Kairo Koshary, Berlin’s Egyptian Food Truck

15 September, 2022
Mohamed Radwan’s blue truck, Kairo Koshary, at the week­ly street mar­ket in Berlin’s Her­man­nplatz (pho­to Jaco­bia Dahm). 

 

Berlin has been dubbed the cap­i­tal of Arab cul­ture. Thou­sands of artists, writ­ers, musi­cians, actors, and film­mak­ers descend­ed on Berlin with more free­dom to express them­selves, with­out reper­cus­sions from repres­sive gov­ern­ments or con­ser­v­a­tive soci­eties. Music, films, books, dance, the­atre explod­ed on the cul­tur­al scene in Berlin. Many addressed the hard­ships of con­flict, while oth­er insist­ed that their work must trans­gress the expec­ta­tions of a refugee.

 

Mohamed Radwan

 

Koshary is a dish that reflects Egypt’s his­to­ry of the last few cen­turies, a prod­uct of col­o­niza­tion, migra­tion, its egal­i­tar­i­an sys­tem and the eco­nom­ic con­di­tions of the peri­od. It is said the British occu­pa­tion forces arrived in Egypt from India with the ear­li­est ver­sion — sim­i­lar to “Khichri,” an Indi­an rice and lentil dish. With the Ital­ian and Ottoman influ­ences in Egypt, pas­ta and toma­to sauce were added. Our prox­im­i­ty to the Lev­ant region result­ed in hum­mus beans (aka chick­peas) being intro­duced to the dish. Final­ly, the crispy fried onions, hot sauce and gar­lic vinai­grette sealed the deal. Koshary remained under this same recipe for decades.

But what does that have to do with me and Berlin, oth­er than the fact that as an Egypt­ian I am a fan, like any­one else, of this mean­while very Egyp­tian­ized dish?

In 2015, Cairo had seen the swing from rev­o­lu­tion to mil­i­tary rule, and since liv­ing through 9/11 in the US, I had decid­ed to avoid fas­cist-lean­ing soci­eties. The plan was to head towards the islands of the South Pacif­ic. Instead, Berlin found me and I found some­one in Berlin. It hap­pened to coin­cide with the biggest year of migra­tion to the Ger­many in decades, many from Syr­ia, a coun­try I once called home.

Upon arriv­ing in Berlin, I met many friends from the past, from Cairo, Dam­as­cus, Beirut and Amman. I made new friends from Pales­tine, Libya, Tunisia and Iraq. As many of the new arrivals embarked on the jour­ney togeth­er, we knew we were blessed. Berlin has been dubbed the cap­i­tal of Arab cul­ture. Thou­sands of artists, writ­ers, musi­cians, actors, and film­mak­ers descend­ed on Berlin with more free­dom to express them­selves, with­out reper­cus­sions from repres­sive gov­ern­ments or con­ser­v­a­tive soci­eties. Music, films, books, dance, the­atre explod­ed on the cul­tur­al scene in Berlin. Many addressed the hard­ships of con­flict, while oth­er insist­ed that their work must trans­gress the expec­ta­tions of a refugee. We were also blessed with the pre­vi­ous waves of migra­tion and their occu­pa­tion of Son­nenallee aka Share3 El 3arab or “Arab Street” as it is also known.

Even though Berlin had changed a lot since my arrival, its infa­mous past seemed to live on, albeit in a watered down ver­sion. Ever since the uni­ty of East and West, the fall of the wall, and the onslaught of neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism, Berlin has changed in a myr­i­ad of ways. The last squat hous­es were being forcibly emp­tied, tak­ing with them a part of the city that cared noth­ing for the estab­lish­ment. The anar­chist and left­ist move­ments that filled these hous­es were not a mere trend, they had emerged direct­ly from the Cold War that had just end­ed. But as Berlin changed, and asset fund man­agers found their way from North Amer­i­ca to the Cay­man Islands through to Lux­em­bourg, they bought build­ings and drove rent prices so high that swaths of Berlin­ers end­ing up hav­ing to leave the city in search of more afford­able hous­ing. Despite the demo­graph­ic changes, Berlin still seemed to cap­ture peo­ple with its still some­what chaot­ic, unpol­ished, anti-author­i­tar­i­an attitude.

This osten­si­ble dis­re­gard for rules plays out in dif­fer­ent ways and illus­trates Berlin’s wan­ton atti­tude towards rules, laws and reg­u­la­tions. It hap­pens on a micro lev­el and up to the Berlin Sen­ate lev­el. It could be that every sin­gle per­son on a Sat­ur­day night will have a bev­er­age in hand while rid­ing the metro, or U‑Bahn, despite the signs for­bid­ding drinks plas­tered every­where. Around Neukölln — a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Arab and Turk­ish dis­trict — if you don’t jay­walk, then you obvi­ous­ly do not live in the area, but if you do, watch for the cars run­ning red lights. You also still see the con­tin­ued resis­tance against the clear­ing of squats. But on a city lev­el, it could be an air­port open­ing up 10 years late because of scan­dal after scandal.

Thai food ven­dors in Berlin’s Preussen Park (cour­tesy Mohamed Radwan).

Until this year, the “Thai Park” was a choice loca­tion for deli­cious authen­tic Thai food. The park would have rough­ly 50 pop-up kitchens in the mid­dle of the gar­den, com­plete­ly unreg­u­lat­ed. Many offered Pad Thai, and the green papaya sal­ads and an array of coconut cur­ry dish­es would keep every­one hap­py. They even offered fried crick­ets among oth­er crit­ters. This self-reg­u­lat­ed micro econ­o­my con­tin­ued for many years with­out any inter­fer­ence from the gov­ern­ment. On the con­trary, more peo­ple would set up shop until it became a week­ly fes­ti­val with park goers enjoy­ing bev­er­ages and the excel­lent cui­sine. This is lais­sez-faire in a dif­fer­ent way. This is the spir­it of Berlin.

 

The Koshary Revolution

Of the over 60 coun­tries I have vis­it­ed in the world, Berlin offers some of the best Arab cui­sine out­side the SWANA region. The deli­cious falafel and shawar­ma are ubiq­ui­tous. Dur­ing dif­fi­cult times, com­fort food goes a long way. It reminds us of our home and our friends and fam­i­lies. Even for the rest of Berlin­ers, falafel has become the prime choice for late night munchies. In 2014, a friend of mine fin­ished a PhD on the rise of falafel shops and inves­ti­gat­ed the poten­tial cor­re­la­tion with gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. She inter­viewed 200 shop own­ers. Arab food was already part of the fab­ric of the city upon our arrival.

It was time for some­one to rep­re­sent, not just with anoth­er shawar­ma stand, but with the Egypt­ian dish so many of us in the dias­po­ra longed for — one that was prac­ti­cal­ly nonex­is­tent out­side of the Mid­dle East and always a top­ic of dis­cus­sion as a poten­tial busi­ness ven­ture. How­ev­er, in the spir­it of Berlin, things would be adapt­ed, altered and rules were to be broken.

Thus, what Egyp­tians in Berlin still lacked in 2016 was the undis­put­ed mas­ter­piece of Egypt­ian cui­sine, koshary — the famous dish that strikes into the heart of every Egypt­ian, espe­cial­ly when it’s sub-zero tem­per­a­ture and you pon­der why one would ever leave the lux­u­ry of sun­ny Egypt. To be fair, there was a restau­rant serv­ing koshary, it even bore the name. But even the most left­ist, anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion, exiled Egypt­ian polit­i­cal dis­si­dents (and their num­bers were quick­ly increas­ing) could­n’t resist falling into the trap of food nation­al­ism and cri­tiquing the Ger­man-owned restau­rant. These were the con­di­tions that first sparked the idea of Kairo Koshary, the first koshary food truck in Berlin…and per­haps in the entire world.

Koshary from Kairo Koshary (pho­to Jaco­bia Dahm).

Maybe some peo­ple find the lack of har­mo­ny expect­ed in a coun­try like Ger­many wor­ry­ing, but oth­ers find the need to nego­ti­ate an impor­tant part of life. Those “oth­ers” live in Berlin. What a per­fect place for a koshary truck. Yet, what hap­pened in the next few years opened my eyes to Berlin, the bureau­crat­ic night­mare with the same apa­thy that gives you the Späti, or telegram groups with dai­ly offers of an assort­ment of hard-core con­tra­band, and an air­port con­struc­tion scan­dal that became the laugh­ing stock of the coun­try. As they say in Berlin…Berlin is not Ger­many and I was about to find out what this actu­al­ly meant.

While oper­at­ing the truck for three years, I found it remark­able that the health checks on the truck were so rare. I had the hon­or of a spot check about half a dozen times, but usu­al­ly they were focused on aller­gy sig­nage. No one men­tioned that my exhaust was in the wrong place. It turns out the health depart­ment had not caught up with the times. I recent­ly dis­cov­ered the rules have changed and the depart­ment has become more strin­gent, man­dat­ing a stain­less steel inte­ri­or, for example.

But in Berlin, there are still laws that peo­ple abide by, and believe me, some are very expen­sive to ignore. For instance, you can­not just roll up to any cor­ner and start bust­ing out with your good food. To occu­py a loca­tion, you need to apply ahead of time and in cer­tain dis­tricts of the city, it takes months to obtain an approval. This is per­haps why there are not as many food trucks in Berlin as com­pared to Ham­burg, Lon­don, or LA.

I began research on choos­ing the company’s legal struc­ture and scop­ing out the mar­ket, to devel­op­ing a con­cept and menu. I observed Berlin’s lack of Arab food artists. I had only seen the old kitchen with the same old school ‘90s designs — the “authen­tic” kitchen — mean­while dozens of coun­tries were rep­re­sent­ed in food mar­kets with fresh con­cepts in their trucks, much like oth­er major met­ro­pol­i­tan cities around the world. Where were the Arab food artists, the gastro-entrepreneurs?

Design­ing the menu, I knew I could not depend on the small num­bers of Egypt­ian Berlin­ers to sus­tain a busi­ness. The Arab Berlin­er might have been curi­ous to eat the dish they saw so many times in the films, but still not enough to break even. Observ­ing the extreme hip­ster of Berlin, I noticed the inex­plic­a­ble affin­i­ty towards avo­ca­dos, anoth­er addic­tion to the long list of sub­stances of which Berlin­ers are fond. I need­ed to cap­ture the atten­tion of these peo­ple and so I began think­ing of break­ing the car­di­nal rule, cross­ing the red line: I began think­ing of chang­ing koshary.

I looked at it as a can­vas, a chance to paint a sto­ry of my life. Kali­for­nia Koshary would fea­ture the main ingre­di­ents of koshary plus avo­ca­do, jalapenos and quinoa, along with a slice of lemon. It was in homage to my time liv­ing in the US, study­ing indus­tri­al engi­neer­ing and liv­ing off one of the dom­i­nant cuisines, Tex-Mex, which is very sim­i­lar to Cal­i­forn­ian Mex­i­can food. I knew this abom­i­na­tion would draw the con­dem­na­tion of every Egypt­ian on the plan­et. So, I dou­bled down. I made Casablan­ca Koshary, which includ­ed all the typ­i­cal main ingre­di­ents plus dates, nuts, raisins and cin­na­mon. This was a salute to the Moroc­can cui­sine that I had learned to love only after liv­ing in Tang­i­er, work­ing in a tex­tile fac­to­ry. The final dish was the Kala­ma­ta Koshary — a hats off to my Greek broth­er who intro­duced me to the coun­try I have grown to love, since first vis­it­ing in my teens. Greece is a coun­try with ties to Egypt endur­ing thou­sands of years, shar­ing the Mediter­ranean cul­ture and his­to­ry. It also hap­pened that all of these cities were very pop­u­lar loca­tions for Ger­man tourists, and I fig­ured that since Egypt­ian food is rel­a­tive­ly unknown, I would bor­row from these  places, with their famil­iar­i­ty that is part of the German/European mem­o­ry dur­ing the sacred “Urlaub” (hol­i­day), when they expe­ri­ence civ­i­lized cul­tures, i.e. coun­tries with sun­shine even in the winter.

The busi­ness plan focused on large music fes­ti­vals around Berlin and Ger­many. How­ev­er, after start­ing, I real­ized I had not done my home­work. Enter­ing a lot of fes­ti­vals requires being part of a tight knit net­work. Some­times to get into some of the most sought-after fes­ti­vals, one encoun­ters the kind of deal mak­ing not expect­ed in north­ern Euro­pean coun­tries. Some of the rates men­tioned includ­ed 10% under the table plus the reg­u­lar fees includ­ed in the con­tract. I was forced to look else­where. I end­ed up find­ing a loca­tion in Mitte near Check­point Char­lie with my first event dur­ing the Fête de la Musique. It was the offi­cial open­ing of the koshary truck and I was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by the 50-per­son line that last­ed for four hours. I was on to something.

Many Egyp­tians liv­ing in Berlin for years start­ed to run into each oth­er at the truck — some were pre­vi­ous­ly friends and didn’t know the oth­er was in town. It became a qua­si Egypt­ian hub for some time as every Egypt­ian sat­is­fied their koshary crav­ing, meet­ing old and new friends. When any Egypt­ian began the expect­ed cri­tique of avo­ca­do on koshary, I rev­eled in the moment, often explain­ing that although things may not change for thir­ty years, change is inevitable, whether you like it or not. The ref­er­ence also applied to the Jan­u­ary 25 rev­o­lu­tion and the sub­se­quent removal of Mubarak.

The ref­er­ences to the rev­o­lu­tion were a reg­u­lar occur­rence on social media and in my con­ver­sa­tions with cus­tomers. At one point, I was intro­duced to a Dutch researcher vis­it­ing Berlin who asked about the truck open­ing times as she missed koshary from her days in Cairo. I told her about the near­by restau­rant and she vehe­ment­ly refused, cit­ing the pro regime stance of the restau­rant, the mir­ror oppo­site of the truck. But I still need­ed more sales beyond the Egypt­ian dias­po­ra to sus­tain this ven­ture, so I began invit­ing DJs, visu­al artists, and rap­pers, cre­at­ing a mini-fes­ti­val in order to lure non-Egyp­tians into a Berlin ver­sion of an alter­na­tive Arab cul­tur­al expe­ri­ence. Arab DJs like Rasha Hilwi or Siin who had recent­ly arrived in Berlin and lat­er became the most known Arab DJs in the dark dirty dun­geons of Berlin’s nightlife, played some of their first gigs at the koshary truck. Artists sold their paint­ings in this ephemer­al gallery space. Rap­pers brought their mic and rhymed in Ara­bic and Eng­lish about pol­i­tics and strug­gles back home.

Lat­er, I began expand­ing into the larg­er culi­nary scene in Berlin. The truck toured the big veg­an fes­ti­vals, catered to start­up orga­ni­za­tions, hit Mauer Park and the Sun­day mar­kets. For­tu­nate­ly, the dire con­di­tion of my Ger­man did not hin­der sales (it actu­al­ly made the truck look more authen­tic, accord­ing to some accounts). Anoth­er for­tu­nate out­come was that Ger­mans sim­ply love koshary. The spices, gar­lic, crispy onions, pas­ta all fit very well with the Ger­man palette, with some com­par­isons to Spät­zle, from Swabia, a region in south-west­ern Ger­many. Many oth­er trucks and food ven­dors would take a loss at the same events that I was leav­ing in the green. It was a veg­an gift from heav­en. No longer would veg­ans have to find fake dön­er (a vön­er — roll those eyes!) or oth­er sub­sti­tute meat dish­es. They could actu­al­ly enjoy a real meal, with avo­ca­do of course.

Ulti­mate­ly, the truck had to bow down to the numer­ous obsta­cles, but I remem­ber the expe­ri­ence with much grat­i­tude to Berlin. For all the tears, sweat, and fun, I had the chance to dis­cov­er the city, meet new friends, and dive into the bold bureau­crat­ic abyss. The expe­ri­ence undoubt­ed­ly shaped who I am and ticked one more box off the list. How­ev­er, I often meet peo­ple who say they miss the truck, the gath­er­ings, and the gen­er­al vibe. I think what we real­ly miss is our home with its few con­nec­tions to Berlin. I fre­quent­ly receive ques­tions on start­ing a food busi­ness in Berlin and I try to give them tips, as I would love a koshary spot on every street. I am con­fi­dent that one day more Egyp­tians will arrive in Berlin and will rise to the task and bring us a piece of home in a warm bowl of koshary love.

 

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[…] city’s Arab food offer­ings, while Mohamed Rad­wan writes about his expe­ri­ence run­ning Kairo Koshary, Berlin’s Egyptian […]