It was when I moved to Berlin eight years ago and tried Israeli food for the first time that I fell in love with hummus, falafel & Co. Together with my flatmate at the time, we ordered from the Israeli restaurant around the corner pretty much every week. A few years have passed since then and I’ve tried a lot of Israeli restaurants throughout the whole of Berlin.
One of them is very high up on my list – Djimalaya in Mitte. But I’ve always been more of a West-Berliner and now that I live in Potsdam, I am finding that I am spending even less time in the east of the capital. But since January, I haven’t needed to go east as often because Djimalaya has now opened up another branch at Kantini, my favourite meeting place for lunch with friends. So of course for months now I have been eager to take a closer look at the Israeli street food eatery and sit down for a chat with the brains behind Djimalaya, Ofer Melech.
As soon as I arrive at Kantini, I spot the tall, slim man with the wide smile and the warm eyes from afar. He is standing behind the yellow stand with the building site traffic sign. Kantini’s rush hour is almost over so Ofer Melech and I sit down together for a relaxed chat. Of course I’ve already done my research and found out that the manager of Djimalaya is actually an architect. But why did he make the leap from designing houses to making hummus?
It was a spontaneous idea 14 years ago, he tells me, just after he’d moved to the city. After spending an Erasmus semester in Berlin during his studies, he returned to the German capital years later. But the architecture market had changed – the competition on the market was tough. When a friend from home visited him, he said to him: “Ofer, there’s no decent hummus in Berlin, not like we have in Israel. You should open a hummus place!” So Ofer Melech decided to make the move to the culinary sector. His friend shared his mother’s hummus recipe with him and showed Ofer how to bake pitas. Not even a year later, he opened his first pop-up and then in 2013 his first restaurant – Djimalaya.
“DJIMALAYA!” – that’s what scout leaders in Israel call out before dinner is served at summer camps. “DJIM!DJIM!DJIM!” answer the scouts at the table, loudly and euphorically, before picking up their cutlery and getting stuck in. Ofer Melech was also a boy scout, which was what inspired the name. As Djimalaya is meanwhile a firm fixture in Berlin-Mitte, Ofer Melech decided it was time to spread his wings and take on a new challenge.
After almost a year at Kantini he is now taking stock and giving me a glimpse behind the scenes of Bikini Berlin’s food court. As well as the fantastic views into the neighbouring zoo and the high standard of the eateries, most of all Ofer Melech appreciates the atmosphere between the different Kantini stalls. “Everyone is just trying to do their best and that encourages everyone else. It’s positive competition and the mood “backstage” is always good, and we have a lot of fun.” Ofer Melech is also a huge fan of the interior design at Kantini. After all, he hasn’t given up his passion for architecture, he is now simply investing it in small projects in his spare time.
But what are the most popular dishes on the menu at Djimalaya? The chicken shawarma and the beef and lamb kebab. And the hummus too, of course, which is prepared freshly every day and is Ofer Melech’s passion. A lot of experience, meticulously selected ingredients of a high quality – that’s the secret recipe of Djimalaya’s hummus. A secret recipe that isn’t actually a secret as Ofer Melech is more than happy to reveal it to anyone who asks him.