In praise of fusion food

Hummus with a twist

When a Kurd and a Turk open up a burger joint and an Israeli and a Palestinian start preparing German dishes with Middle Eastern spices, you know the food scene is in flux. In Berlin intercultural dialogue is increasingly a matter of what you eat. By Rachel Stern

Berlin cafe Mixtape Bagel Burgers in the diverse and up-and-coming neighbourhood 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 origin.

Yasin Duran und Meral Kiyak have been friends since they met 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."

"We don't want to change the world, but rather make the everyday a bit easier in order to live better," Duran reveals on a Friday afternoon in 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 U.S. 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.

Multicultural cuisine

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.

Yasin Duran and Meral Kiyak in front of their Berlin restaurant ″Mixtape Bagel Burgers″ (photo: Kai Lehmann)
An eastern take on burgers & bagels: The idea of opening ″Mixtape Bagel Burgers″ stemmed from Yasin und Meral′s passion for gastronomy and the desire to bring people from different cultures together

Neither Duran and Kiyak felt they completely fitted in growing up in Berlin, having both been ostracised 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 that you don't understand as a child," he says.

Could Mixtape Bagel Burgers exist in Turkey or in the 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.

A taste of the Middle East

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 neighbourhood 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 to Europe.

Potato cakes with tahini: Oz Ben David and Jalil Dabit run the hummus restaurant ″Kanaan″ in Berlin (photo: Kfir Harabi-Media-Kantine)
Potato cakes with tahini: Oz Ben David and Jalil Dabit run "Kanaan", a hummus restaurant in Berlin. To introduce their cuisine to a Berlin audience, they have given the German dishes on their seasonally-rotating menu a Middle Eastern twist

To introduce their cuisine to a Berlin audience, Ben David and his co-founder, long-time 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 cake) topped with tahini sauce, pomegranate and za'atar, a mix of Middle Eastern spices.

"We present things they′re familiar with 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.

"Only in Berlin could a project like this become so successful in such a short time" says Ben David, biting into a cookie himself. In Israel and Palestine, he says, too much fear and scepticism of "the other" exists – personally and in business.

Balkan tapas

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

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 speak German here in Berlin and Germans who are Bavarian. There are differences of course, but they understand each other."

The concept of Kafana, the Serbo-Croatian word for tavern, has really taken off 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 – everyone really," 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."

Rachel Stern

© Deutsche Welle 2017

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