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Post Card: Berlin

12 Feb

Last week I visited Berlin for the first time to see friends and explore the European capital I had heard so much about. The city is truly edgy & quirky and the dichotomy between the bifurcated city during the Cold War era and reunified Berlin is striking both architecturally and culturally. The city exudes much vigour and approachability and has become the hub of experimental art and film festivals and a thriving nightlife. What I found perhaps the most distinct as compared to many other European capitals is the affordability (a hearty meal will cost you as much as a starter would in London or Paris) and the general lack of pretension.

This was not my first visit to Germany since I had visited Cologne in Summer 2010 where I had the delicious döner below but in the midst of World Cup hysteria, food was, understandably, not so high on the agenda.

Döner in Cologne

As few weeks prior to this trip, a Facebook conversation between myself and several German friends regarding where to find “German food” in London led to an interesting observation. Most of them were actually amused by this question and stated their preference for eating at restaurants serving Indian, Italian, Ethiopian food more so than eating food from Germany. There was no consensus amongst them regarding what is “German cuisine” or food that is reminiscent of home. I found that hard to digest (no pun intended!) but while they only represent a certain point of view, their views are not entirely unrepresentative of how young Germans may think. I wondered if perhaps this is a generational viewpoint and if in reality it was infact largely undiscovered by young people.

I was, therefore, curious to see how exploring the culinary scene in Berlin would pan out since I sort of didn’t know what to expect. “German cuisine” typically conjures up images of varieties of wurst (sausages) and of course, beer (apparently, there is a bar in Berlin that serves 500 varieties of beer including a smoked variety!). There are regional variations in the cuisine based on agricultural produce in different regions and also influences from neighboring countries that different German states border with.

Like any major European capital, Berlin has a wide range of restaurants from other parts of the globe. Tapas bars, curry houses, family run Middle Eastern cafes, you name it, they have it. The post popular fast food in Germany in undoubtedly the Turkish döner kebab. While this merits an entire post in itself particularly exploring the idea of popularity of cuisine of ethnic minorities, I’ll delve into this only briefly. Turkish immigrants in Germany are the largest ethnic minority in the country and while the döner is now widely popular all over Germany, it was first introduced in West Berlin in the 1970s by Turkish immigrants. Berlin alone has over 1500 döner stands today. A döner is essentially Turkish bread split wide open and stuffed with grilled lamb or chicken (cooked on a vertical spit) with onions, lettuce, other vegetables and a variety of delicious yoghurt-based sauces.

So of course having a döner in Berlin was on the must-do list and the one I had in Berlin was truly splendid. My friend J, took me to Mustafa’s Gemüsekebap that he claimed was the best döner stand in Berlin. I was told beforehand that what distinguished this stand apart from multiple others were the deep fried vegetables that decorate the meat and sauces. Not being a fan of vegetables in general, I was skeptical about them standing in the way of enjoying the juicy meat flavours.

However, I was proved wrong since the potatoes, peppers and zucchini complement the meat and sauces beautifully. The fried veggies, feta cheese that envelope the tender slices of chicken kebab alongwith the the garlic sauce heaped on top make this an irresistable combination.

Next on the list, upon much insistence on my part, was to try German cuisine. J took me to a restaurant Schwarzwaldstuben that served food from the Southern part of Germany. A traditional specialty is Käsespätzle, i.e egg noodles, cheese and browned onions, served with salad. For me to enjoy a dish that does not contain meat or seafood is admittedly quite rare but I did really enjoy this and it was very filling. Highly recommended!

Schwarzwaldstuben

Käsespätzle

Lastly, J ordered Flammkuchen, the German version of a lightly crusted pizza. There are several toppings to choose from but we had one with crème fraîche, tomatoes, parsley and onions. It is similar to the French Tart Flambée, which is not surprising since the Southern region of Germany borders with France and Switzerland and has evidently drawn from culinary influences there.

Flammkuchen

On my second visit to Berlin in Feb 2012, on a Sunday afternoon I discovered the charming Mauerpark flea market that runs for about a km in a park in Prenzlauerberg. You can sip on peppermint tea and nibble on a pretzel and rummage through everything from spare telephone parts to old lamps and vintage sunglasses.

If you do plan on visiting Berlin in the future

More information:

Mustafas Gemüse Kebab

Mehringdamm 32, 10961 Berlin

http://www.mustafas.de (in German)

Schwarzwaldtuben

Tucholskystr. 48, 10117 Berlin

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A Gastronomical Journey Through Lisbon

14 Nov

Portugal is perhaps Europe’s best kept secret. Not as hyped up and touristy as neighbouring Spain, it has a vintage charm that is hard to resist. Last December, my friend and travel companion Jen (who is also a blogger and great photographer!) and I decided to go on a 4-day trip to Lisbon via Madrid. We also undertook a day trip to the ancient city of Sintra, that has been described by Byron as ‘Glorious Eden.’

Prior to this trip, my conception of Portuguese cuisine was limited to Nando’s flame-grilled peri peri chicken (shameful, I know), which I was fairly certain did not ‘really’ represent Portuguese food. I was, therefore, both curious and excited to explore more of what Portugal had to offer gastronomically.
The first meal we had in Lisbon was a delicious dinner near Rossio where I ordered a caril de camarao (prawn curry) with a hint of coconut, laced with cream. Jen ordered bacalhau (baked cod with potatoes) that both looked and tasted delicious. I was rather intrigued by the idea of having curry in Portugal and wondered if this was an influence from Goa, a former Portuguese colony in South India.  The influence of Portuguese flavours and ingredients on Goan cuisine is a known fact and reflective of the export of cultural practices across colonial empires. What did strike me as interesting, although perhaps not surprising is observing and experiencing the incorporation of Goan recipes into Portuguese cuisine. Although, it remains a question whether the Portuguese brought culinary influences back with them to the home country or whether Goan immigrants to Portugal inspired the use of such recipes in restaurants and homes. Perhaps it is a bit of both.

Prawn Curry - Photo Courtesy: Jen Huang

Bacalhau – Photo Courtesy: Jen Huang

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