WARSAW – The display window of the hummus joint that recently opened in the neighborhood built on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto says “Israeli kitchen.”
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Alongside a picture of Israeli kids eating hummus is the menu: pita, hummus and other traditional Israeli foods – all in Polish, of course. In the four months since Hummus Bar opened, the Poles have gotten to know the Israeli kitchen. Even the word “masabacha” is no longer foreign to them – perhaps in part because it’s the password for the cafe’s wireless hot spot.
The first Israeli hummus joint in Warsaw is located in one of the few buildings to survive the ghetto's destruction. Nearby lived one of the greatest Yiddish writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The restaurant was started by Erez and Dafna Mossenson of Hadera, who left their three grown children behind in Israel. “We didn’t come to conquer the ghetto,” said Erez, responding to criticism from Israelis who don’t like the idea of an Israeli Jew doing business in Poland in general, and in the ghetto in particular. Their goal, he said, is merely “to start a chain of hummus joints.”
The choice of Warsaw was no accident. The two conducted an extensive market survey, studied the local economy and concluded that Poles were ripe for hummus.
“Poles are hungry for new things and easily adopt things they aren’t familiar with,” Erez said. “The Polish economy has had the fastest growth in Europe in the last decade. Every new thing that enters here simply explodes, especially when it comes to food. It began with kebab, which now you can find on every corner. Then came sushi – what do the Poles know about that? – and in recent years the hamburger trend began. We hope the coming year will be the year of hummus.”
Mossenson, a scion of two famous Israeli children’s authors – Dvora Omer and Yigal Mossenson – has no Polish roots; his family originally came from Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. “But I’m willing to swear my mother was Polish,” he smiled.
His previous career included stints in both the army and the Israeli food industry. He developed his love of hummus as a child in Tel Aviv, but when he first tried to make it, he discovered it wasn’t easy. “I burned pots, I became a family joke,” he said. “The kids laughed at me.”
After 15 years of trying, he decided to learn the secrets of making hummus from an expert, and his kids stopped laughing at him. “But I don’t say my hummus is the best, because hummus is a personal thing,” he said. “Everyone has his own [favorite] hummus.”
Dafna is the former principal of an agricultural high school in Pardes Hannah. When she and Erez decided to switch careers, they immediately grasped that Israel already has more than enough hummus joints – about 1,900, they said. So they opted to try their luck abroad. After checking out Italy and Germany, they arrived in Poland two years ago at the recommendation of friends.
The first visit was hard, they recalled. “It was minus 33 degrees [Celsius] outside,” Erez said. Nevertheless, they decided Poland was the right place.
Until they arrived, they said, the only hummus in Warsaw was made from canned chickpeas. Before deciding to open their restaurant, they tested their homemade hummus on 780 Poles. “Eight out of 10 liked it,” Erez said.
Hummus, of course, isn’t served by itself. Therefore, they brought a special oven from Israel for making pita. Erez makes fresh pitas every day, and is trying to accustom the Poles to making do with one free pita per plate of hummus.
But Poles, he noted, don’t wipe up the hummus with their pita like Israelis do. “They eat the hummus with a fork and hold the pita like a sandwich.”
Hummus fits in nicely with the Polish trend toward healthier eating, Erez said. “People have a little money now, and they want fresher, more healthful food – which doesn’t exist in Warsaw. I make our hummus fresh every day, and my pita every morning. It’s different from the Poles’ frozen foods.”
He’s also discovered that the Poles like spicy foods, which is an advantage for a hummus joint. “The Polish kitchen is wonderful, but not rich in flavors,” he said. “Our spicy food explodes in their mouth. So it’s healthy, tasty and fresh, too.”
Mossenson is convinced that hummus has a shining future in Warsaw, noting that hummus has succeeded in every country to where it’s migrated. He’s already opened a second restaurant near the university, and he also sells his hummus at several local markets. In his dreams, he sees an entire hummus factory located in Poland.
Meanwhile, in the four months since he opened, several competitors have arisen. But Mossenson isn’t worried. “He wants to buy pitas from me,” he said of one new rival. “He’s just waiting for the kashrut certification.”