In a region marred by conflict, hummus serves as a common culinary ground. Named for the Arabic word for "chickpea," this ubiquitous staple seasoned with tahini, garlic, lemon, and a copious glug of olive oil graces tables from Iraq to Egypt, Syria to Lebanon, Israel to Palestine. No one can agree on who invented it, as various forms of the spread may have existed as early as the 13th century, yet people of different nationalities, ethnicities, and beliefs across the Middle East will readily attest to its deliciousness.
It seems fitting then that when Jalil Dabit, a Palestinian restaurateur and chef, and Oz Ben David, an Israeli marketing guru, decided to launch a restaurant in Berlin, the garbanzo bean purée would feature prominently on their short menu. Both hoped to spread a message of tolerance and to create the kind of place where people from all sorts of backgrounds could break pita bread together.
When they launched a pop-up called "Hummus, Fashion, and Peace Connection," more than a thousand guests came and danced to Iranian and Israeli DJs while munching on creamy, Jerusalem-style hummus. After flitting between several temporary locations, Kanaan opened on a quiet street in Prenzlauer-Berg last January. The place has proved so successful that the owners went on to open a smaller branch in Kreuzberg. On May 1, they opened up a terrace and began offering full dinner service, as well as a traditional breakfast buffet.
I sat down with David over a heaping plate of velvety "hamshuka" for a conversation about grassroots social activism, why not all chickpeas are created equal, and solving the refugee crisis, one dish at a time.
MUNCHIES: You've mentioned that you and Jalil both grew up in food-loving families. What was yours like? Oz Ben David: I was born to a father from Romania and a mother from Morocco. On Fridays, when the whole family came, we had Romanian chopped liver with spicy Moroccan meatballs. The shakshuka here is from my Moroccan grandmother. She always used to say, "It's not spicy. It's just a bit piquant." We used to eat it when we were five with tears streaming down our faces—that's how we learned to love spicy food.
How'd you get into the hummus business? I'm a feeder. I've always liked to feed people. I would do big dinners at my place back in Israel with my friends. I had my PR and marketing strategy business there, where I did a lot of things I'm not proud of, but I also did a lot of great things. Eventually, I started looking for something new. I wanted to do something different, to clean my karma. I decided to move. I didn't know at first that it would involve food, but I understood that it would be about making connections.
What do you mean? I wanted to be a bridge between different cultures. Every time in nature when you combine two things together, you make a new thing that is stronger. The dish you just ate, "hamshuka," is a mix of the traditional hummus that Jalil's family has been making for more than 400 years and the shakshuka of my grandmother, with the egg and everything. It's the bestseller here. Everybody loves it.
Can you tell us a bit of Jalil's story? Jalil's family has owned a restaurant in Ramla, a mixed city of Arabs and Israelis, since 1948. Before that, they were in Jaffa. His father, Samir Dabit, was a huge character in the peace camp of the Arabs. Everybody came to his restaurant. If you had money, if you didn't have money, whatever, you came, you ate, you enjoyed—that was important to him. He was feeding Arabs, Israelis, Christians. His restaurant was always a place of peace. When he died, they closed down the whole city and thousands of people walked in his honor. In the newspaper, they dedicated a special page to say goodbye to him. He was such a simple guy, but everything he did was really from his heart. You can also see that in Jalil.
What brought him to Berlin? He fell in love with an Israeli-Jewish girl. [The family] didn't have a problem with that. For them, people are just people. He never cared about the religion of his wife or his kid, but it still created problems with the rest of the people in the neighborhood. She decided at some point that she wanted to go to Berlin to get a Ph.D. and he started making excuses to visit. When he told his father that he'd like to do a pop-up restaurant in Berlin, he asked me to create a plan. He looked at what I came up with and said, "It's an excellent plan, but I can't afford you. If you believe in this, be my partner." I told him, "You know what? Let's do it."
How did you define yourselves in the beginning? In our first months together, we went to many places in Berlin that sell hummus—or, they call it hummus—and falafel and all the stuff we wanted to eat. I had never felt so disappointed. At some point I even asked one of the guys, "Aren't you ashamed to sell falafel like this? People will think that this is how your mother cooks." He said something that stuck with us as a bad example: "The Germans don't know anything else." We thought that this is what we could offer. We wanted our food to be exactly like you would eat it in Israel, exactly like you would eat it in Palestine, exactly as I remember it at my grandmother's house. No compromises. No shortcuts. We wanted to find exactly the chickpeas you need for hummus, exactly the chickpeas you need for falafel—they're not the same.
Wait, they're not? There are more than ten different types of chickpeas. Every hummus is different. You have the Iraqi version, the Israeli version, the Palestinian version. It's ridiculous to argue who invented it, because everyone has his own hummus. Every family, every city in the Middle East, has their own official way to make it.
Doing everything the traditional way has to be a lot of work. We started making falafel and at one point I said, "This is crazy, let's just get a machine." Jalil said, "No, we will continue to make them with our hands. My father once told me that you make falafel the size of your hands, because it is the size of your heart and this is what you give to people." We keep the history where we should and give it respect. But on top of that, we add our own stuff.
What's something you've added or changed? We took traditional European cakes and gave them an Arabic twist. We wanted to show people that when you mix things together, you make something amazing. For example, we took German lemon cheesecake and instead of lemon, we use a tahini-date-honey cream.
Why Kanaan? Choosing the name was a really long process. Then Jalil said it and I asked, "Why Kanaan?" He answered, "It's the starting point. The father of these religions, Abraham, was living in Kanaan. The food that we serve is Kanaan food." A huge part of what is now the Middle East used to just be Kanaan. The whole area of Israel, Palestine, [and] Syria was Kanaan.
It fits. You have an incredibly diverse staff. In our team, we have people from Syria, Palestine, Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia, Lebanon, Sweden, Morocco, and Russia. We combine everybody. We all tell the stories, but in our own ways. When I talk about the menu, I talk about my grandmother's house. But Hanna from Sweden talks about the first time she visited Israel and ate this dish. Everybody's bringing their story to the table. We are looking for some connection. If you have no connection to this type of food, you can't fake it.
You don't often see all of these nationalities working side by side. Have you experienced any backlash or prejudice? I can tell you a story about an old German guy. He came here and he told me, "You know, you Israelis are not like them." And I said to him, "You know what the secret is, what's so funny about our conflict? We are exactly the same as 'them.' You just didn't give 'them' a real chance."
What have you been doing to "give people a chance," as you put it? We have a worker here who is a refugee from Syria. He was an English and Russian teacher at a university in his country. He came to me with no knowledge of how to cook except what he knew from his home. Now he's a manager and he feels like he has his respect back. He can earn money for his family. We also donated the money from the "Hummus, Fashion, and Peace Connection" parties that we did to refugee programs for education. We got a call from some refugee camps in Wedding that they needed blankets for the winter, so one weekend we gave away a hummus plate and a beer to everyone who brought baby clothes and blankets. We collected tons. Maybe it's because it's baby things and toys, but it's somehow much more emotional. It's about some human taking care of another human who had less luck in life.
It's great to see so many people pitching in. Let's face it, the country can't take care of all these people. It's up to us to take care of each other. Don't think of it as a charity thing. Think about it as making this a better, safer place for everyone. I put vegetables outside as decoration. Whenever I see someone trying to steal them, I invite him in, much like Jalil's father. I give him a plate and tell him about the history of the hummus, because usually it's some punk guy on the way to Mauerpark. I know as he's walking away from here that for at least a couple hours, I have put such a good karma on him that he will not do anything. He is full, he feels that someone cares about him, that someone felt he was important.
Thank you for speaking with me.