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Neukölln’s Israeli food renaissance

Hummus might get all the glory, but aubergine is far sexier. This underrated vegetable leads the way at a range of fresh Middle Eastern spots, says our food editor.

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The all-vegan Café Pilz. Photo: Noam Rosenthal

When it comes to Middle Eastern staples, hummus might get all the glory, but aubergine is far sexier. Deep down, you know that: When was the last time you texted someone a chickpea emoji at 2am? Yes, the bulbous purple nightshade is a bitter, nauseating mess when done wrong. But when properly fried, roasted or grilled, it’s pure heaven – a sweet, caramelised exterior giving way to soft, creamy flesh.

Ask an Israeli expat and they’ll tell you there’s no better way to experience this bliss than in a sabich. This is an Iraqi Jewish street food specialty in which sliced aubergine, hard-boiled egg, potato, salad, tahini sauce and amba (a savoury mango pickle) happily commingle within a pita.

Once a rarity in Berlin, the dish has been appearing in various guises over the past few years. Right now the most faithful rendition may be found at Goldadelux, a mobile affair that began operating out of Prenzlauer Berg’s Café Dodo mid-lockdown and most recently took up a semi-regular residency at Keith Bar on Schillerpromenade. Founded by an Israeli duo consisting of a filmmaker and a former chef from food-scene hype factory Mrs. Robinson’s, the always-packed pop-up offers sabich as the only constant – other specials have included curry-flavoured shawarma, challah-kofta sandwiches, and, at time of writing, messy piles of braised beef or mac‘n’cheese on Japanese-style milk bread.

But it’s the original you want to go for, ideally as early as possible so as not to risk an hourlong wait or, worse, a sold-out product. Doused in smoked harissa, tart pickled lemon and pickled onions, the simple-looking wrap is a riot of flavour, with the mildness of the egg, potato and aubergine providing the perfect counterpart. €5.50 is a sight more expensive than the falafel joint down the street, but the quality is worth both the price and the time spent waiting among Keith’s mostly-Anglophone crowd. Plans for the autumn are uncertain; it’s worth giving them a follow to see when and where Golda will be popping up next.

Image for Neukölln’s Israeli food renaissance

Goldadelux is a mobile affair that began operating out of Prenzlauer Berg’s Café Dodo mid-lockdown and most recently took up a semi-regular residency at Keith Bar on Schillerpromenade. Photo: foodfightersberlin

Sabich is also one of the big draws at Kitten Deli, the new Israeli-focused expansion of Katie’s Blue Cat. Filling the space once occupied by the Friedelstraße café’s less gentrified German bakery neighbour, it’s an appealing curbside brunch-dinner-aperitivo hybrid whose menu offers few surprises, but also few outright disappointments. Here, the dish in question is an €8 platter featuring an entire roasted aubergine (the emoji gone accid), a runny egg and whole potatoes atop a swirl of tahini sauce. Dollops of harissa and homemade amba add heat and tang.

You start to see why sabich works better in sandwich form: The aubergine is under-salted, the condiments overly so, and you’ve got to use the accompanying pita to scoop them up in just the right proportions. But when you do, it’s quite lovely. There’s also a Christmas-coloured shakshuka plate, with eggs poached in traditional red sauce and its lesser-seen spinach-based cousin, and a clumsy but cute take on bruschetta using homemade challah that’s second only to Shishi’s up in Kreuzberg. Just skip the whole roasted cauliflower – the dish is a vegan cliché by now, and Kitten’s current kitchen team (founding chef Yuval Belans, also of Jewish supper club Kiddush, decamped after developing the menu) doesn’t put in enough effort to make their version stand out.

If you’re looking for cauliflower that does stand out, Café Pilz is your place. Slated to open two days before lockdown, the all-vegan restaurant – named not after the fungus, but after the Tel Aviv café run by co-owner Anton Pilz’s great-grandfather in the 1930s – rode out spring with a lunch window selling superb flatbread wraps. Now it’s back to Pilz and chef Gefen Cohen’s original concept: a small, rotating menu of tapas-like plates to be consumed with pillowy, fresh-baked bread (50 cents a piece after your first one; refilled as it’s made) and copious amounts of wine. Everything’s €3 or €4, and if you go with more than one companion you’ll inevitably end up ordering the whole menu, so individual dish recommendations feel silly – but definitely double down on the cauliflower siniya, coated with tahini that crisps into a lacy shell during baking.

And, yes, try the aubergine, both sliced horizontally and topped with matbucha (spicy tomato sauce), and halved vertically with a liberal drizzle of tahini. Portions are small, but the food’s unexpectedly refined for the price – try the exceptionally fluffy tabuleh and you’ll know what I mean. Little-Instagrammed and rarely Facebooked, Pilz nonetheless finds itself perpetually packed with hot young things thanks to its ties to a certain Weserstraße corner bar; reserve in advance and don’t bring anyone you wouldn’t want to share plates with. And cross your fingers for the return of those wraps, including an eggless sabich-like number with preserved lemon and smashed potatoes.