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.