patterns that might support our
research. Thereafter, we took a closer look at the surrounding areas of the studied places and
We conducted two separate interviews with the owners of the Safari restaurant
located in Hauptstraße 147, as well as the owner of Mahmoud’s located in
Bergheimerstraße 47. Both owners run an additional restaurant around Heidelberg
with the same business philosophy. Both owners immigrated to Germany around
1980, one in 1979, the other in 1982. Their country of origin were Syria and Lebanon.
Both had experience in gastronomy in their respective home countries but choose
Heidelberg to study at the university as their motivation to immigrate.
When asked about their core demographic, both had similar answers: They consider
students, and tourists their most common customer. While the owner of Safari also
named local residents as a recognizable demographic, the owner of Mahmoud’s
stated, that additionally to students his restaurant is also regularly frequented by
university staff of the nearby located university campus in Bergheim, and further
employees from local firms around the Bergheim city district.
When questioned about the respective general business philosophy, and what made
their cuisine special, we received the following answers:
#1 owner of Safari:
“We try to buy from local suppliers. We also prepare the dishes on the menu
freshly from fresh ingredients. Exceptions to this are items like spinach, which
we buy frozen. Other than that, we try to prepare our dishes as fresh as
possible. Our top selling products are falafel and shawarma.”
#2 owner of Mahmoud’s:
“I try to buy from local suppliers and grocery stores. Our core product is the
Falafel. We purposely don’t serve Doner Kebab or other commonly known fast
food. We don’t want to serve too many things, because you can’t guarantee
that they are made fresh. That’s just not possible. This is our way of
distinguishing ourselves from other restaurants around here. We specialize in
Lebanese and Syrian food, not in general fast food. Further, we take a long
time with trying new products to ensure that they become successful when
they finally make it on the menu permanently. In regard to beverages, I pride
myself with selling beverages that are new, inventive and interesting. We were
one of the first restaurants to sell Mate back in the day when it wasn’t popular.
We now sell a drink that is called Cucumis, which is a soft drink made from
When it comes to trends that might be interesting, I look at two major cities in Germany. Hamburg and Berlin.”
Especially the second statement from the owner of Mahmoud’s confirms a general
observation that we recognized. The owner of Mahmoud’s seemed really committed
to his idea of distinguishing himself. This could not only be seen in the items listed on
his menu but also in the design of his establishment. We’ve been to both of his
establishments and have eaten there. While the food seemed to be equal in quality,
they follow a very different design. The one downtown comes closer to a take-away
style shop with a general cozy atmosphere and pictures of Syrian landscapes and
cities hung on the walls. The other one in Bergheim is much larger and closer to a
full-fledged restaurant. It had a modern appeal and seemed to follow a professional,
clear design with distinct emphasis on lighting. He later told us, that he had plans to
expand on his two restaurants in Heidelberg with an additional one in Karlsruhe, also
mainly aimed at student demographics. He then went on to state that his plan was to
start a franchise concept from then on based on the restaurant in Bergheim.
When we asked the owners if and how recipes were adopted for German taste
pallets they both gave similar answers. Both said, that there were no major changes
to the core recipes of those from their respective home countries. The general idea of
their adoption was that in Germany portions are slightly bigger, bread is heated up,
and core ingredients like olive oil and mint are present in the majority of menu items.
Additionally, they said that they served more salad and on the side than what would
be considered normal for Lebanese/Syrian culture.
Furthermore, both – when asked about their employees’ countries of origin -
independent of one another – told us that their employees generally come from the
Middle Eastern region. Specifically, the overlapping countries that were mentioned
were: Lebanon, Spain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. While diverging from that Tunis,
Turkey, Sudan, and Armenia were mentioned. Both said that the country of origin
had no influence on the dishes being served in either of the four restaurants, and that
their employees were trained in delivering a consistent level of quality when it comes
to their cuisines.
As we have mentioned in our introduction, when food is displaced and recreated in a
different place, the meaning of it might change as well. This was also evident in the
places we examined. Although the owners of the restaurants claimed, to not have
made significant changes, the food being served still underwent certain adaptations.
Interestingly, it seems as if the owners were aware of the exoticism surrounding their
homelands’ cuisines and they realized that, in a city such as Heidelberg, it provided a
sound business opportunity. Both told us, that they especially cater to students,
tourists and university staff.