Berlin This Time: Food

hibiscus salad

hibiscus salad

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vegetarian spreads

vegetarian spreads

donor kebab

donor kebab

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.

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Food in Sarajevo

Our Bosnian AirBnB host explained that the restaurant scene in Sarajevo isn’t well established. Most people grow some of their own food and eat at home. There were plum, pear, apple trees and vegetable gardens attesting to that fact all around. And the spectacular fruit market is cheap and exciting. But, she continued, food is inexpensive, so we should explore. Particularly at breakfast, though, even amongst abundant cafes, it was hard to find one that offered food in addition to coffee. Bosnian coffee is served like Turkish coffee, strong, in a small tin serving pitcher with the grinds at the bottom. One option for breakfast are the pies, made with a phyllo-like dough, and filled with meat, cheese, potato, spinach, or– most tasty– pumpkin (zucchini). These are ubiquitous and cost a few bucks, but my favorite bakery was Forino.

The local beer, Sarajevsko, is organic. There is a spring in the complex housing the brewery and it was the only source of fresh water (besides rainwater or melted snow) during the siege, so it is also thought of with great affection.

The best restaurant we went to is a pescatarian place called Karuzo. Decorated with a timeless nautical theme, things take a bit longer here: the chef and owner also acts as the waiter and dishwasher, with the kitchen downstairs. The food was exquisite, and a macrobiotic salad with seitan and seaweed was fresh and clean, with excellent flavors and textures. Stuffed cabbage with tofu was quite good. We were introduced to good wines from Herzegovina, a growing industry that is just entering the export market. And finally, a chocolate apple pie was delicious. My only disappointment was that a trilingual cookbook by the chef had incomplete recipes, clearly untested, lacking notes on the techniques that bring the food to the next level.

We had good meals at an enormous Austro-Hungarian place next to the brewery and good falafel in the old town at Zaatar. In general, the food here is a bit bland and emphasizes meat. When I returned home, all I wanted to eat was Korean, Thai, and Mexican food. Hopefully, stability in the region will increase options.

The scene at the fruit market

The scene at the fruit market

Stuffed cabbage at Karuzo

Stuffed cabbage at Karuzo

Macrobiotic salad at Karuzo

Macrobiotic salad at Karuzo

Cabbage, onions, and grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and smreka, a fermented juniper berry drink

Cabbage, onions, and grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and a glass of smreka, a fermented juniper berry drink

Bosnia coffee

Bosnian coffee