Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Pan-Asian, All the Time

The first part I believe...not so much the second.
Berlin isn't exactly known as a foodie capital among the world's metropolises. In fact, it's not even a foodie capital in Germany: its two most widely-known signature "dishes" are a sliced hot dog swimming in curry ketchup and a Turkish more-often-than-not mystery rotating meat sandwich (stay tuned here for part two of cuisine in Chermany). Now, I'm the first to admit that I love me a good quality Döner as much as the next guy, but by any standards these are not products requiring refined tastes.

Japano-Thai food, anyone?

Now, before I get into what I think are the cultural and historical roots of Berlin's lagging food culture, I wanted to mention my new personal favorite symbol of Berlin's food 'handicap'; namely, the ubiquity of the 'Pan-Asian' restaurant. On nearly every street, in train and U-Bahn stations, in tiny kiosks, shopping malls, and especially in certain corners of the former East Berlin, you can't help but notice the stereotypical pointy Far-Eastern typefaces on cookie-cutter style signage (see photos). 'Asia Restaurant', 'Oriental Wok', or the most honest of them that I've come across, 'Pan-Asia', call out to you to take a closer look at their amazingly versitile menus offering Vietnamese  pho and bahn mi, Japanese sushi rolls, Korean rice bowls, Chinese crispy duck, Pad Thai and the wonderfully generic 'China-Pfanne' (literally 'China pan'), which in no way has anything to do with China beyond having brown, asian-looking noodles and some soy sauce in it. In fact, these 'restaurants' can really be best described as the hybrid bikes of the food world: they do a lot of different things quite poorly. Your sushi rolls might look like fish wrapped in seafood and rice, and your pho will indeed contain a brown-colored liquid, but it will taste only vaguely like the original. At the very least, you can expect your spicy Thai dish to have about as much kick as a Wiener Schnitzel. I really hope somebody living in Beijing reads this and sends a pic of the pan-Europe restaurant around the corner slinging pizza, gyros, paella, fish and chips, and Wurstsalat on the same menu.

"I'll have the Pad Thai"
So the question inevitably arises: why Pan-Asian? Why not a Korean restaurant, a Sushi bar, and a Vietnamese specialty restaurant, all doing the things they're respectively best at? After all, anyone who knows anything about biking wouldn't take a hybrid cycle to a mountainous downhill race. My personal theory has a two-part explanation. The first part draws on the fact that nowadays, the far-flung corners of the former East Berlin that haven't taken part in rapid internationalization and gentrification (see Marzahn, Lichtenberg, Hohenschönhausen, etc.) seem to be the most fertile ground for the pan-Asian restaurant – and consequently the most drought-ridden ground for finding traditional country-specific Asian food). While West Berlin and the rest of West Germany spent the post-war decades becoming more culturally and culinarily diverse, and certain hip(ster) pockets of East Berlin rapidly internationalized upon the fall of the Wall, the rest of the East remains relatively isolated from these developments, sticking with its traditional 'German' (i.e. Brandenburgisch/Deutsch) cuisine and just getting its toes wet when it comes to ethnic Eastern food – which brings me to part two of my theory...

And they put the most appetizing
dish on the front cover!
...that northern Germany – and indeed most of northern Europe – started the world foodie race with a ten kilo ball-and-chain attached to its leg. Though the following quote from a friend cites the Netherlands rather than northern Germany, it could very easily also be said about Brandenburg: "the Dutch don't just have bad cuisine, they have no cuisine." Yes, when we think of most traditional "German" cuisine, we're really thinking about southern German or Austrian cuisine. Schnitzel, Spätzle, Maultaschen, Schweinsbraten, Flammkuchen, Gulasch, Knödel...all from the South (or the former Hungarian Empire).  Now, before all the Brandenburgers, Dutch, and northern Germans get their undies in a bundle because I've slandered their regional kitchen, let me explain. The vast majority of "national" cuisine is firmly rooted in the distant past (the U.S. being an interesting exception, but that's a topic for a different blog), and generally incorporates ingredients, vegetables, meats, etc. that were found in that region at that time. Though people in the pre-modern world moved around more than one might think, the lack of refrigeration and slow transportation methods meant that ingredients had to be sourced from the immediate vicinity – a great reminder of this fact for me was when a (living) German acquaintance said that they hadn't eaten a banana until they were in their mid-20s or 30s. The point is, chilly northern Europe (and England) had some pretty paltry ingredients at their disposal: fish, salt, root vegetables, cabbage, a few of the hardiest fruits, and not much else (see photo). I exaggerate, but you get my point; pretty much any spices beyond salt, and pretty much any spicy food – chili, coriander, curry spices, nutmeg, cilantro – were all completely unknown to most of Europe until the Dutch East India Company and other international trade brought them there in the not-so-distant past...after a "cuisine" and regional tastes had largely been established. These things seem to also have a remarkable ability to stand the test of time and passing of generations. What you eat and become accustomed to as a child has a lot to do with what your parents enjoy eating, after all.

Ah, my favorite publisher from the 90s: Verlag
für die Frau
: Publisher for the woman (!).
So back to my original question: why pan-Asian? I think that (northern) German taste buds are playing catch-up. There are still a lot of Germans I know, most of them of the older generation, who are what I would call "sensitive" to strong flavors, intense spices, hot peppers and spices. I think the success of pan-Asian restaurants, at least up until now, has been in that they provide just enough in the way of exotic flavors (just as a hybrid biker wants to be able to ride in several different environments, but they don't want to go careening down a mountain). But things are changing fast here in the Hauptstadt, like rent prices and demographics and just about everything else. Many of my younger German friends are very well-traveled and are keen on a wide variety of world foods. In fact, we found the little Kochbüchlein depicted in these photos on a shelf in a fantastic little prix fixe restaurant across the street from our Friedrichshain apartment – a sort of symbolic novelty item reminding the diner of how food habits here have already changed dramatically. The gray foods, pickled and salted fish, and mushy cabbage are already in the rearview mirror in most areas, soon to be followed by all of these hybrid-bike-like pan-Asian restaurants. In anticipation of this development, a host of new region-specific ethnic restaurants are already booming in central Berlin, so much so that one has trouble booking a table at the multiple tasty Korean restaurants after Thursday (I'm looking at you, Kimchi Princess). There are now even a few Mexican joints that are actually worth their salt (look up Ta Cabron) – something I wouldn't have thought possible even five years ago. Like the shelf toilet and FKK, I think the pan-Asian restaurant will in all liklihood fade away in the next generation. I, for one, won't be complaining.


  1. Great post Todd. It's an interesting phenomena. It sort of reminds me of two things 1) the salvadorean, guatemalan, peruvian restaurants in D.C. serving Mexican food because there aren't that many authentic Mexican places around here (at least that I've found). It's the similar ethos of "pan latin" in many of these places, though clearly not as wide the pan-asian motif and probably for completely different reasons 2) This also reminded me of another post from Tofugu that's making the circuit about the opposite phenomena of how exceedingly site specific cuisine can be within a single country's cuisine; (what causes this? culture, geography, history...any combination thereof)( Also, as an aside, I laughed out loud when I realized the size of the book by using your fingers for scale (unless you have grown enormous recently).

    1. Great tip on the Japan stuff, Anil. Another thing I'm interested in on this topic, but just didn't have the time to address, is just how regional foods actually become a 'known' or characteristic food of a given place. Much like language or other customs, it's just another way for us to distinguish ourselves from the others.

  2. Speaking of bad food in the Netherlands...