Friday, July 29, 2016

Vietnam: Stecknadel im Heuhaufen

Considering that people of Vietnamese descent make up one of the largest minority groups in Berlin, there is an awful lot of awful Vietnamese food to be found here. The DC area also has a large Vietnamese minority and there is a ton of really good Vietnamese food, so this has always been an issue for me. In both cases, migration happened in the '70s as a result of the Vietnam War. In Germany's case, there was also migration in the '50s to former East Germany. I could imagine that the Vietnamese that immigrated to the US are from a different region than those that ended up in Germany. (I'm sure somebody out there know this history.) Does that explain why the food here is so mediocre? Are the Vietnamese-Germans from a part of Vietnam with mediocre food? A part of the country where they are stingy with fresh herbs and lime, prefer weak pho, and drink mango lassis? Or can we blame the Germans again for accepting (demanding?) this level of mediocrity and believing that mango lassis are the thing to drink with all "ethnic food?" I may never know, but there is some happy news. Thanks to the guy behind Berlin Food Stories, I found the only good Vietnamese I've had in the many years I've been in Berlin. Why must it be so far from my apartment??? (It's actually not sooooo far. In my life before children, I would have thought nothing of trekking across town for a good Vietnamese meal). Don't be lazy like me, Banh Xeo Saigon is worth the trek. I would very much recommend listing to BFS's suggestions to order from the Real Vietnamese part of the menu. We did not go so far as to ask for translations from the dishes on the chalk board, but what we did get (grilled betel leaf-wrapped beef and a salad with duck that was fresh and light with tons of herbs and citrus) from the Real Vietnamese section was divine. I've been craving a repeat and just about everything else I saw come out of their kitchen since the moment I left the restaurant. Instead of feeling frustrated that I'm about 11 months pregnant and stuck at home with a sick preschooler and the restaurant is closed for vacation until August 31, I will focus on being happy that this place exists at all in Berlin and that this little project can come to an end on such a positive note. There have been a few low moments, but mostly I've had the best time trying to find all these cuisines on two continents. When I started eating from A to Z, I was pretty down on both the trendy and the "ethnic" food situation here and while I still think there is a lot of fluff and embarrassing copying of Brooklyn on the trendy side and a really lot of mediocrity in many "ethnic" establishments, these culinary adventures made Berlin a more complex and interesting city for me. So I sign off here, desperately craving anything from Bahn Xeo Saigon's kitchen (and also steak tartare, rare hamburgers, bloody steak, the stinkiest raw milk cheese you can imagine, and a bar's worth of cocktails), all in all, not a bad way to end things.

Bahn Xeo Saigon
Greifswalderstr. 41

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Venezuela: Vale la Pena

I spent the summer I was sixteen as an exchange student in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Somehow that summer happened 20 years ago. My brain can't quite compute that, but I do know, dramatic as it may sound, that it changed my life. I'm sure I wouldn't have become a person who could decide to move to Spain where I knew nobody, or hike the dolomites alone where I ended up meeting a German and following him to Berlin and marrying him and having little half Germans if I had worked at the Gap that summer. As impactful as that summer was, it is sort of a blur, but I do have a lot of food memories. I think I drank my weight in tropical juices on a daily basis. Venezuela is where I learned to love and became addicted to coffee, having read in my guidebook that it's rude to refuse it. On my first night there, exhausted and virtually unable to understand a word anyone said to me, my host family took me to a parking lot with a bunch of food vendors and put some kind of sandwich in front of me. I remember that instead of bread, it had patacones and a spicy mayonnaisey sauce and was delicious. My host family had a maid, Mamita, who made us lunch every day after Spanish class -- meat or fish, cooked vegetables with a big squirt of mayonnaise, and a pile of boiled yuca. I haven't had boiled yuca since and that is a very good thing. Fried yuca makes a decent starchy vehicle for a salsa verde or even ketchup, but boiled yuca is gluey and flavorless and truly vile. Towards the end of my time in Maracaibo, a friend and I were so sick of it/sickened by it, we resorted to throwing it out the window when no-one was looking. Possibly not my finest move as a guest in someone's home, but the stuff is really nasty. Somedays, if we were lucky, she made empanadas and other times there were arepas, the national dish. Arepas are a sort-of cornmeal patty, thick tortillas something like pupusas, made from dehydrated cooked cornmeal and water. They are quite bland and can be pretty leaden and they were never really great. When they were filled with sour Venezuelan cheese, they were especially unpleasant.  So, I wasn't all that excited on the trek to sample Kaerrecho's arepas at the Guetermarkt in Moabit a few weeks back. I was so, so wrong because they were probably the most delicious arepas I've ever had. These are some of the lightest arepas I've met and the fillings are all well-seasoned and just really delicious. We sampled the Pelua with shredded beef and saut√©ed peppers and onions, the Reina Pepeada with an avocado-chicken salad of sorts (our favorite!), and the Rumbera with shredded pork and gouda cheese. Most often, I am trying to convince the three year old to eat something, but once in a while I am wishing he would be his usually picky self and let me have his. This was one of those times. I'll be tracking Kaerrecho down again soon and this time I plan to ditch the kid and save room for a golfeado or Venezuelan sticky bun made with salty cheese.

Kaerrecho - their website is awful; check their Facebook page to find out where they'll be!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Uzbekistan: Love those Stans

With no Uzbekistani restaurant to be found in Berlin, I decided to hit up the neighborhood Uzbek joint while visiting my parents in the States. I love Ruz-Uz, a Russian-Uzbek restaurant that just appeared a few years ago and has thankfully managed to stay in business. I'm more a fan of their Uzbek dishes, than the Russian items (though of course there is cross-over in the cuisines) as much fun as it is to order "Fish Under Coat" (basically a herring salad with potatoes). The Uzbek dishes have such complexity of flavor and taste so unlike other cuisines I'm more familiar with, they stay with you somehow. As such, I have never been able to order anything other than qovurma
lagmon, described in the most literal of terms on the menu as "homemade pasta fried with beef, tomato, squash, celery and spices." I suppose that is all true, but the spices and the delicacy of the noodles! It's also the most unusual pasta dish - nothing like any Italian or Asian noodle dish, but completely delicious. Go to Ruz-Uz now and order this dish! For what it's worth, I can also recommend the Plov (the most festive and delicately flavored version of this rice dish I've had), the manti and the borscht. It wouldn't kill Ruz-Uz to get rid of the televisions (I think there are two). This isn't a hole-in-the-wall (I think they might even have white table clothes?), they aren't showing Russian or Uzbek games, and the showing of random American athletic events does nothing to add to the dining experience.  Still, that's a minor complaint - definitely worth overlooking to eat this food.

1000 N. Randolph St., Arlington

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Uruguay: eine Ueberraschung

Back in the fall, I happened upon the Pecados truck at the Winterfeldplatz market, which led to a spontaneous lunch of Uruguayan empanadas. When I tried to find them there again recently, they were nowhere to be seen and it seems they've relocated to other markets (Spittelmarkt, Fehrbelliner Platz, and Mauerpark). This is too bad for me, but maybe better for you? Hopefully because the empanadas were quite good, if not life-changing. I've spent time in Chile and can assure you that the ONLY way to make good meat empanadas is to chop the meat yourself with a knife. You simply cannot get away with purchased ground meat. That said, I don't think I've ever had a meat empanada outside the Southern Cone that was made with hand-chopped meat. Pecados is no exception, but I guess we can't judge them too harshly if nobody else is willing to do it. In all fairness, according to their website, they do sell Empanadas de Carne Cortada al Cuchillo (meat empanadas chopped with a knife), but they didn't have these the day I found them and in the picture on their site, the meat looks like it's in big pieces, not minced. In any case, if you happen upon Pecados, have an empanada and most definitely have an alfajor (dulce de leche (AKA manjar) between two crumbly shortbread-ish cookiesmaybe the world's best sandwich cookie (when done well)). After the alfajor you won't care if the meat was pre-ground (or get the spinach one, which feels untraditional to me, but I liked better than the meat). 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Vereinigtes Königreich: extravagante Zuckerschock

There is a lot of very good food in the UK these days (with the possible exception of Scotland), but maybe like the US, the good stuff doesn't seem to translate abroad all that well. Soooo, because includes both England and the United Kingdom (but not Wales or Scotland???), I'm not skipping it. Instead, I went to the Regent for afternoon tea. All the nicer hotels in Berlin offer it for some reason and picking the Regent was somewhat random. I had ruled out the Ritz after a so-so banquet meal there recently and the Regent was the first place I called. I understood that they would modify the tea menu to meet my pregnancy requirements (no smoked salmon, etc.) -- this turned out not to be the case, leaving me with only egg and cucumber sandwiches while my friends ate salmon, ham, and cheese. There was plenty else, but I did think it sort of lame that nowhere in that kitchen could anyone be bothered to find a tablespoon or two of something to spread on a few fingers of white bread, especially haven been given notice. The rest of the meal was sweets and sweets and sweets. Maybe too many sweets, though they were almost all good. I do think this is typical and I have a definite sweet tooth, but still, I could  have used a little more savory to balance things and if I'm being completely honest, the even the savories fit for non-pregnant folk could use a little spiffing up. They were all perfectly fine and classic, but a definite afterthought next to the pastries. All in all, thought, afternoon tea at the Regent was a lot of fun. The staff, including the majordomo/tea sommelier or whoever the guy in the tails with the teapot-shaped brooch is, was extremely attentive - offering me a special chair or a pillow, insisting that we move so my friend's infant could be placed on a sofa -- but not at all stuffy. There's so much food, not to mention bottomless tea (the kraeutertee was a little soapy for my personal taste) and champagne if you want it (for a price, of course), everything feels luxurious and special. The highlight of the meal, was the humble scone and clotted cream, so if you want to spend a bit less (Afternoon Tea with champagne is 54 Euros), or you don't need ten+ different pastries and the resulting sugar shock, you could go for the Cream Tea, which only includes a hot beverage and scones with clotted cream and jam for 19 Euros. Either way, tea at the regent proved a great way to spend an afternoon.

Regent Berlin
Charlottenstrasse 49

Thursday, December 10, 2015

(die) Ukraine: immer mit Wodka

I went to Ukraine on my first honeymoon (one marriage, two honeymoons) and I will say that it was one of my least favorite destinations. I think I liked it more than Scotland because the food and weather were better and I didn't have a massive case of morning sickness, but.....the people are not warm. That's the nicest way I can say it. Anyway, I wasn't really looking forward to a Ukrainian meal because of the bad association I have with it. But, duty called and so off I set for Ukraine because it seemed the only real Ukrainian (as opposed to Russian or Eastern European) restaurant in town. This seems no longer to be the case because when I arrived it had become Restaurant Graf, which clearly proclaims it self to be a "Russian restaurant." And it was completely empty. But we were there already and it was cold and dark and it wasn't like there were any other solid Ukrainian options to be found in Berlin (that I know of) so in we went. Graf is clearly on a different wavelength than most of the Brooklyn wannabe restaurants in Berlin (for starters, it isn't a hamburger joint). It has table cloths and a fake fireplace and tacky chandeliers and fake marble columns, fake silver candelabras, and a disco ball with Russian (I guess?) pop music videos playing behind it. It feels very Russian (or Ukrainian for that matter). I asked the waitress if the old restaurant had been Ukrainian, but she maintained that it has always been Russian. This seems not exactly true, but I decided not to get political.

In any case, we ordered the Ukrainian Appetizer to start, which is not something I would ever order, but, again, duty called. It was basically slices of raw meaty pork fat, pickles, and fresh dill with a shot of vodka. While shots of vodka are not really my thing and I was never sure how this dish was meant to be eaten (on bread? in bites?), somehow this all really worked for me and was my favorite thing we ordered. The low point was a green borscht that was missing a whole lot of flavor. I filled up on pork fat, so didn't leave hungry, but this was most definitely not worth ordering. I managed to eat more than my share of the cherry pelmeni with sour cream, though. All in all, I was really surprised by this place. I will freely admit that walking into an ueber tacky empty restaurant specializing in what is not one of the world's great cuisines had me convinced that this meal was going to be nothing but awful. Glad to have been proven wrong.

Restaurant Graf
Martin-Luther-Strasse 8

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Uganda: Wer hatte es gedacht?

Somethings have changed in Berlin since I last left: there is more of a food scene. It's too early to say whether or not it's a good one, whether it has developed in an authentic way or does it still just feel like people who have only read about Brooklyn are trying to recreate it here, is it packaging that matters or are people paying attention to the food itself? Many questions....and no real answers yet. But I can tell you today that you can get Ugandan food in Berlin and I don't think that was the case two years ago.

Martkthalle IX opened right before I left Berlin and they had just started holding Street Food Thursdays. It seems that this has spurred other regular food events, such as Street Food of Achse at the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg. In my search for Ugandan food in Berlin, I stumbled upon the Rolleggs stand, selling rolleggs aka rollex, a Ugandan snack consisting of a flat omelet with vegetables, such as cabbage and carrot, rolled in a chapati. The seemingly (I didn't ask....sorry) German guys spent some time in Uganda and are now introducing them to the German public -- with a few modifications. They claim that a traditional rollegg with vegetables doesn't sell in Germany, so they offer a ham and cheese omelet and one with zucchini and feta. They also serve theirs with a choice of homemade ketchup (mild, spicy, or zesty (wuerzig)). I can attest to the German love of condiments and they ketchup (I went for wuerzig was quite good). All in all, it's basically a breakfast burrito by another name. It was pretty tasty, but also pretty far from life-changing and I personally would have rather had the more typical Ugandan veggie version. I think I'd also like to see the Rolleggs guys branch out into other Ugandan dishes (this also seems vital in their ability to compete with the other fare on offer - wild boar burgers and gnocchi and empanadas and pelmeni, etc.). For now, though, I'm still feeling pretty pleased that anyone is making (and selling) Ugandan food in Berlin.