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How hybrid cuisines in Berlin cross cultures – and conflicts

Rachel Stern
September 26, 2017

Berlin is known for its diverse restaurant scene. But as DW's Rachel Stern reports, hybrid, fusion and crossover restaurants don't always receive a warm welcome - often for political reasons.

Kanaan founders Oz Ben David, who grew up in Beersheba, and Jalil Dabit, an Arab Christian from Ramle. (Kai Lehmann)
Kanaan founders Oz Ben David, who grew up in Beersheba in Israel, and Jalil Dabit, an Arab Christian from Ramle in Palestine.Image: Kfir Harabi-Media Kantine

The Berlin cafe Mixtape Bagel Burger in the diverse and up-and-coming neighborhood of Moabit is an unconventional combination: both for its juicy all-natural burgers enclosed in a bagel rather than bun, and its co-owners of Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds.

Yasin Duran und Meral Kiyak had been friends since meeting 20 years ago as children in Charlottenburg, shortly after Duran moved to Berlin from Turkey with his family. Bound by their gusto for gastronomy as adults and drive to unite people of differing backgrounds, they decided to open their own cafe in 2015 – with a social message. A statement by Che Guevara graces the marquee: "Let's be realistic, let's try the impossible."

Catering to a mixed crowd

"We don't want to change the world, but rather make our everyday a bit easier in order to live better," Duran told DW on a Friday afternoon at Mixtape, which is decorated with "Coexist" signs comprised of various religious symbols.

The menu is divided into East Coast and West Coast sections – alluding to the US hip hop groups they say overcame their beefs, or fights, through music. You can taste Duran and Kiyak's heritage in the spices they employ for the East Coast versions. 

The business is one of a few culinary collaborations in Berlin that are consciously aiming to bridge the gap in tastes, traditions and prejudices. Often unlikely to exist in the places where their cuisine or owners come from, they are able to thrive amid Berlin's burgeoning and experimental foodie scene.

Mixtape Bagel Burgers
Mixtape Bagel Burgers co-owners Yasin Duran and Meral Kiyak, who is wearing a colorful Coexist t-shirts iconic to the cafeImage: Kai Lehmann

Neither Duran and Kiyak felt they fully fit in growing up in Berlin, having both been ostracized by classmates when they didn't celebrate the same holidays. Duran, who stumbled upon his first bagel at a Mehringdamm cafe in 2013, wanted to turn multiculturalism into a more innate concept from a young age. "As an adult you can discuss things, but as a child you don't understand that," he says.

Could Mixtape Bagel Burgers exist in Turkey or Kurdish populated regions of the country? "Good question," says Duran, pointing out that it would be highly unlikely unless the two hid their identities: For a long time, even speaking Kurdish was banned in Turkey. But in Berlin their shop caters to a mixed crowd: In the afternoon it is filled with nearby students and lawyers on their lunch breaks from two nearby courthouses.

Israeli-Palestinian hummus with a German twist

Yet such good intent does not always lead to harmony. The first few weekends that the hip hummus restaurant Kanaan – run by an Israeli and a Palestinian – opened, police patrolled the premises in response to threats from pro-Palestinian groups. But the fear soon faded when there were no incidents.

Now open for two years in the trendy neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, Kanaan is a hybrid in many ways. "It's not about bringing in a whole new thing, but using a different twist, something that Grandma used to do but a little bit better," says Israeli co-founder Oz Ben David, who previously worked as a marketer bringing Middle Eastern products and ideas to Europe. 

Besitzern von Kanaan Restaurant in Berlin
Kanaan founders Oz Ben David, who grew up in Beersheba in Israel, and Jalil Dabit, an Arab Christian from Ramle in Palestine.Image: Kanaan Restaurant

To introduce their cuisine to a Berlin audience, Ben David and his co-founder, longtime restauranteur Jalil Dabit, have given the German dishes on their seasonally-rotating menu a Middle Eastern twist.

The most ordered item is currently hummus Kartoffelpuffer (a type of potato pancake) topped with tahini sauce, pomegranate and za'atar, a mix of Middle Eastern spices.

"We play with a German thing they know, but in a new way," says Ben David, sitting underneath refashioned GDR-era lights hanging from the restaurant's ceiling. Israeli and Arabic music plays in the patio, styled like a German beer garden with long tables and self-service in the summer.

To facilitate acceptance of new tastes at a young age, the restaurant now offers free hummus to children age three and under – with an added cookie comprised of tahini, a popular sesame paste, to those who finish the plate.

Hummus, a chickpea puree prepared differently across the Middle East, is the core dish at Kanaan.
Hummus, a chickpea puree prepared differently across the Middle East, is the core dish at Kanaan.Image: Kfir Harbi

"Only in Berlin could we create a project like this to be so successful in such a short amount of time" says Ben David, biting into a cookie himself. In Israel and Palestine, he says, too much fear and skepticism of "the other" exists -- personally and in business. 

Bringing the Balkans together

Other restaurants feature food from regions formerly filled with strife – but united by a similar food, culture and language.

Take Kafana, a Serbian restaurant which offers tapas-style dishes hailing from throughout the Balkans, be it the popular pepper and eggplant paste adjar, or a mini-version of the Serbian schnitzel, Karadjordjeva.

This is the first time Serbian and Balkan cuisine is served as tapas, allowing people to try many dishes and different tastes, says Vladimir Kosic, a Montenegrin restaurateur who opened the tavern on January 13 of this year, the Serbian Orthodox New Year.

At Kafana's opening weekend in January, founder Vladimir Kosic celebrates with his wife and the staff of the restaurant (Kai Lehmann)
At Kafana's opening weekend in January, founder Vladimir Kosic celebrates with his wife and the staff Image: Kafana

Situated on an unassuming side street near the bustling Bundesplatz in Wilmersdorf, it offers a vibrant pan-Balkan line-up, not only of food, but also entertainment. There's been stand-up from a Croatian comic and regular Yugoslavia-themed pub-quiz nights advertised on Kafana's website as being held in "Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin" – small variations of the same language, yet often described as their own languages due to continual political differences.

"We speak one language and we totally understand each other," says Kosic, who also runs the Montenegrin fish restaurant Lesendro, and previously ran a few restaurants while living in Belgrade, Serbia's capital. "It's like German people who are speaking German here in Berlin and German who are Bavarian. There are differences of course but they understand each other."

Guests sample the pan-Balkan menu at Kafana (Kai Lehmann)
Guests sample the pan-Balkan menu at KafanaImage: Kafana

Kafana, the Serbo-Croatian word for tavern, is a place able to run particularly well in Berlin, with a confluence of cultures interacting both in the kitchen and as guests in restaurants.

"In my businesses I work a lot with Croatian people, with Albanian, with Macedonians, Italians, and really everyone," says Kosic, sitting in the dimly lit restaurant decorated with classic chandeliers and freshly-made jars of adjar for sale.

"We want to be a Berlin restaurant for all people from Berlin."