Christina Ng celebrates the delicious diversity of Berlin’s Chinese restaurants…
The diversity of Chinese food is as vast as China itself, and Berlin is lucky enough to be able to offer a variety of Chinese-related cuisines that go well beyond even mainland China; which is curious since the German capital doesn’t even have its own officially designated Chinatown. Whereas London’s present Chinatown was established in Leicester Square in the 1970s and Paris’ Chinatown was created in the 13th arrondissement around the same time, Berlin has made up for a lack of specificity with pockets of Chinese restaurants scattered all over the city—albeit with a notable cluster in West Berlin’s Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district.
On the Kantstraße in Charlottenburg, a string of Chinese restaurants vie for attention. The section of the street between Savignyplatz and Wilmersdorfer Straße is also referred to as Canton Road, alluding to the Guangdong province in China, which explains why a few of the older restaurants here, like Aroma and Good Friends, offer Cantonese food, Despite being a tad too generous with salt and grease in some cases, both of these long-established restaurants continue to be a hit with both German and Asian diners.
Good Friends’ glistening roast duck and pork with crackling served with a sweet, sticky sauce are still a highlight, whereas Aroma, just a few doors down the road, can be depended upon to serve typical dim sum items of Lo Bak Go (deep fried turnip cakes), Char Siew Bao (roast pork buns) and quaint morsels of Siew Mai (steamed pork dumplings) if anyone has a craving for Chinese-style tapas. These places are hardly a secret though: at weekends, it’s not uncommon to spot boisterous tour groups through the large windows, happily sharing and devouring a variety of dishes at big round tables.
A bit more footwork down the same street will bring you to the much smaller and slightly more cultish Lon Men Noodle House, which some of Berlin’s Taiwanese Chinese residents are happy to form a nice little queue for. The place is reminiscent of the ubiquitous family-owned establishments you can find along Taipei’s bustling streets, and serves up similar food—a blend of sweet and savoury flavours that reveal influences from the Chinese Fujian province and Japan (of which Taiwan was a former colony), with street snacks like Gua Bao (Taiwanese pork belly buns), and what the Taiwanese would call family-style home cooked food: the piping hot beef noodles are especially fulfilling if you pair them with a plate of mouth-numbing chilli wontons on the side.
Its namesake Lonmen—located in another part of Wilmersdorf, in the Güntzelkiez —has nothing to do with the noodle house on Kantstraße but often confuses Google Maps. This one is touted as the oldest Chinese restaurant in Berlin, at least on the signage placed above its glazed green tiles. Even though it was also established by a Chinese family—the Tings—of Taiwanese origin in the 1960s, the food on offer is more the kind of standard Chinese fare common in Europe—fried noodles, sweet sour chicken and egg drop soup.
Lonmen is not the only family establishment drawing in regulars content with old school European-style Chinese cuisine. Wolfgang Fu, the owner of Ming Dynastie in Berlin Mitte, says his parents migrated from Zhejiang in East China to Germany over 40 years ago. Fu himself was born in Duisburg and has been living in Berlin since 1992. Ming Dynastie offers standard Chinese fare too—which is very popular—but also introduces diners to Sichuanese classics at his restaurant.
Whereas Zhejiang cuisine has a fresh and mellow flavour, food from Sichuan in the southwestern part of China is renowned for its spiciness and pungency. At Ming Dynastie, dishes like Koushui Ji (mouthwatering chicken) and Mala Huoguo (spicy hotpot) fills your mouth (sometimes your head) with tongue-burning intensity, prompting you to down pint after pint of beer while working your way through the hotpot’s glistening red broth. “In the past, I think the German experience with Chinese food was restricted to dishes like Sweet and Sour Soup or Egg Fried Rice,” says Fu. “But after the Berlin Wall came down, many Germans, especially those in Berlin, are more ready to accept newer flavours.”
A German friend in his thirties attests that the older generation of Germans might have been more familiar with crunchy mini spring rolls at one point in time, but with the fall of the Wall, a lot has also changed within the Chinese demographics in Germany. There are marked differences between now and then in how and what Germans imagine Chinese food to be, which is also why dishes, despite the localities of the owners themselves, tend to cater to what Germans are used to or what they think Germans like, instead of what they have grown up or are familiar with.
According to Gütinger’s Die Geschichte Der Chinesen in Deutschland: Ein Überblick über die ersten 100 Jahre, the earliest Chinese in Germany were from the Guangdong province of China, first setting foot in Berlin in 1822 as seafarers who spoke Cantonese. The 1900s saw the arrival of students, mostly tied to the political upheavals in Western Europe and China at the turn of the century.
Even though mainland China was carved into several Western spheres of influence during that time, the country as a whole was not a colony of a foreign maritime power. After the Second World War, yet another new wave of Chinese immigrants came to Germany, and over the last decade, the number of immigrants of Chinese ethnicity in Germany numbered some 212,000—around 8,000 of whom were in Berlin, although the definition of “Chinese” differs widely among the people themselves.
Apart from the Chinese from China, there are younger generation who were born in Germany but have Chinese ancestry; the Chinese diaspora—ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; and ethnic Chinese from Taiwan and Hong Kong who have chosen Germany as their home. The culinary nuances from this multitude of influences continue to surface, with new generations of Chinese Germans gamely experimenting with the idea of what Chinese food is and can be.
At Cozymazu, a Taiwanese restaurant that opened its doors in Wedding in 2016, owner Wei-En Chan says that the restaurant is a memory of what Taiwan means to her: a “collage of impressions” that she had when she first came up with the idea of setting up a Taiwanese restaurant in Berlin. Born in Vienna where her Taiwanese parents were pursuing a diploma in classical music, the whole family moved to Bremerhaven in North Germany when she was four. As a child, she would travel to Taiwan with her parents, where “Taiwan is this distant place that we would visit from faraway Germany, spending our entire summer holidays there visiting relatives, so some of my favourite childhood memories are connected to Taiwan.” The family photos covering the walls of the restaurant are a testament to that.
Cozymazu was thereby born from a subconscious attachment to, or curiosity of, a land that is simultaneously foreign and familiar to her. The food on offer is inspired by her multi-faceted experiences in the places that she has lived in, rather than only representative of Taiwan. “To me, Taiwanese food is simple but popular food which you’d encounter on every street corner or night market. It’s food that’s consumed and loved by people no matter their social status,” says Chan.
These “simple home-cooked dishes that remind people of their childhood” materialise as offerings on her tummy-warming menu that includes rice congee, steamed cakes, Douhua (soy custard dessert) and eggs boiled in tea with a melt-in-your-mouth yolk. “I’m the result of both German and Taiwanese cultures. I’m also open to consciously using local German produce and preparing these in a Taiwanese way, recognisable for the Taiwanese palate. This is how my mum, who migrated from Taiwan to Europe, would cook for us when we were little, using whatever they had and still made it taste authentic and delicious.”
Like Cozymazu, The Tree, a stylish noodle joint on Brunnenstraße in Mitte, also uses German produce abundantly in dishes, but with a distinct Sichuanese flavour. Even though it departs from the familiar face of Sichuanese cuisine in the shape of the Sichuan hot pot—incidentally the highlight of Tianfu, a classic Sichuanese restaurant in Charlottenburg renowned for its value-for-money hot pot buffet complete with a wide range of ingredients and peppery dips—The Tree focuses on piquant noodle bowls like Ahorn Noodles and Kapok Noodles.
They come with interesting names but an origin you cannot quite place. Its two owners originally hail from Sichuan and Dongbei respectively, and have blended their culinary heritage from these two regions and their time in Germany into something they proudly call their own—namely handmade noodles that taste wondrous and eclectic with a tinge of the famed spiciness of Sichuanese food.
Back in Charlottenburg, Tak Kee presents a contemporary twist on the kind of Cantonese dishes offered at Aroma and Good Friends. Tak Kee’s owners hail from Hong Kong—a former colony of Great Britain—thus harnessing the western influences of the cosmopolitan east-meets-west city in their food, making it distinctive from those that you would normally associate with the Guangdong province in China. Hong Kong comfort food like the Claypot Aubergine with Pork and Salted Fish—the highlight here is the salted fish that gives an umami twang to the steamed pork—is available here, as is Gai Daan Jai (Hong Kong egg bubble waffle), a fluffy on the inside but crispy on the outside street snack in Hong Kong that looks like a bubble wrap but tastes like caramelised pancake.
Though Cantonese, Sichuanese and Taiwanese cuisines seem to make up the bulk of the Chinese food on offer in Berlin, a little bit of sleuthing will unearth northern China’s gems housed in the restaurant Fulilai in Southwest Berlin’s Steglitz, acquainting you to Roujiamo, a Xi’an street food speciality that literally means “meat in a bun” inspired by Muslims living in the region. Moving up north to Prenzlauer Berg will open your eyes—and delight your taste buds—to more of what the northern and coastal regions of China have. Wok Show, a nondescript restaurant at first glance, offers a delectable variety of boiled or pan-fried dumplings that are hearty and filling.
The owner, from northern China, offers food characteristic of the region, meaning it’s big on wheat-based dishes like buns, pancakes and dumplings due to the cold and arid environment of the north. You can expect to be contentedly bloated after a meal here, especially if you’re there when the irregularly offered but routinely yummy Jianbing Guozi appears on the menu; this special street food from Tianjin in Northeast China is translated as “deep fried dough sticks rolled in a thin pancake”—a heavenly breakfast food that is both savoury and sublime, as long as you don’t wolf down too many of them.
In the same area is Shan Shan, a restaurant that showcases the flavours of Beijing and Nanjing (a province in China’s Jiangsu region which is also known as the Land of Fish and Rice). A must-try here is the Nanjing Duck—salted duck meat marinated in Sichuan pepper and salt before being boiled in a stock consisting of 12 different components, including dried citrus peel and liquorice root. Duck is a specialty of Nanjing and even after the owners uprooted themselves to a very much flat and dry Berlin, you cannot “take the duck out of them”—indeed, they have only made it more flavoursome for continental Berlin.
As Berlin continues to evolve as a cosmopolitan city, its cuisine continually changes and transforms too. Today this puts the city’s residents and visitors in the fortunate position where they can try good quality traditional Chinese food, as well as a full range of less common cuisines and new spins on the older classics. Everyone, as they say, is a winner.