All in all, in Germany – and yes, even in my somewhat “edgy” city of Berlin – it’s just not so easy to have a restaurant meal unlaced with pork or cream. Often enough, you’re (un)lucky to get both in one dish. German monochromatic cooking (white, beige, or brown) thrives on cream and pork in all its forms: bacon, speck, ham, and the occasional lard. I don’t think I discovered this underlying essence of German food until I came here for my last year of high school. My mother honed her cooking skills during her student days in Israel and was making hummus from scratch decades before it mainstreamed in the USA. So when I mentioned as a teenager here that I did not eat meat, I was told “well, then have some sausage.”
Even the diaspora cuisine in Germany is not immune. Show me an Italian restaurant in this country that does not have tagliatelle with a salmon and pea cream sauce on its menu. Cream has the creepy ability to invade every course – in salad dressing and soups, on vegetables (mushrooms can be prepared without cream?) and meats, and of course whipped with your dessert. And the pork? Potato salad, green beans, fried potatoes seem not to survive without. I read that in America these days, bacon is the ingredient you just can’t do without. Many of my swine-o-phile friends are bound to agree. In German cream and pork are know as “Geschmacksträger” – literally flavor carriers. Well, I maintain that an awful lot of flavor can be found in fresh foods prepared without either ingredient.
As a result of my distastes, I have about 4 regular restaurants I will go to in my bourgeois West Berlin neighborhood. If your tastes align with mine, you might just enjoy them.
This small Vietnamese restaurant run by Turkish owner Ertugrul and his Mexican wife is an old standby in my neighborhood. The kitchen does not cook with pork, MSG, or other additives and is turns out dishes that are consistent in their freshness and taste. The spring rolls are greaseless and fried to order, the summer rolls are full of flavorful herbs. Each main course can be ordered to your preference with tofu, chicken, crisp duck, fish, beef or prawns. I like the rice curry duck, sauteed water spinach with shrimp, and the layered ga xa ot with chicken. No cream in sight.
When I am nostalgic for Persian food, I go to Dwin. A family run Armenian place on Uhlandsstrasse, this restaurant is popular with Russian and Iranian expat families. The menu is short and to the point. Excellent quality of meat (lamb, beef or chicken) and rice the way it should be – boiled and then steamed, not one grain sticking to another. Served with a pat or butter and a sprinkle of sumac. There is a wonderful plate of mixed appetizers that will satisfy two or even three. The bread is warm and laden with sesame. I always take the grilled boneless chicken breast with pomegranate sauce. No pork served here.
Indian food is not so great in Berlin. I once went for a dosa and was served a cilantro chutney that had mayonnaise in it. Need I say more. So when I am in the mood for some great spicy lentils, tangy mustard greens, and tomato salad tickled with chilies, I go to Bejte Ethiopian. The restaurant offers a wonderful vegetarian combination plate for two – six veggie dishes served on injera. For the carnivores, spicy beef tartar and chicken, lamb or beef stews are also available. There is a nightly Ethiopian coffee ceremony – the cardamom laced coffee is passed around with popcorn – as soon as the place fills up. And it always does. Pork and cream free.
Lastly, when I am craving protein, I go to the oyster bar at the KaDeWe. I like to go on a Tuesday and have a mixed plate of oysters (7 for the price of 6) and a glass of Sancerre without the weekend crowd!
Next weekend I’ll be in Vienna.