German food conjures images of hearty but bland foods like meat and potatoes, so I was pleasantly surprised by the food this time. Vietnamese immigrants began to arrive in the 50s, and earlier waves from the Middle East provided even more culinary options, including many vegetarian options. At Siam in Kreutzberg—a cleaned up East Berlin neighborhood often compared to Park Slope in Brooklyn―I had one of the most delightful and surprising meals in recent memory. A hibiscus and seaweed salad packed a combination of flavors and textures: sliced Asian pear in a sweet, floral, vibrant red hibiscus marinade, salty and chewy hijiki seaweed, crisp cucumber and romaine lettuce, hints of chile, served with a giant crisp rice cracker. This was followed by a solid vegetarian pho. Another day, my mind was blown by Sudanese falafel at Sahara Sudanesische Spezialitaten in messy, hip, and gentrifying Fraudlenshein. Sure, I’ve had the Arab or Israeli versions, with pickled veggies and tahini. But the Sudanese version had falafel, peanut sauce, and haloumi in a pita for just a few Euros. Wow. I was delighted that the friendly African dudes working the counter were rocking out to cumbia.
Since I was in Berlin, I also had the requisite and ubiquitous currywurst, donor kebab, and spatzle. I am still puzzled why currywurst is so popular (besides the price point). It’s a sliced hot dog with ketchup, sprinkled with curry powder, served with or without fries (chips). Donor kebab entered the menu through Turkish immigrants and is now a mainstay. Generous amounts of sliced, seasoned lamb (like a gyro), veggies, mayonaisse-based sauces, served in pressed, warm bread. It’s a salty, creamy, meaty mess of a sandwich with a perfect combination of amazing flavors. Spatzle is a pasta, made from potato, and sauteed so the outside gets slightly browned. I had a good one made with spinach and a cream sauce.
Besides beer, the beverage of choice is Club Mate. Apparently made from an old recipe that was recently rediscovered, it is Argentinian yerba mate tea with a slight fermentation, making a tannic, sparkling, slightly sweet caffeinated drink. Bars serve it with vodka.
There are bio (organic) markets all over. Yogurt comes in clear glass or plastic, which somehow makes it seem tastier. My vegan host introduced me to vegetarian pates and spreads made from ingredients like beets and horseradish or shitake mushrooms. They are quite good, available in cans that I brought home for easy meal options.