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 sautéed 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!