Monday, May 16, 2011


From now on, I'm writing about my adventures in Berlin's "ethnic food" scene here!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Albanien: Dieses Mal, Kein Witz

I actually own an Albanian cookbook (thanks to the aforementioned crazy New York job), but like too many of my worldly possessions, it resides on the other side of the Atlantic, so I was forced to turn to Google to brush up on the ins and outs of Albanian cuisine before conquering the second country of the alphabet. Randomly enough, when you google "Albanian food," one of the first links that pops up is a youtube clip from a movie I didn't know existed, "My Mom's New Boyfriend," in which Antonio Banderas (playing some sort of gangster who's actually an undercover CIA agent (this I gleamed for you from the clip and Wikipedia)) takes Meg Ryan to an underground Albanian restaurant complete with belly dancers and drug deals. There were some men smoking in the back room at Sofra Shquiptare and a highly informational special on boob jobs gone wrong on the wall-mounted television, but the similarities pretty much end there.

The part of me that really loves a good hole in the wall really wanted to like this place. And there is something charming about it, starting perhaps with it's unpronounceable name, the website is all in Albanian (!), and the glittery murals of Albanian folklife that decorate the walls. In the end, we had a good meal and both left plenty full for less than 12 Euros. I have all too often had worse meals for a lot more money in this town. Basically, although there is a seating area and they will bring the food to your table, this is basically an Imbiss (the kind of place you might get a Döner Kebap in Deutschland or a plastic plate of dumplings or a burrito in New York). The menu includes pizzas and other fast food items, but there is a corner devoted to Albanian dishes and we focused our attention there.

We shared a cheese borek, a stuffed pepper, some stewed vegetables (eggplant, peppers, tomatoes), an order of cevapcici (casing-less beef sausages), and what might have been Sheqerpare for dessert (basically a lady finger soaked in sugar water). Ultimately, most everything was tasty and tasted like it had been made by someone, which is saying something in my book. For this kind of money, you can't really expect the best ingredients and this was most evident in the stuffed pepper, whose filling was basically just rice and ground beef. Unfortunately, the beef had the cat food-y texture of cheap ground beef. The borek, however, was pretty decent, as were the cevapcici (no doubt the same cheap meat, but less noticeable in sausage form) and the stewed vegetables. I may have ordered the wrong dessert. As mentioned, it tasted like a soggy, overly sweet lady finger. I didn't come close to finishing it and I pretty much always clean my dessert plate. The surprisingly large dessert case was filled with several intriguing options: a towering marshmallow of a cake with a thin pastry crust, a very thick sliceable vanilla pudding-type cake, something from the churro family (Tulumba), Baklava, as well as the god-awful local version of a strawberry mirror cake (hugely popular here for reasons I have yet to fathom), and tiramisu. I regret not ordering the marshmallow thing, but I was really full and went with the smallest option. I did get to live vicariously through an Albanian man (or at least he spoke Albanian with the owner) who came in as I was poking at my soggy pastry and ordered a huge box of desserts. I'm guessing that Sofra Shquiptare is probably the only place in town to load up on Albanian sweets. Actually, I think we may have found the Albanian cultural center in Berlin.

A final sad note, there is not a single Algerian restaurant, Imbiss, or market of any kind in Berlin. This I report based on my own very thorough internet research and a phone call to the Algerian embassy here. The man who answered the phone and delivered the unfortunate news agreed that this is really a shame. I don't have much hope for an Andorran restaurant, but I'm off to check it out.

Sofra Shquiptare
Pankstraße 61

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Berlin von A bis Z: Chraazan

When I lived in New York, I had this crazy job as a cookbook editor for a very minor publishing house. It was crazy in many ways, the first being that I was hired with basically no editorial or publishing experience whatsoever. To top that off, I was in charge of the entire cookbook department with essentially no supervision because my boss was rather elderly, disabled, and a little bit senile. To add to the fun, one-quarter of our four-person office was a total wack job: paranoid, prone to semi-violent temper tantrums, etc. Oh and he had a ton of photos of his mom's cat in his cubicle. This job was seriously underpaid in a seriously underpaid industry and because I was the entire cookbook division, I was responsible for everything from acquisition to editing to marketing. Until my off-kilter coworker really started to lose it, this job actually had some perks: I got to read cookbooks all day long, minimal senile supervision meant I could focus on the projects that interested me and disregard my boss' dumb ideas (he wouldn't remember that he'd had them), and once a week we ordered lunch for the office. As the cookbook editor, it was naturally my job to coordinate this and of course I used my powers to influence the decision as to which restaurant we would order from each week. Also (being seriously underpaid and overworked) ordered way more food than I could possibly eat at lunch providing me with several extra meals. One of my favorite restaurants on our ordering rotation was Bamiyan, an Afghani place on E. 26th Street. After a few meals, I had my order down and would always order Fesenjen, a chicken dish with a pomegranate and walnut sauce and Mantoo, meat dumplings with spiced tomato and yogurt sauces.

A while back, thinking of how much I miss the quality and variety of "ethnic" restaurants in DC and New York, I had the silly idea of trying to find the best restaurant for every cuisine in Berlin. I'm not sure this is realistic -- I'm pretty sure many cuisines are not to be found in Berlin, but the idea amuses me even if I'm also pretty sure I'll just be disappointed by the quality of what I do find. But, I have to say that I'm not off to a terrible start. Last night found me at Chraazan, which according to my research is the only Afghan restaurant in Berlin. It wasn't quite as good as Bamiyan, which as I remember it was a little more complex in flavor with a slightly fresher product (we were the only guests on a Tuesday night at Chraazan so I'm guessing they don't move things quite as quickly as at Bamiyan ... nor is there any Afghan competition for miles and miles). Alas, Chraazan didn't have fesenjen and when I asked about it the waiter (who seemed to also be the/an owner) didn't light up, delighted that someone was remotely knowledgeable in his cuisine and offer to have the kitchen make it as I had hoped....alas. But, they did have mantoo, which were almost as good as at Bamiyan. The saffron-spiked rice pudding with pistachios, which we ordered to share, was a disaster, though. Mushy rice lacking any flavor of saffron or cardamom or other spice that had been microwaved as it was warm in the middle and cold on the exterior. I don't remember ever having dessert at Bamiyan, but I can't imagine it would be this inedible. Still, the mantoo took me back to a Wednesday lunch in New York washed down with cheap Georgian wine. I don't know if I'd go out of my way for Chraazan, but I might try it again if I were in the area. I'm definitely going to do something about my fesenjen craving now, though....

Monday, February 21, 2011

Heimweh nach Sauerkraut

When I was home over the holidays, I ate a lot of sauerkraut, which may sound odd given that I live in a country that mein Mann refers to as "Krautland." The thing is that my sister has taken to making her own kraut and it's fabulous. Having lost her driver's license, she managed to get a jar of it through airport security armed with only an expired university id and the argument that the amount of liquid in the jar was less than 3 ounces. I'm not so sure about that, but I am sure that I ate way more than my share. Luckily, I was able to continue my kraut binge on the other end of my vacation at my parents' home because my mother has caught the kraut-making bug and hers was equally delicious. I ate bowls of the the stuff straight from the fridge, but I particularly loved a sandwich she created - aged ham, extra-sharp cheddar, plum chutney, and a small pile of kraut. Back in Germany I've been both under the weather and much busier thanks to a new fuller-time job. Somehow the kraut I've been getting at the bio store doesn't quite merit being eaten by itself (even the better stuff I've found here is limper and the flavor a little duller than what my mom and sister make. Clearly I need to be about getting my own crock and making my own batch and I plan to just as soon as I find the time and energy), but since my grocery store trips are less frequent of late, we've been eating more Abendbrot. I know it isn't what the natives do, but I like a little veg with my bread and cheese and I can report that sauerkraut mixed with grated carrot and thinly sliced radicchio (the only vegetables that happened to be lingering in the refrigerator), spiced up a bit with perhaps a dab of mustard and some herbs if they happen to also be dying in the fridge, makes a very tasty slaw. I've also been making something akin to a vegetarian reuben sandwich ... really just grilled Emmentaler cheese with sauerkraut and mustard or Russian dressing because the only corned beef I've seen in Berlin is truly scary. But the other day I noticed that they have pastrami at my local bio store: nearly authentic reuben sandwiches for dinner (a little light on the meat, but that's a good thing because you can really taste the sauerkraut). Finally, why have I never heard of a Krautburger before? Delicious.

ps. I'm having a hard time finding someone exited about Albanian food....but I'm going to make it happen.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Berlin ist für die Vögel

Early summer was filled with work and in mid-July we headed to the US for (gasp, sigh) almost a whole month of vacation. Three days in New York were much too short and I never feel like I really get to spend enough time with anyone, but there was great Mexican food, cocktails below the High Line, sweatshop work, a mechanical bull accident (not mine), and a speed walk through my beloved Union Square Greenmarket. A week in Nelson County was perfect: a cabin tucked right next to a mountain with just enough space for a creek to run between. Terriers and husband spent much time with their feet in the water (looking for mischief and reading American history, respectively). We hiked, kakayed the James River, picked blackberries (cobbler), heard bluegrass, ate our weight in barbecue, and got attacked (well, surprised, anyway) by a bat in the bedroom). Coming back to Berlin after being gone for so many nice weeks was downright strange. The dictionary lists 31 entries for the word home, but doesn't begin to explain the complexity of this word for me.

I never realized how much I like summer weather until I lived in a place without it (actually Berlin did have a few (as in, like 3) hot days this year). Stepping off the plane in Berlin there was a noticeable chill in the air (mid-August, mind you) we've tried to make the most of the pre-winter season.
We've been dodging the rain drops and have been canoeing again in beautiul Feldberg and finally took a day-trip to Leipzig, where we wandered the historic center, lunched on wild boar at the much-better-than-expected Auerbachs Keller, which dates to 1530 (Goethe ate here!), and hung out with these birds during a rainstorm. In other bird-related news, we've been waiting all year for a bird to discover our feeder and this week it finally happened. Unfortunately, we've been found out by the pigeon who lives in the tree across the street. Is this supposed to make me less home-sick for New York?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Drausen und auf den Beinen

Despite the less than stellar weather we've had this spring, we've been out and about and on the move a lot. The German May is packed with holidays like Tag der Arbeit (or May Day, as I like to call it), Himmelfart (aka Ascension and here I need to add that the word ascension (especially in Spanish, but even in comely English) sounds like the ascent to heaven. Himmelfart sounds like a scabby disease: You wouldn't believe how bad my Himmelfart is these days....)) and Pfingesten (aka Pentecost), which turn into long weekends, perfect for escaping the city. I can be pretty grumpy about Berlin, but I will say that one of the best things about this place is how easy it is to get out of here without a car. (I'll let you draw your own conclusions as to what it means that my favorite thing about this place is how easy it is to get out of it.)

Anyway, to celebrate (or cure our) Himmelfart, we biked north to Usedom. Or tried. Things went pretty well for the first two days. The weather was unwaveringly gray and chilly, but the scenery was lovely (lots of canola fields and blossoming apple trees), and those of us about 20 years out of bike practice were really appreciating how flat things are between Berlin and the Baltic Sea. Because of the weather, we decided not to camp, but to stay in the hotel in whichever small town we ended up in at the end of the day. The first was the Hotel Panorama, which lived up to its name if you consider a construction site with a pink crane outside your window to be a panorama (defined by as: an unobstructed and wide view of an extensive area in all directions.) The food on the trip, aside from our picnic lunches, of course, was nothing to write home about, but the Panorama (which had some odd delusions of grandeur), did have a pretty decent breakfast spread, including pumpkin seed butter, which I'd never seen before (although pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil are typical products from this corner of Germany) and was quite good. We spend the second night in a totally unremarkable hotel in the town of Pasewalk and woke up to pouring rain. There was nothing to do but take the train back to Berlin (and the 10-minute bike ride to the train station was pretty miserable), where we discovered the best (by far) Doener Kebab in Berlin (and I wrote my Masters thesis on Doener, so I'm definitely qualified to make this proclamation), rented videos, and spent the rest of the weekend on the couch under a pile of blankets.

But you can't keep us down for long. Last weekend we headed out again, this time with a few friends, to camp-canoe in Müritz. Somehow, even though the weather was again mostly gray and chilly (and soggy at times), I still managed to get a little sunburn. I also managed to flip my very stable canoe and end up in the water, but that's another story. We did some very good picnicking and campfire cooking this trip, including a giant muffuletta sandwich, marinated sausages, and grilled asparagus. I also continued my crusade to persuade Germans of the absolute deliciousness of s'mores and I think I made some headway this trip, although I can't seem to get the Germans to understand that bar cookies are not all called brownies. They also seem to think I invented oatmeal chocolate chip bars.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Schöneberg ist Schön

We haven't been on any big adventures lately (although the intermittent spring weather has allowed for a few nice outings (a long walk from train station in Potsdam through the woods to Albert Einstein's summer house in Caputh with BR & co. with well-earned Spargel (if all Spargel was this good, I would understand what all the fuss is about), a very nice walk from my apartment past the zoo (great view of lounging kangaroos through the fence) to the western end of the Landwehr Kanal concluding with a delicious picnic with egg salad and homegrown cress, and a long-awaited visit to the Holländische Viertel (Dutch Quarter) in Potsdam (no idea what all the fuss is about) and a lovely stroll through Babelsberg Park.)) While we are gearing up for upcoming adventures (Return to Barcelona (will it be as magical as I remember it? Do I still speak Spanish? How much ham will I be able to eat in three days?) and The Effect of DC Summer Weather on a Certain German (aka almost an entire month on the East Coast!!!), I will leave you with a few cool things in my neighborhood:

1. There is a saddle shop around the corner. I'm not a horse person at all, but I love the fact that two minutes from my front door, I can buy handmade reins and a saddle and other leather horse paraphernalia.

2. A few doors down is a little Italian coffee place, mostly selling expensive espresso machines and other overpriced kitchen equipment, but they also make espresso and capuccino (no Milchkaffee here!) and the like. The store is owned and staffed by real Italians with a good understanding of what coffee can be (it's hit or miss when it comes to good coffee in this town). By now I can usually tell by looking which places will have undrinkable coffee, but so many seemingly nice places have just average coffee. It's discouraging, but a good reason to grind my own and drink at home or patronize our very local businesses). My favorite thing about the shop, though, is their mascot, this funny French bulldog who can always be found lounging on the rug inside the shop or (in nicer weather) keeping watch near the door.

3. A few streets away, over the S-Bahn tracks is The Museum of Unheard of Things (Museum der Unerhörten Dinge), which is about the size of my pantry (another thing I like about my neighborhood is that I have a pantry). This free museum is the pet project of Roland Albrecht and he displays small objects, such as a plastic bird representing the canary of Fraxern, a crystallized rose similar to the one Goethe had, and other totally random things on the shelf and walls lining the tiny room. My completely unfair beef with the museum is that the description for each object is a full page, single-spaced, back and front in German. I am a very, very slow and unhappy reader of German and so I must admit I didn't understand a lot of what I saw, but I really like the spirit of the museum and the fact that I can pop in on my way to the grocery store.

4. I grocery shop a lot. Sometimes six times a week. I love to grocery shop and while I do find food shopping in Berlin not quite up to what is was in the other cities I've lived in (oh the covered markets in Barcelona! or the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC!), things have improved since we moved. I've shopped at more than my share of the organic markets in Berlin and I can say only good things about the Bio Company (at least the one on Hauptstrasse). The produce is fresher than in any of the other organic markets I've used, the quality of the meat is truly impressive, they make a real effort to stock local products (it's not perfect, but I have to take what I can get) and the service is practically American. A good grocery store may not make or break your neighborhood, but it makes a huge difference in my life.

5. One of my main gripes about Berlin is that you can't go out for ice cream after 8 pm. I guess there must be a few exceptions, but most ice cream places close at 8, which means that if you go for an after-dinner stroll or want to grab a cone after an evening movie, you're out of luck. Germans eat a lot of ice cream and according to my observations, most of it is eaten in the late afternoon. This doesn't work for me because it ruins my American dinner (not the case for the Germans who are happy to eat some cheese and bread and wurst (aka Abendbrot) whenever they get hungry. Anyway, once in a while I decide I need an ice cream in the afternoon (early enough not to spoil my supper, of course) and my favorite place is Inka Eis. The ice cream is good if not great and they specialize in Latin American flavors, most of which I know and miss from my former life as a Latin Americanist. I always get lúcuma, which takes me back to my junior year abroad in Santiago de Chile. Lúcuma is a subtropical Andean fruit - I've never seen it fresh and have also never had it outside of Latin America (maybe it has followed açaí to New York?) - it's delicious in ice creams and mousses with a flavor that is something of a cross between caramel, maple syrup, and sweet potato. Who knew I would rediscover this treat in Berlin?