In a corner of former East Berlin, where shabby, red brick buildings meet cobblestone streets, lies a new Promised Land.
Kanaan — a casual, vegetarian Middle Eastern restaurant named for the biblical lands before they were conquered by the Israelites — is something of a dream come true. And that’s not just because its hummus is “oh yes,” as one German blogger recently described it.
Rather it’s the result of a unique partnership between its 30-something owners, Oz Ben David, who grew up Jewish in Beersheba, and Jalil Dabit, an Arab Christian from Ramallah.
The duo met in the German capital, where they are trying to turn a culinary dream into reality. Before the men ever met, they had separately nursed the same idea: to draw upon their heritage to create a delicious, modern cuisine. And, of course, to earn their living by it.
Kanaan, which opened a year ago, is a unique hybrid, where the Arab cuisine of Dabit’s grandfather meets the recipes of Ben David’s Moroccan and Romanian grandmothers. In some ways it’s an “only in Berlin” phenomenon, thanks in part to the city’s relatively open attitude toward foreigners. Berlin boasts a small but lively Israeli population (estimated at some 10,000) and a significant number of Arabs of Palestinian origin, which some estimate at about 35,000.
These facts, along with Berlin’s famously low cost of living, made it an ideal spot for two non-Germans to test the waters of an unusual restaurant concept.
On a typically cloudy August evening in Prenzlauer Berg — a hip district that’s akin to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg both in terms of its uber-hip character, as well as its more recent evolution into a family-friendly spot — children are playing in Kanaan’s outdoor garden while adults sit under large café umbrellas dipping soft, fresh pita into silky smooth hummus and munching on roasted cauliflower glazed with a date honey sauce. The restaurant, tucked in a corner overlooking the commuter railway tracks, is a bit of an oasis: lush vines have grown around the outdoor dining area, and small flowers trail from a makeshift arbor.
In other words, it was a perfect, peaceful spot for an Israeli and a Palestinian to set up shop.
“It’s so crazy how we met,” said Dabit, 34, who shuttles back and forth from Ramallah to run Samir, the famed restaurant of his late grandfather and father. Two years ago Dabit’s Israeli girlfriend, who was studying at the University of Potsdam, urged him to settle down in Berlin.
He agreed but told her, “I need to do something.” For a year he absorbed the scene, “to understand people and see how it works. And food, food, food was always the thing.”
Separately, Ben David, 36, a marketing expert, was itching to try gastronomy. It seemed ordained that the two should meet.
“It was like a road we almost couldn’t resist,” Ben David said.
Before meeting Dabit, Ben David watched Oren Rosenfeld’s 2015 film “Hummus! The Movie,” which featured Dabit and his family’s Ramallah restaurant. In the film, Dabit muses about opening a place of his own in Berlin.
But when mutual friends suggested they meet, Ben David hesitated — he said his father was worried about him working with an Arab from the West Bank. And, as it happens, Dabit’s father had his own doubts about his son setting up shop in Germany, as he didn’t want to lose him as a business partner.