October 19, 2011

When German food goes MIA

Given that food is a central component of culture, it seemed only natural to add “eat a real German meal” to my list of things to do while in Berlin. Almost two months after my arrival, however, I have yet to find a “real” German restaurant. Berlin’s streets are lined with eateries offering Italian, Indian, Asian, African and even Cuban cuisine, but wiener schnitzel (a breaded beef cutlet) and schupfnüdeln (thin gnocchi-like dumplings) are conspicuously absent. Still, Berlin today is multicultural and cosmopolitan and perhaps it is only appropriate that its culinary scene reflects that. Through its food, the city comes to terms with its constantly evolving culture.

Let me give you an example. For me, the infamous “taco truck” has long been a quasi-mythical entity lurking somewhere in southern California. There is a shortage of roving Mexican food stands in my hometown of Omaha, and given Berlin’s distance from Mexico, one could expect a similar situation to exist here. So when my friends announced that they had found a taco truck in the district of Kreuzberg, I was skeptical. Turning off of the main street to walk across a dark, deserted parking lot did little to lessen my apprehension. Before long, however, we could hear faint rock ‘n roll music, and a small truck came into view. For the next hour, we basked in the glow of Christmas lights, faces streaked with salsa and tongues burning from our tacos.

The Kreuzberg taco truck was the complete antithesis of stereotypical German culture — neat, proper and devoid of tacos — yet it did not feel out of place. If anything, it encapsulated the eclectic nature of Berlin, where businessmen eat McDonald’s hamburgers in the shadow of Cold War-era complexes and Chinese immigrants sell bubble tea in the historic city center. Lobster is served in the food court at KaDeWe, the second largest department store in Europe and a hallmark of German economic prowess. But it is only here that German pretention about being the largest economic power in Europe shines through. At noon, the rest of the city bustles with vendors cooking sausages on grills attached to their bodies with harnesses. A bockwurst (a relatively mild sausage usually served with mustard) is just €1.50.

While food in Berlin is often fast, a single cup of coffee can be savored over a two-hour conversation in a café (that quickly lengthens to three hours when you try and fail to get the waiter’s attention in order to ask for the bill, as German waiters have been trained to leave customers alone unless they are jumping up and down while on fire). It is not unusual to linger in a restaurant long after your plate is empty. Once, I enjoyed an entire evening with friends at a small Italian restaurant near my apartment, which we visit frequently due to its delicious, inexpensive food. It might seem more appropriate to find a German restaurant at which to spend such a large amount of time, but that presents another problem: we did not choose Italian because it was familiar. We chose it because it was there. Prenzlauer Berg (where I live) is a proper cornucopia of food options, ranging from American to Azerbaijani, but German food is not readily available. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it didn’t exist.

Recently, however, I finally got the chance to try schupfnüdeln (delicious, by the way) while on a trip to Dresden, a city most famous for being bombed during World War II. Eating in Dresden’s central square, with classical architecture rising up on every side and enormous mosaics lining the walls along cobblestone streets, it is impossible to tell that the entire area was rubble only 65 years ago. Dresden’s residents cling to an older past, one where fire did not rain from the sky and socialism was only just being conceived. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that I should find traditional German food here and not in Berlin, where the city embraces its evolution. And while Dresden is beautiful, I have to say that I prefer the ever-changing smorgasbord that is Berlin.

Anna Meier is Co-News Editor for The Knox Student.

Anna Meier

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