Warsaw: Vegan Shawarma

I have written in an earlier post about how enjoying indigenous cuisine is one of the great pleasures of traveling. At the same time, I pointed out that while this is also true for Jewish travelers, their situation is a bit more complicated since Jewish food must also be kosher. Even for non-Jewish travelers, however, who may greatly enjoy eating local dishes, I suspect there comes a time in their traveling when they may miss familiar food. It’s not hard to imagine an American, for example, on vacation in Paris coming to a point where he or she begins looking for a McDonalds. Likewise, for an Israeli, it’s not hard to imagine that at some point in their traveling they wonder if it just might be possible to find a falafel stand. Beth and I were lucky enough to find an excellent Israeli kitchen “home away from home” in Warsaw.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018 (concluded): Beth and I end our day with dinner at BeKeF, a kosher Israeli-style restaurant located at Hoża 40 in Warsaw. BeKef serves favorite dishes of Mediterranean cuisine, including hot and cold salads with Israeli and Moroccan flavors. While BeKeF serves meat and fish dishes, a big plus for me is that they have a vegan menu. The recipes do not contain any preservatives; the ingredients consist of foods purchased locally as well as from Israel.

Beth and I ate at BeKeF twice. The first time was following our visit to the Muzeum Chopina, the second time after our journey to the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery. The first time, we entered the restaurant dripping wet and cold from our walk in the rain from the Chopin Museum. The place was warm; steam had gathered on the front windows from the difference in temperature between outside and inside the restaurant. BeKeF is small. A counter with stools runs along the front windows. The rest of the seating is at small tables with chairs. The fit can be rather tight. That being said, you feel almost as though you have walked into your mother’s kitchen, that somehow you are home, enjoying the familiar aromas of Mom’s cooking. Without a doubt, BeKeF is a heimishe place.

As we were removing our wet things, the owners asked “Vegan or meat?” My heart leaped for joy. Who would have thought that so far away from home I would find an Israeli-style kosher place to eat that had vegan dishes? Mirabile dictu! We hung up our wet things and took a look at the chalkboard menu, attached to a wall behind the front counter and sitting above the entrance into the kitchen where the hot food is prepared.

When I told our waiter that I wanted vegan food, she asked me if I wished to have shawarma. The owners and staff of BeKeF speak three languages, Polish, Hebrew, and English. From our waiter’s question, I thought that perhaps she had not understood my request for vegan food. The waitress assured me that the shawarma that she was talking about was vegan, although they also serve meat shawarma.

Many times I have seen Beth’s face take on an ecstatic expression while she eats shawarma, the meat kind, at a small restaurant near our home in Be’er Sheva. I decided to try the vegetarian variety. To my surprise, so did Beth. And what an excellent choice it turned out to be. Both of us were delighted. Also, as is typical in most Israeli restaurants, the serving size was big. The restaurant was filled with the banter of its guests, a friendly, multi-lingual banter.

Beth and I finished our meal. It was still raining. The owner offered to call us a taxi. We gratefully accepted his offer. While waiting, I kept going over the things we had come in with to make sure I was ready to rise quickly with our stuff and walk to the taxi. When the cab arrived, we thanked the owner and left. Only in the cab did I realize that I had left behind my best pair of gloves, black leather ones that I usually wear only on Shabbes. I was so upset with myself. I am always telling Beth when we travel that she should not bring anything that she would hate to lose or have stolen, and here I had gone and done exactly that. I had not brought my daily soft wool gloves and had brought the leather ones instead. And now, so I felt, the gloves were doomed to belong to another person, a stranger, while my cold hands would always miss them.

Fortunately, Beth is both smarter and more optimistic than I am. Back in our room, she stopped at the front desk to get the phone number for BeKeF, called them, and asked if they had found a pair of black leather gloves. They had. They assured her that they would hold onto them for me.

There is a wide-spread armchair psychological idea that we leave things at places where we hope to return. I think there may be something to it. Beth suggested that we eat dinner the next night at BeKeF after our visit to the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery so I could pick up my gloves. We did, and I did.

PAST-ą, the tallest building in the Russian Empire in 1908. Warsaw, Poland.

On our way to the restaurant the second time we passed a building with a fascinating history. It is the former home of the Polish Telephone Company, in Polish “Polska Akcyjna Spółka Telefoniczna,” sometimes referred to as PAST-ą. The building, built in 1908, was a gift to the Polish people from Russia, which ruled Poland at the time. The building is 160 feet high, certainly not very high by modern standards, but when it was built, it was the tallest building in the Russian empire. In 1944, the building was the scene of a hard-fought battle between the Germans, who occupied it, and the Polish insurgents, who fought to take it. There is a symbol on the top of the building consisting of the letters “P” and “W” combined, an abbreviation for the phrase Polska Walcząca, “Fighting Poland.” Today the building houses the Historical Education Centre and Warszawa Library.

If you are planning a trip to Warsaw, I highly recommend that you try to have at least one of your meals at BeKeF.

This ends the series of postings describing our ten-day visit to Poland in October 2018. In a final entry, I will address some questions generated by our stay and share a fascinating excerpt from Irene Eber’s book The Choice: Poland 1939-1945.

Photograph © Beth Ben-Avraham, 2018.

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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