KRAKOW — Hummus, shakshuka, falafel, Israeli music playing in the background, and walls covered with photos of Israel and Hebrew slogans. It’s not exactly what you’d expect to find on the streets of Krakow. Nor would you expect a Jewish-Israeli restaurant to be a hit.
But Hamsa Hummus & Happiness Israeli Restobar, better known simply as Hamsa, is the new trendy spot to be in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow. Opened in December 2012 by three non-Jewish Polish friends interested in Jewish culture who wanted to bring Israeli cuisine to the locals, it has seen its reputation spread rapidly.
Marcin Gilowski, one of the founders, previously worked as a waiter in a Jewish restaurant in the same location as Hamsa, where he offered to make modern Israeli cuisine in addition to its more staid menu of gefilte fish-style standards.
The offer was rebuffed, but the idea took root in Gilowski.
“I have always enjoyed cooking and, since I worked in a Jewish restaurant, I was interested in Jewish and Israeli food… We wanted Polish people to be aware that Israel is a modern country — it’s not just gefilte fish and klezmer music.”
Hamsa, “five” in Arabic, is a traditional symbol of good luck that adorns many Israeli homes and is depicted by an ornate hand.
“Hamsa, for me, is a symbol of peace between nations — like a meeting point between people — and that’s what we wanted to bring to Poland,” Gilowski says. “We wanted to serve food that would unite people.”
Upon entering the restaurant, you immediately notice a large hamsa hanging above the bar. Helpful waiters promptly offer a menu with a broad range of Israeli cuisine, from traditional breakfasts to hummus and other spreads including babaganoush (a dip made from roasted eggplant), muhammara (a thick dip of ground, roasted walnuts, pomegranate juice and spicy pepper), and more.
The prices for salads and starters range from 7 to 12 zlotys (three zlotys equal a US dollar), with main dishes at 29 to 39 zlotys. If you still have room left for dessert, Hamsa offers honey-based baklava or kanafeh – a dessert made from kadayif cake and goat’s cheese covered with sweet syrup. Like many cafes in Israel, its summer menu includes tahini ice cream. (Hamsa is not kosher.)
Chef Gilowski says that the most popular dish is the hummus — with meat, tahini or just plain.
“A friend of mine lived in Israel for a long time and she helped me create the menu and taught me how to prepare all the dishes,” he says.
The hummus joint’s target audience is locals, rather than the tourists that frequent the “other” Jewish restaurants.
“We were quite worried that they would not like the different kind of food, but people come here because of the different food and the atmosphere.”
All the same, during my visit to Hamsa, a large group of tourists arrived. They had made a reservation when they heard about the unique place with traditional Israeli food and atmosphere.
Many, tourists and locals alike, clamored for an “authentic” Jewish dining experience and asked for “Jewish music during the Jewish meal to experience a real Jewish atmosphere.” So Hamsa has added regular live Klezmer performances.
“We run this restaurant with a lot of passion,” says Gilowski.