Berlin: Shish And Sauerkraut To Go

Berlin has a huge Turkish population, hip Kreuzberg is their home. Just follow your nose - it's where some of the city's best food is served. Andrew Spooner tucks in.
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The Independent Travel

I'm staring at a mountain of delectable grilled meat. There's moist lamb shish, tender chicken, pungent kofte (a minced, spiced sausage) and luscious lamb chops. It is my third day sampling the delights of Berlin's Turkish food and I've arrived at my zenith of indulgence at the city's celebrated Hasir restaurant. I've already gorged on a mammoth spread of meze (starters). Then comes salad and bread. My eating buddy, Heiko, a Berlin film-maker, looks incredulous. "I don't think I can eat all this," he says.

Half an hour later and we are looking at a pile of bones. The table is cleared and the waiter reappears with dessert. Oh no. "This is called a kunefe," he says. "It's a shredded, filo-style wheat cake drenched in honey syrup and stuffed with feta cheese. We then smother it in cream and crushed pistachios and eat it warm." The kunefe is humungous and I don't know how much more of this I can take. I notice that Heiko's eyes are as big as saucers. Before I know it I look over and Heiko is licking the plate. Disgusting. Five minutes later I'm doing the same.

Turkish food might lack the refinement of French and some of the delicate handling of Italian but it more than makes up for this with a huge slice of pure, unadulterated pleasure. The massive community of 250,000 Turks that Berlin is home to is the fifth largest Turkish settlement on the planet - making the German capital the perfect spot if you want to enjoy your food rather than endure it.

"You could say that when we arrived we thought the food culture in Berlin was pretty poor," says Seftar Cinar, a speaker of the TBB (Turkish Union in Berlin-Brandenburg), Berlin's most important Turkish community organisation. While the first Turks arrived in Berlin more than 300 years ago, with a second wave landing during the 19th century when the links between Germany and the Ottoman Empire were strong, most of the city's present population arrived as Gastarbeiters (guest workers) during the 1960s and 1970s. "The rural areas of eastern Turkey provided a large part of the migrant labourers," says Seftar, "and, of course they brought their food and traditions with them. You could also say that food became one of the first sites over which the Germans and Turks came together."

These days it's hard to escape the doner kebab in Berlin. With an estimated 1,600 kebab shops in the city, not to mention the numerous bakeries, restaurants and cafés, Turkish fare dominates. A lot of it is plied from the ubiquitous Imbiss - a typical German-style fast-food outlet that you can find on almost any street corner. But the best food is to be found in Kreuzberg, the heart of Berlin's Turkish community.

"I am born and bred in Kreuzberg," says Gokcen Demiragli, a German of Turkish origin who works both as a tour guide and social worker. We're visiting the small Kreuzberg Museum and Gokcen is explaining the history of the district. "There have always been immigrants in Kreuzberg," she says. "First came French Huguenot refugees, then immigrant workers from eastern Europe, Russian Jews and the Turks in the 1960s."

The museum houses a few simple displays charting these population movements and the expulsion and murder of the Jewish residents during Nazi rule. It also documents the rise of Kreuzberg as a hotbed of squatting and radical left-wing politics. "By the time we get to the 1980s," says Gokcen, "Kreuzberg had become not only the centre of the Turkish community but also of alternative lifestyles."

We head out on to the street, stopping first at the Serhat Firini bakery - "This is one of the best in Berlin," says Gokcen - where I buy half a dozen pieces of gorgeously sticky baklava. The streets around the museum are filled with pasty German youths eager for a dose of alternative underground culture and Turkish women with tightly worn headscarves and obligatory shopping trolley. Then there are the T-shirt sellers and loud music vying with an endless hubbub of Turkish food and goods. It is a curious juxtaposition of wild indigenous youth and conservative migrants, a study in mutual tolerance.

Lunch is approaching and my appetite has been whetted by the baklava. First, we stop for Turkish tea on the rooftop terrace at the Cicek Pasaji, a tasteful collection of small, food and drink outlets housed in an urban development at Kottbusser Tor. "This place has only just opened and the community is quite proud of it," says Gokcen as we sip our tea and bask in the bright May sunshine.

The strong, dark Turkish tea adds a zip to my step and I soon arrive at the canal-side Turkischer Markt - one of Berlin's brightest food markets. Giant piles of fresh, pungent mint, stacks of rotund Turkish bread and vendors hawking towers of obscure sweets mingle with nuts, olives and shouts in German and Turkish. Women in sequinned headscarves, enormous red splashes of vivid tomatoes, children grabbing for goodies, gorgeous smells and colours bustle through the mêlée. If I was peckish before, now I am ravenous. "We all go to a place called Adana Grill," Seftar had told me earlier in the day. "It has an authentic mangal [charcoal grill] and the meat is just fantastic."

By this point I'm reasonably sated and return to my hotel to take a snooze. I'm woken by a call from Heiko and before I know it we're in Hasir and I've devoured a full portion of the mighty kunefe, leaving only a spotless plate behind. "Let's finish with a smoke," says Heiko. A short taxi ride deposits us a Heinrichplatz, the centre of Kreuzberg's nightlife and we disappear into the exotic charms of the Orient Lounge.

"We have a full shisha menu," says the waitress, as Heiko and I lounge in a private, curtained booth. This time I'm sure I've had enough and I quietly explain to Heiki that no, I really can't eat any more and that I am likely to expire if he insists. "A shisha is waterpipe," he says "We don't eat it. We smoke it." My relentless sojourn into the delights of Berlin's Turkish food ends with the satisfying gurgle of a giant and rather pleasant hookah.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

Andrew Spooner travelled as a guest of Rail Europe and Deutsche Bahn (0870 830 4862; raileurope.co.uk). Return fares from London to Berlin start at £193 per person, including Eurostar to Brussels and a bed in a six-berth couchette sleeper service onwards to Berlin.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

For further information contact the German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; germany-tourism.co.uk).

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