Stephen Glennon hunts down some spicy comfort food in Berlin…
I escaped Berlin’s brutal winter one year to the warmth of Dominica, in the Caribbean, where I experienced the pure starchy joy that is plantains for the first time in my life.
The elderly lady who ran our guesthouse gave us our first sample of Dominican food. Despite independence in 1978, the island is still part of the Commonwealth and vestiges of British influence remain. For breakfast, we were served sausages, bacon and cheddar cheese, garnished with star fruit.
Eating out in Dominica was simple: the choice was generally either fish or chicken. Your selection would come accompanied by, of course, delicious plantains, yams (also spectacularly starchy and accordingly satisfying) rice, beans and a mysterious spicy brown sauce, gingery and garlicky, that elevated the every dish to an entirely new plain of taste experience.
Since returning from the Caribbean, my search for plantains and spice has led me to discover a number of Caribbean restaurants in Berlin. Most of them tend towards Jamaican food, but a bit of searching reveals Trinidadian, Cuban and various Creole options.
The relaxed Caribbean spirit is not something that is readily associated with the stuffy environs of Charlottenburg, but that’s where Tastee’s plies its trade. Service was immediately friendlier than what I am used to from the area (I work just around the corner) and the presence of Guinness on the menu was a pleasant surprise. It was, however, a standard Guinness rather than the airier, hoppier and more refreshing Guinness Foreign Extra Stout that is so popular in the Caribbean and Africa. No matter. Guinness is still Guinness, and there was still a beef patty and jerk chicken to look forward to.
Every year, the Karneval der Kulturen at the start of the summer leaves me obsessing for months about jerk chicken: The plate that I got there this year was one of the most remarkable things I have ever tasted. Warmly spicy, perfectly balanced garlic levels, an outstanding compliment to anything it touched – and in my rapture, I forgot to see which Berliner restaurant was running that stall.
It’s been dogging me for months now, in particular because it was one of the few places that is willing to sell food as it should be, rather than dumbing down spice levels to suit the sensitive German palate. At Tastee’s, I told the waitress that I’d like my jerk chicken to be spicy. She gestured to the mass-produced bottle of jalapeno sauce on the table. Not a good sign. I love a bit of burn but find that those bottled sauces are simply designed to overwhelm the senses with hotness. I want to taste all the flavours, not drown them out.
The patty came, and provided a good contrast between the crumbly pastry and the oily, meaty filling. The jerk chicken, however, was upsetting, tasting primarily of tomato. There was even a brief moment when I briefly considered reaching for the bottle of sauce. Redemption came in the form of the sweet plantains, but the saving grace was the peppery cabbage: crunchy, sharp and flavoursome. All in all, a decent dining experience, certainly boosted by friendly service.
Tastees, Grolmanstraße 27, 10623 Berlin
Merle, a Trinidadian resident of Berlin since 1966, greeted us personally and warmly, and immediately served up a round of rum cocktails that were refreshing, fruity and surprisingly potent. The menu is dependent on what Merle has available but has plenty of variety, and each main course is accompanied by a Trinidadian roti, a flatbread similar to Indian naan.
The Indian influence was noticeable throughout and came as something of a surprise – Trinidadian cuisine is relatively unknown and it’s therefore easy to assume that it bears the hallmarks of Jamaican and Creole food. Not so. Not only are the rotis homemade by Merle, they are perfect for scooping up her ebullient curries. Some food is just so delicious that it demands the middleman, those cumbersome lumps of metal cutlery, to be bypassed and be eaten by hand, and Merle’s is the epitome of such an involving culinary experience.
But before diving into the mains, you simply must have a starter: the aloo pies are dainty potato-filled pastries of such soft, understated flavour that you may be tempted to gobble them up without even trying the garnish sauce. To do so would be a tragedy. Of all the delights to be sampled at Merle’s, her homemade sauces are the finest – some are mild and fruity, others are darker and peppery, and some are burn-your-mouth spicy, but all have one thing in common: they are complex, bursting with character and utterly, utterly irresistible.
Onto the mains, and the Indian influences become more pronounced. Curry is the name of the game, and between the chicken, potato, mango and beef varieties, meat lovers and vegetarians are catered for. The portions are perfectly measured when the enormous chunk of roti is taken into account, and are remarkable with or without those sauces.
The service is incredible, be it from the ever-approachable Merle herself or one of her staff, and the amiable atmosphere, spectacular food and moreish rum cocktails can easily lead to large bills being clocked up. I promise you this, however: it is worth every single penny.
Merle’s, Yorckstraße 22, 10965 Berlin
When the time came to leave, it was hard to believe that we had been at Rosa Caleta for over three hours. In that time, the sun had sunk out of sight behind the apartment buildings on Muskauer Str, and the number of diners on the uneven pavement had multiplied significantly.
What was most remarkable of all, however, was the fact that several of the passing street residents stopped to chat with the owners of Berlin’s finest Jamaican fusion cuisine restaurant, Kirk Henry and (head chef) Troy Lopez, as they attended to their guests. Both Kirk and Troy are so friendly and hospitable that it’s impossible not to feel at home right away, and the waiting staff are cut from the same cloth: they dutifully cart the large blackboard with the daily specials to new arrivals, explaining each dish and any pertinent allergy information.
At first glance, there might not seem to be many similarities between Caribbean food and German cuisine, but after just a moment’s consideration of what Rosa Caleta serves, they seem like the perfect match. Neither kitchen is particularly concerned with dainty helpings of aesthetically arranged titbits – das Auge isst auch mit, but only if you’re not really that hungry. Bosh – take a hunk of meat. Wham – have some veggies too. Bash – how about some sauce. There you go. But to describe it so crudely also does it a disservice.
Rosa Caleta’s spicy roasted pork with cornbread stuffing is a fierce wedge of meat that will sate the appetite of even the greatest glutton, but there is plenty to satisfy the gourmand too. The chestnut and cranberry stuffing, the crunchy green beans and the mildly spicy sauce give it a joie de vivre that is missing from the average Teutonic porcine dish. Upon trying the jerk tofu, I was struck with an immediate concern for those whose palates may not be adapted to such a fearsome smoky fire in their mouths – which, after many years of inability to find spicy food in Berlin, now sadly includes this reporter.
I asked Kirk how his jerk sauce usually goes down. “A few years ago, people weren’t so into this type of thing,” he says with a grin. He remembers a time in Berlin when finding such basics as ginger and sweet potato wasn’t a particularly easy task, and is thankful that Berlin’s food scene is developing rapidly. These days, the jerk tofu is a big hit, especially when it can be washed down with a refreshing glass of home-made ginger beer. Also worth a look is the crimson-coloured sorrel drink, diluted into a Schorle for those who may not be used to its refreshingly tart notes that are reminiscent of hibiscus. “We drink it at Christmas,” pipes up Troy.
After finishing our food, which also included sweet potato and coconut Spätzle that I just know are going to become a staple in my diet as soon as winter hits, Kirk whirls back to our table with a couple of cocktails before zooming off to an event elsewhere. The cocktails are the perfect way to round off an evening that was much more than simply grabbing dinner.
Rosa Caleta, Muskauer Straße 9, 10997 Berlin
There is something faintly tragic about Yaam in the winter. Like a botoxed pensioner, it clings desperately to memories of a better time – but the good news for Yaam is that summer will come around again. Soon, the Spree beyond the Hinterhof will look bright and inviting rather than darkly menacing, and soon the jaunty reggae will be a reason to celebrate rather than a cold face-slap of a reminder of the misery of winter.
Apropos the misery of winter – we all know that stew is one of the best solutions of the bone-chill, and Yaam is home of some of the finest stews in town. Okay, technically it’s African cuisine rather than Caribbean, but the jerk chicken stall was closed when I was there, so I rolled with the punches.
I’m a fan of simplicity and the Domoda, a Gambian vegetable stew with peanut sauce, appealed to me enormously: dollop of rice, some chunks of beef, generous dollop of stew on top. Perfect. Life flowed back into me with each shovelled forkful, and the sweet plantain patty was an unorthodox but perfect dessert.
There are other options too – a tomato stew with fish balls and Yassa, a lemon-based vegetable stew, and a friendly smile from the Gambian chef comes as standard. The nature of Yaam doesn’t allow for intricate presentation of dishes or attentive service, but it somehow always manages to leave you with a warm feeling that can’t just be down to the excellent food.
Walking through those gates into the sandy yard really does feel like entering a different world. It’s one where people actually speak to and interact with each other, and that’s something that could be said for any of the places I visited on this list.
Perhaps it isn’t even the great rum and superb food of Caribbean cuisine that feels so rewarding – perhaps it’s the simplicity of some good, old-fashioned friendly human interaction that will always have you coming back for more.
Yaam, Stralauer Platz 35, 10243 Berlin