Berlin’s Street Food Scene

Giulia Pines delves into Berlin’s burgeoning Street Food phenomenon…

At a recent visit to Berlin’s Bite Club, event co-founder Tommy Tannock introduced me to Gabrielle Jones, who sells her JONES Ice Cream out of a retro mint-green truck (and today sells it from a dedicated store in Schöneberg). “She stayed up all night to make the ice cream fresh for today,” enthused Tommy, a dark-haired Brit whose slight build belies the amount of food one imagines he must consume for his job, as he led me through the thronging crowds of hip twenty-somethings.

Gabrielle, an enterprising, classically-trained French pastry chef who has worked at the Ritz in Paris and restaurants across NYC and the Hamptons, was even slimmer. She explained to me how she gets the dense creaminess of her ice cream (“by foregoing eggs and keeping as much water as possible out of the mixture so it can’t form ice crystals”) as I tried a scoop of the lemon blueberry jam on top of a white chocolate and cranberry cookie. The flavours were outstanding, but what really hit my tastebuds was the double whammy of extreme cold and dense texture.

Photo courtesy of Giulia Pines

Although I’d proclaimed myself too full to walk only minutes before, I couldn’t help sneaking another two scoops for the road: this time roasted strawberries and cream and passionfruit ginger. Both were exceptional – perfect endings to an evening of food sampling that had spanned the globe from India (Chai Wallahs) to Mexico (Soft shell pork tacos with a shot of Mezcal) mainly served up by young, enthusiastic vendors just like Gabrielle.

Bite Club is just one of several such Street Food gatherings in a city that can no longer be written off as a place where the ‘cheap eats’ rule. For every Döner and Currywurst stand, there seems to be a new swanky restaurant, food event, supper club or innovative supermarket. While the city’s mainstream foodie revolution hasn’t gone unnoticed (even international restaurant critics like the New York Times’ Frank Bruni have paid due respect), a parallel scene has long been taking place behind closed doors, in the shape of supper clubs and private dining enterprises like Kitchensurfing, a NYC start-up that allows professional and amateur cooks to offer their services for in-home meals – and whose Berlin franchise is spearheaded by supper club chef and food promoter Kavita Meelu.

It was Meelu who, along with Kreuzberg’s Markthalle Neun, helped kick-start the Street Food trend in Berlin back in April 2013 with their Street Food Thursday event. Although the Markthalle had been running a popular weekly market and hosting regular food-related events like the Naschmarkt and other wonderful one-offs, SFT represented a tipping point, drawing such a diverse, international crowd that some local enthusiasts immediately proclaimed it the new Berghain.

Woop Woop at Markthalle 9 by Helena Flack
Woop Woop at Markthalle 9 by Helena Flack

Needless to say, spring 2013 was an extremely belated start compared to other international Street Food centres like London – which has had its own Street Food Awards since 2009 – and New York. Six years ago, when I left Manhattan, devotees were already chasing Van Leeuwen ice cream, Wafels and Dinges and the now defunct Rickshaw Dumpling Truck around town, enjoying the vaguely illicit thrill of having something delicious handed to them on a cardboard plate through a tiny window.

But then each city has developed more or less its own take on this global (or at least Western) phenomenon, if only due to differences in licensing and property regulations. As any vendor will tell you, selling street food is notoriously fraught with risk – and not just in terms of hygiene. Trucks in New York often sell from street corners illegally, and are sometimes in hot water for parking in one place for hours without a proper permit; food markets in central London have been threatened simply because the real estate on which they sit has grown too valuable.

In Berlin, the main obstacle seems to be bureaucracy. “There’s lots of paperwork to fill out,” says London grad student Aida Baghernejad, whose thesis –  ‘Hungry: Self-employment on Street Food Markets and the Political Dimension of Consumption’ – brought her in contact with numerous vendors in both London and Berlin. “Most of it is fairly straightforward, especially if you’re not actually cooking on site or handling high-risk foods like meat and fish – but it’s still time-consuming. And everyone needs a hygiene license called the Rote Karte as well a Reisegewerbekarte if you want to trade anything outside of a shop or office.”

It’s the latter type of license, loosely translated as a “traveling salesman” permit, that tends to cause the most confusion, since it confers on a seller the ability to peddle his wares, but does not specify where he or she can do so. The actual trading locations are left up to each city bureau or Bezirksamt, which means that a truck aiming to cover the entire city, i.e. parking in different locations on different days, – will have to apply for each specific district: a bureaucratic nightmare of almost Kafka-esque proportions.

A stall at Markthalle 9 by Giulia Pines

This is one of the main reasons that Berlin’s food trucks gather in locations where the punters can come to them rather than attempting to hawk their wares across the city, although the laws do have some exceptions. One is that those who are part of a bigger company don’t need to apply individually for a license if the company has one, a law that clearly works against small, independent businesses. Berlin’s Grillwalkers, otherwise known as the guys who sell Bratwurst from propane gas-operated grills strapped to their chests (so-called “Bauchläden” or “stomach shops”) also need individual permits to sell on public streets, as detailed in a 2009 New York Times article, but they have fewer other licenses to deal with – and therefore fewer costs – as neither their wares nor their machinery touch the ground.

Perhaps of most interest to native Germans, however, is how these events overturn the national tradition of Ausbildung or apprenticeship, in which a young person receives training in conjunction with a period of study, learning anything from how to work in PR for a global corporation to how to bake bread according to the strictest organic methods. For those dedicated to mastering a food-related craft, entry into a Verein (“association” or “society”) such as the Zentralverband des deutschen Bäckerhandwerks (Central Association of German Baking) has long been crucial, not only providing a support structure and the opportunity to advance within a rigid set of guidelines, but also signalling to the average German consumer that one is worthy of such a craft.

But Street Food – an international movement by definition – provactively turns such traditions on their head, proving to Germans what many of its global inhabitants already knew: sometimes talent, perseverance, and willingness to take a risk can be a surer – and quicker – route to success. And the movement is proliferating. Along with Street Food Thursday at Markthalle IX and Bite Club, whose main HQs are the MS Hoppetosse in Treptow and the courtyard space behind Schönhauser Allee’s Platoon Kunsthalle, the latest event to hit the scene is the Berlin Village Market at Neue Heimat, part of the industrial space next to Warschauer Strasse’s S-Bahn tracks. Although that one takes place only on Sundays, Neue Heimat has also laid claim to the beginning of the weekend: there’s now a Friday night version there as well, which includes cocktails from several of the city’s bar masters, street snacks from a selection of vendors, and a backroom “Jazzy Berlin” jazz session.

True to its Friedrichshain location, the Village Market is a bit grittier, located in a series of barebones warehouses speckled with graffiti. The crowds to me also felt a bit sparser, though perhaps it only seems that way given the space is even bigger than the Markthalle Neun. The success of Street Food Thursday also spawned both the temporary Bar Market, which sold speciality drinks from a number of local vendors in a soon-to-be-demolished grain storage facility in Kreuzberg, and Markthalle’s own Breakfast Market, where many of the same food stalls recreate their dishes for a Sunday brunch crowd.

Berlin Village Market at Neue Heimat by Giulia Pines
Berlin Village Market at Neue Heimat by Giulia Pines

Once you’ve attended a few of these events, you start to recognise many of the same vendors, though the organisers seem to make it a priority to include at least a couple of new stalls and chefs each time. Among the most established operations are Zwei Dicke Bären, started by César Cotta and Cieran Rockwell who moved to Berlin from New York the same month Street Food Thursday started, and got cracking on Berlin’s first ice cream sandwiches just a few months later. They have enjoyed mainstream media coverage in Die ZEIT, which immediately proclaimed their product an “Eis Burger” – perhaps an attempt to make it more understandable to a German public that has never heard of such a thing.

Burgers having become a trend-within-a-trend, it’s inevitable they are a theme at Street Food events. The Bunsmobile truck produces what some consider the best burgers in a city increasingly full of them, and several stalls have taken to putting a burger-esque sales spin on the classic Taiwanese Gua Bao—a fluffy steamed rice flour bun stuffed with pork belly, coriander, peanuts, and a spicy chili sauce. But there are many alternatives. The Sicilian Food of Happiness makes legendary Italian focaccia while the Chai Wallahs’ Indian Chaat Samosa is a thing of wonder. Want to try ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen? Head to Woop Woop. Fancy some Ramen noodle soup with kimchi? Try Korean stall Mr. Susan.

Postcards 300 DPI 10
Ice Cream sandwiches by Helena Flack

If anything, the events are growing more ambitious. The recent Stadt, Land, Food festival at Markthalle Neun was a four-day, multi-faceted effort aimed not just at serving Street Food but also exploring broader themes of food provenance and sustainable cuisine, with workshops, conferences and more. Even bigger is Berlin Food Week, which hosts sit-down dinners that bring some of the city’s most renowned chefs, bakers, and drink suppliers together with those who have gained new success via street food events. Taking place in the repurposed pre-war department store Kaufhaus Jandorf, the event also includes workshops on subjects like nose-to-tail eating and butchering, and a food swap will share space) with a temporary edition of Bite Club.

One of the fascinating facets of this burgeoning scene are celebrations of various national foods – and, consequently, various nationalities. In this sense, it’s difficult not to notice how the street food phenomenon aligns with the country’s continued push to feel comfortable with its burgeoning post-war immigrant and expatriate populations. What started out as well-known animus towards the post-war Turkish guest workers has certainly not been mollified completely, but for many younger Germans who are well traveled and multi-lingual, experiencing the food of non-German cultures is an integral part of understanding and communicating with those cultures.

Stadt, Land, Food by Helena Flack
Stadt, Land, Food by Helena Flack

But of course, such a scenario is not for everyone. Many have and will continue to dismiss it as privileged hipsterism or vacuous consumerism. Some simply don’t like long queues. While standing in line at the hand-pulled noodle stall, a German boy and his mother were met by her husband, who was visibly irked at having to push through the crowds. “Why are you waiting here?” he said, clearly exasperated. “The Currywurst stand over there has no queue at all…”

Editorial note: although the fast-moving nature of food and urban trends (and corona) have made this article out of date, we have left it online as a reminder of the street food ‘boom’ of yesteryear, and also because many of the venues and protagonists are still active, albeit sometimes under different names and/or with fixed venues. 

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