Berlin Gastronomical: A Feast of Flavors

15 September, 2022
Ran­da Aboubakr and friends at Kartof­fel Box in Berlin (cour­tesy Ran­da Aboubakr).

 

Randa Aboubakr

 

As we had agreed a cou­ple of days ear­li­er, I met Hoda and Nora at the sub­ur­ban train sta­tion, Rathaus Span­dau, on the north­west side of Berlin. We were head­ing to Alt­stadt Span­dau to spend an entspan­nt (relaxed) late after­noon in the old town. I had been in Berlin for a cou­ple of months for some work, and was about to return to Cairo, while Nora had been vis­it­ing for two weeks, and Hoda had moved from Cairo to Berlin near­ly 25 years earlier.

It was around 18:30, and we briefly debat­ed whether to grab a quick din­ner at the sta­tion or walk to the old city and have a leisure­ly meal in one of the restau­rants. Since I was already very hun­gry, I sug­gest­ed that I get a bite to go and then see if I want­ed to have some soup or sal­ad with them in the city. Just as I was look­ing for a place where I could find some­thing that was both veg­e­tar­i­an and gluten-free, I glimpsed an exquis­ite dis­play of pota­to tarts (tor­tillas) in the dis­play win­dow of a small din­er called Kartof­fel­box. They were neat and col­or­ful, and imme­di­ate­ly toyed with my love for both pota­toes and eggs. Using my bro­ken Ger­man, I ordered a slice of the toma­to tor­tilla zum mit­nehmen (to take out), so that we could pro­ceed on our way, and the cheer­ful shop atten­dant was nice enough to try to under­stand me. As she was prepar­ing my order, Hoda and Nora were sur­vey­ing the dis­play, and appar­ent­ly found it too entic­ing to resist. The three of us, thus, decid­ed to stay and dine in. A bit embar­rassed, I asked the nice lady (who had already packed my order, and was being helped by anoth­er woman) to change the order to hier essen (eat here), so that we could all sit and eat.

Just as I was try­ing to put some words togeth­er to make that request, I heard the two female shop atten­dants speak to each oth­er in what I could iden­ti­fy as a Pales­tin­ian Ara­bic dialect. Encour­aged, I now said that we want­ed to dine-in in my Egypt­ian dialect. Right away, and as if she had expect­ed that, the lady who had tak­en my order (who lat­er intro­duced her­self as Fat­ma) respond­ed to my request, in fact mim­ic­ked my request, in an adorable and delib­er­ate­ly exag­ger­at­ed Egypt­ian accent, while she care­ful­ly trans­ferred the con­tents of the Sty­ro­foam pack­age onto a grace­ful din­ner plate.

The lady’s reac­tion was not an unusu­al occur­rence. Dur­ing my fre­quent trav­els to Arab coun­tries and encoun­ters with non-Egypt­ian Arabs, I often meet those who take pains to imi­tate the Egypt­ian dialect when talk­ing to me, some­thing that is dif­fi­cult for me to rec­i­p­ro­cate, since I do not have a cor­re­spond­ing tal­ent. Espe­cial­ly with women, this is also often accom­pa­nied by hand ges­tures and body lan­guage meant to repro­duce the modes of Egypt­ian ver­bal prac­tice. Though most of these are usu­al­ly exag­ger­at­ed, and main­ly derived from pop­u­lar Egypt­ian cul­tur­al pro­duc­tions, such as films, TV seri­als and songs, it always fas­ci­nates me that oth­er Arabs are so much in con­tact with Egypt­ian cul­ture. I find it endear­ing, and it warms my heart.

Fat­ma and Siham (the oth­er shop assis­tant) were warm and wel­com­ing, and the five of us instant­ly clicked, find­ing our­selves exchang­ing jokes and repar­tee across the nar­row pas­sage sep­a­rat­ing our table from the counter behind which they stood. Both women turned out to be Pales­tin­ian-Lebanese. Fat­ma, in par­tic­u­lar, was high­ly jovial, and all the time she was doing her job, she sang soft­ly in the Pales­tin­ian dialect. When I asked her if she had heard the lat­est Egypt­ian pop-hit “Sit­to Ana” (My Queen(, she looked at me reproach­ing­ly and went straight into the kitchen, which opened onto the din­er, and blast­ed the song on her mobile phone. She came back danc­ing and chant­i­ng at a high pitch. Siham joined in, and then the three of us did the same. The whole scene was joy­ful, live­ly, and invigorating.

Reflect­ing on the inci­dent with Hoda and Nora a cou­ple of days lat­er, we all seemed to sense some­thing rich­ly sym­bol­ic about five Arab women singing and danc­ing at a din­er for Span­ish spe­cial­ties in a Berlin munic­i­pal­i­ty. We also all felt that the whole encounter was gen­uine­ly friend­ly, and even had a touch of mag­ic. On a cer­tain lev­el, the five of us con­nect­ed deeply.

I have been reg­u­lar­ly com­ing to Ger­many (espe­cial­ly Berlin) for research pur­pos­es for two decades, and some of my stays have last­ed for one or two years. What struck me most upon my first arrival in Berlin in 2002 was how the city was open to so many cul­tures, and how active it was in estab­lish­ing and main­tain­ing bridges between them. In fact, the very first lit­er­ary event I remem­ber attend­ing in Berlin that year was a ses­sion orga­nized by Haus der Kul­turen der Welt (House of World Cul­tures), host­ing two of the most emi­nent, and in a sense “com­pet­ing” Arab poets then liv­ing — Mah­moud Dar­wish and Ado­nis. At the time, I could not imag­ine such a ses­sion was pos­si­ble to orga­nize at all, let alone in a non-Ara­bic-speak­ing coun­try where the two poets were less known and hard­ly cel­e­brat­ed. As I lived longer in Berlin and got to know the cul­tur­al scene more close­ly, I came to real­ize that the “mul­ti-kul­ti” approach, exem­pli­fied by the afore­men­tioned lit­er­ary event, was a reflec­tion of what the city was capa­ble of in the cul­tur­al domain. And through­out my sub­se­quent vis­its, Berlin nev­er failed to sur­prise me with its abil­i­ty to bring togeth­er peo­ple and events from var­i­ous cul­tur­al backgrounds.

Berlin’s Arab neigh­bor­hood in Neukölln with its many Arab shops and restau­rants (pho­to Aslu Ullstein).

The pres­ence of Arabs in the city, on a more mun­dane lev­el, was also clear and dis­tinct for me, pop­u­lar­ly exem­pli­fied by the renowned Son­nenallee, now famous­ly known as Shari‘ al-‘Arab (Arab Street), even, I was told, on Google maps. How the avenue (and the dis­trict of Neukölln at large) expands every time I vis­it Berlin gives me a small indi­ca­tion of how Arab pres­ence in the city also does. The Berlin friends I talk to about Son­nenallee often have mixed feel­ings about it, with some see­ing it pos­i­tive­ly, as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the mul­ti­cul­tur­al­i­ty of the city, oth­ers view­ing it as a “ghet­to” where a “minor­i­ty” shel­ters itself, and yet oth­ers stand­ing in between these two polar posi­tions. I would not, of course, be able to deter­mine whether what I wit­ness in Son­nenallee reflects mean­ing­ful “inte­gra­tion.” That’s why I usu­al­ly veer away from using that term. Whether the Arabs who throng the famous avenue were, or felt, inte­grat­ed is some­thing I am not fit to determine. 

But what I can speak about with a lit­tle more con­fi­dence is how Arab cui­sine seems to be effort­less­ly inte­grat­ed in Sonnenallee’s culi­nary scene (and by exten­sion that of Berlin at large). On my first arrival in Berlin, there were many, pre­dom­i­nant­ly Turk­ish, dön­er shops and Imbisse (snack joints) that sold the deli­cious, aro­mat­ic shawar­ma or falafel pock­ets, which entrapped me instant­ly. Occa­sion­al­ly, I would find a Pales­tin­ian or Egypt­ian shawar­ma and falafel shop. Yet Arab and Mid­dle East­ern shops in Son­nenallee itself were few and con­fined to a nar­row stretch of the street. Food shops, back in 2002–2003, were not that numer­ous, and what was more pre­dom­i­nant was the pres­ence of cloth­ing stores, gold­smiths’ shops, trav­el agen­cies, and oth­er ser­vices. With every renewed vis­it, I would watch the Arab part of the street vis­i­bly expand. Con­comi­tant­ly, the grow­ing pres­ence of food shops was increas­ing­ly vis­i­ble (espe­cial­ly as of 2015), whether gro­cers who sold Lebens­mit­tel, (food prod­ucts), some of which came direct­ly from the shelves of Egypt­ian or Syr­i­an super­mar­kets (such as dried chick­peas, raw bul­gur, and frozen jute mal­low and taro), or eater­ies that served aro­mat­ic and fla­vor­ful Ara­bic food sta­ples (such as falafel, mham­mara, hum­mus, and muta­b­bal dips).

It was also around the same time that a wide array of pas­try shops could be seen dot­ting Son­nenallee. One of these sweet-treat shops offered the most deli­cious Syr­i­an con­fec­tion, and thus became my prime des­ti­na­tion. I would head to Damaskus right after my arrival in Berlin, whether on a short or long vis­it, and indulge in a tiny plate of fresh hal­wait al-jibn, or warm and stretchy kne­feh nabul­siyya.

Yet, those who are famil­iar with Son­nenallee know that the food shops and restau­rants bulging onto the pave­ments there are not exclu­sive­ly fre­quent­ed by Arabs, just like your aver­age Döner Imbiss any­where in the city is often bustling with Ger­mans and mem­bers of oth­er nation­al­i­ties at lunchtime. The Arab and Mid­dle East­ern cui­sine, like a few oth­er eth­nic cuisines, has become an inte­gral part of the food scene in the city. One of the rea­sons behind this appeal is most prob­a­bly the fact that these cuisines lend them­selves eas­i­ly to veg­e­tar­i­an and veg­an lifestyles, which one can eas­i­ly tell are on the rise among (young) Berlin­ers. From falafel, the quin­tes­sen­tial veg­e­tar­i­an burg­er, to hum­mus paste, baba ganouj, fat­tet hum­mus, and rice-stuffed vine-leaves, the offers are as delec­table as they are gün­stig (afford­able).

In Egypt and a large part of the east­ern Arab region, falafel is the num­ber-one break­fast sand­wich. It does not mat­ter much that we most­ly call it ta‘miyya in Egypt, and that we pre­pare it pri­mar­i­ly with a lot of fresh pars­ley and corian­der, and with split fava beans rather than chick­peas. It is still the same fluffy discs, deep fried in oil, tossed into half pitas, and topped with green sal­ad and tahi­ni sauce to make an irre­sistible warm sand­wich. Along­side this break­fast sta­ple in Egypt comes ful midammis, that is, slow-baked fava beans, sea­soned with cumin and a few drops of olive oil or a squeeze of half a lemon. Though ful midammis is as pop­u­lar as falafel in terms of break­fast food in these parts of the Arab region, you can see that it did not make its way into the array of lunch food in Berlin as wide­ly as the crunchy falafel. The only rea­son I can think of is that ful midammis does not behave well as a sand­wich. Unlike the neat and crispy discs of falafel, ful midammis is a mushy kind of stew, and would ren­der the tough­est of bread sog­gy in no time. That would be a mess a Ger­man on a quick lunch break would not want, though is per­fect­ly fine for an Egypt­ian or a Jor­dan­ian hav­ing break­fast in a small cafe­te­ria or at a street food cart, and, rather than attempt­ing a sand­wich, actu­al­ly con­sum­ing the meal in large dips of bread.

The Kairo Koshary food truck in Berlin.

One oth­er par­tic­u­lar­ly Egypt­ian food that tried to make its way into the Berlin culi­nary scene is koshary, a curi­ous mix­ture of lentils, ver­mi­cel­li rice, dital­i­ni pas­ta, chick­peas, caramelized onions, and sev­er­al kinds of sauce. It was also around 2015 that I heard of a small restau­rant offer­ing koshary in the posh Berlin Sav­i­gny­platz. Though the place car­ried the name of a famous Egypt­ian koshary spot, it actu­al­ly offered a vari­ety of Egypt­ian and North African foods. And though I found the koshary served there both mushy and bland, I could see that it was in high demand, par­tic­u­lar­ly among the restaurant’s Ger­man cus­tomers. Koshary is veg­e­tar­i­an, fill­ing, nutri­tious, and very rea­son­ably priced. How­ev­er, it does not seem to have impressed oth­er Berlin­ers that much, judg­ing by the fact that we have not yet seen it served wide­ly across the city. This may be because it is a heav­ier meal than falafel, and one packed with a lit­tle too many carbs.

There was an attempt dur­ing the past few years to intro­duce koshary to the wider Berlin culi­nary scene through a mobile food cart called Kairo Koshary, which would pop up dur­ing street fes­ti­vals and oth­er open-air events, offer­ing not only the Egypt­ian stan­dard ver­sion of the dish, but also a cou­ple of mod­i­fied vari­eties. Koshary is among my absolute favorite Egypt­ian foods, and I seek it out wher­ev­er it is served. That’s why I used to check the sched­ule of this koshary truck when­ev­er I was in Berlin; I want­ed to make sure I was not miss­ing out on any­thing. Theirs was actu­al­ly a fin­er ver­sion of koshary than the one offered at Sav­i­gny­platz, but what was more inter­est­ing for me was the two addi­tion­al vari­eties of koshary with a twist that the pro­pri­etors of the truck had devel­oped. One of them was Moroccan/Casablancan koshary, with cous­cous instead of rice, and a top­ping of almonds, dried dates, and raisins, and the oth­er was American/Californian koshary which fea­tured quinoa in place of rice, and a top­ping of sliced avo­ca­do. I did not actu­al­ly like either vari­ety, but for me they rep­re­sent­ed cre­ative attempts to adapt the dish to var­i­ous tastes, among Arabs and non-Arabs alike.

Kairo Koshary Cal­i­for­nia bowl with avocado.

How falafel was cho­sen over ful midammis and how koshary enthu­si­asts sought to widen its pop­u­lar­i­ty in Berlin was to me emblem­at­ic of culi­nary inte­gra­tion in the sense I pre­fer to con­ceive of the term “inte­gra­tion.” It is not just the tweaks and adap­ta­tions the food under­goes in order to be made more appeal­ing to local taste and hence estab­lish itself as part of the cul­tur­al make-up of the city. Inte­gra­tion, in its var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions, is a two-way traf­fic. Adjust­ing your norms to the host cul­ture so as to gain access is only part of the process. The host cul­ture, in its turn, adjusts itself to have you as part of it. The least that can be done is to accept and make room, just as with sev­er­al Arab and Mid­dle East­ern dish­es that were enabled to become inte­gral parts of the Berlin scene, and are now cher­ished by the local com­mu­ni­ty. If the food is allowed to estab­lish a pres­ence for itself, it becomes an actor and a cat­a­lyst, effort­less­ly and seamlessly.

Despite the fact that the bor­ders between food cul­tures are flim­sy and porous, and that his­tor­i­cal process­es of cross-fer­til­iza­tion ren­der it dif­fi­cult to speak with cer­tain­ty about the “ori­gin” and “nation­al­i­ty” of a par­tic­u­lar dish, food remains among the most authen­tic mark­ers of cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, espe­cial­ly in con­texts of pow­er imbal­ance, in addi­tion to the role it plays in devel­op­ing and sus­tain­ing human rela­tions. One can also see the food shops dot­ting Son­nenallee and oth­er Berlin dis­tricts, espe­cial­ly with their Ara­bic names writ­ten in bold Ara­bic char­ac­ters, as empha­siz­ing eth­nic pres­ence, and claim­ing urban sym­bol­ic cap­i­tal in an exceed­ing­ly diverse con­text. But there is more to this visu­al pres­ence. It also says: We are here, and we are con­tribut­ing to the life of the city.

That brief encounter at the Span­dau din­er left me won­der­ing about a lot of things. One was the quick and easy con­nec­tion we, the five par­tic­i­pants in that event, formed, which I thought was not only the result of a shared cul­tur­al back­ground, but also part­ly due to the fact that we were all women, bond­ed through process­es of food-mak­ing, food con­sump­tion, and song. This also invit­ed reflec­tions on how such cul­tur­al prac­tices con­nect­ed peo­ple on a more gen­er­al lev­el. There was also how the scene at this small din­er reflect­ed the grow­ing Arab (and oth­er Mid­dle East­ern) pres­ence in Berlin. I was, like­wise, intrigued by how Fatma’s uncom­mon behav­ior of spir­it­ed danc­ing and loud singing on the job con­trast­ed with what I had been accus­tomed to with regard to Ger­man din­ing ser­vices, and con­se­quent­ly, how Fat­ma and Siham’s spon­ta­neous danc­ing and chant­i­ng in the din­er might change the expec­ta­tions of Berlin cus­tomers about the “norms” of good restau­rant ser­vice, even if just a lit­tle bit. And, final­ly, there was how all of that was arguably chang­ing how Berlin looked and behaved. Anoth­er man­i­fes­ta­tion of “inte­gra­tion” for me, one it may well be ambi­tious to hope for, is that one day, a good-humored Berlin­er who comes in for a snack will join in with the singing and dancing.

 

Arab foodBerlinfood cultureMiddle Eastern foodSonnenallee

Randa Aboubakr is Professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University, and founder and principal coordinator of Forum for the Study of Popular Culture (FSPC). Author of The Conflict of Voices in the Poetry of Dennis Brutus and Mahmoud Darwish (2004), and co-editor of Spaces of Participation: Dynamics of Social and Political Change in the Arab World with Sarah Jurkiewicz, Hicham Ait Mansour, and Ulrike Freitag (2021), she has several published articles in scholarly and mainstream publications on comparative literature, cultural studies, translation studies, Egyptian colloquial poetry, digital activism, and current affairs. She has translated a number of works of Arabic literature and thought into English and vice versa, including the Arabic translation of Amy Tan’s The Joy-Luck Club, and Tariq Ali’s Protocols of the Elders of Sodom. Her research interests include comparative literature, sub-Saharan African literature, Egyptian colloquial poetry, translation studies, popular culture, and visuality studies. She was fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany (2007-9), and visiting scholar at University of Leiden, the Netherlands (2008), and Zentrum Moderner Orient- Berlin, Germany (2009). She has been guest professor at Seminar for Arabestik and Semitistik at Freie University Berlin, Germany (2007-8) and at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Poland (2009). She has received the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award for Innovative Networking Initiatives in 2012.

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