Jewish Cuisine in Berlin

From gefilte fish to shakshuka, Anne Thomas tracks down the best Jewish food the German capital has to offer…

One of the three themes at this year’s Jewish Film Festival in Berlin – alongside 50 years of German-Israeli relations and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two – was “Jews and Food”. The Holocaust and food might seem unlikely bedfellows at first glance but, as the event made clear through its various screenings, it was partly through culinary traditions that survivors were able to maintain elements of their identity.

In Heddy Honigmann’s short documentary Food For Love – A Shtetl That’s No Longer There, the Peruvian-born Dutch director shows her mother making Yiddish vrennekes just like the latter’s own mother used to make them in the Polish village of Grabowiec where she was raised.

As the coquettish elderly lady gives instructions on ingredients and how to knead the dough for these potato-filled dumplings, she relates the story of her flight from the Nazis (to Peru) and the tragic fate of those relatives and friends who stayed behind. The memory of the shtetl is in the vrennekes, which are also edible affirmation that the Nazis did not succeed in their mission to exterminate Jewish life throughout Europe.

Also screening was Jerusalem on a Plate with Yotam Ottolenghi, in which the London-based Israeli chef responsible for revolutionising Britain’s culinary culture talks with locals in Jerusalem about their traditions and ancestors. “Entire Jewish communities were transplanted from all over the diaspora,” explains Ottolenghi in the film. “Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia brought a taste for gefilte fish and goulash, while the Sephardi Jews from the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans brought a taste for herbs and exotic spices.” 

I salivated as I watched, praying that one day Ottolenghi would open a restaurant in Berlin. And the irony was not lost on me that these films were screening at Kino Babylon, a wonderful and historic cinema in a part of Mitte that was once the Scheunenviertel or “Barn Quarter”, the beating heart of Jewish culture in Berlin. Most of the area’s Jewish inhabitants arrived from Eastern Europe in the mid-late 19th and early 20th centuries, fleeing pogroms, poverty and – later – the deathly chaos of the Russian Revolution.

Shakshuka (image courtesy of Kibbuz)

In contrast to many of the city’s assimilated and largely secular Jews, many of whom were financially well-to-do, prominent within Berlin society and prone to dwell in West Berlin, the residents of the run-down Scheunenviertel were largely orthodox Jews. Weimar-era books such as Franz Hessel’s Spazieren in Berlin (“Walking in Berlin”, 1927) and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (also 1927) describe the area as a vibrant Jewish ghetto, full of crumbling shops bearing Hebrew signs, vendors with beards and sidelocks and accents that effortlessly blended Yiddish and Berlinerish.

By 1933, there were an estimated 160,000 Jews living in Berlin, approximately a third of Germany’s Jewish population. In 1945, only a few thousand remained, having managed to survive the war in hiding. Those in the East suffered yet more attacks following the purges in Stalinist Russia and subsequently fled to the West. Some 3,000 Jews arrived from the Soviet Union via Israel in 1971, but by the time of reunification in 1989 the city still only had about 6,000 Jewish inhabitants – a number that increased dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 2000, the city’s Jewish population was well over 20,000.

In the past decade, an influx of young Israelis has bolstered these figures significantly. It’s hard to tell exactly how many there are, especially as most are not part of the city’s official Jewish community – they’re here for studies and start-ups and studies – but according to some estimates there could be more than 20,000. Many of these new arrivals have brought a passion for food with them, setting up a new wave of Israeli cafes and restaurants around town.

Inspired by the film festival I decided to explore the current Jewish food scene in the city, both new and old. I started with one of the oldest existing places, the Beth Cafe at the Orthodox Congregation Adass Jisroel in Tucholskystrasse, which was founded in 1869 by the Scheunenviertel’s community of traditional Ashkenazi Jews. Destroyed in the war, it was later re-established for the remaining postwar community and today includes the kosher cafe and a store.

Although the interior, dotted with dark wooden furniture, felt initially inviting, the service was rather distant and – perhaps because there were no other customers – the atmosphere was somewhat eerie. I scanned the menu of Israeli and Jewish specialities – hummus and felafel, bagels, gefilte fish, matzoh dumplings, knishes. I ordered the mixed Kolbo plate, even though it was a bit steep at 13.90 euros. As I waited, I was given unleavened matzoh bread to munch upon, which I noted was also on sale in the adjoining shop.

Image from Mogg and Melzer (now called Mogg)
Image courtesy of Mogg

When asked if I wanted a pita with my food I automatically replied in the affirmative, but regretted the decision when I was later charged 1.50 euros for a piece of stale bread that was neither home-made nor warmed up. The food was not much better, despite some effort having been put into the presentation. The felafel, the fried courgette and the caramelised rice and lentil dish (medschádera) had seemingly been made days earlier and warmed up in the microwave; the only redeeming factors were the bean salad with coriander and taboule, which were at least fresh.

Despite an inauspicious start, it was too early to give up. Bearing in mind the irreverent Jewish expression “if it tastes good, it’s not kosher”, I next headed to Bleibergs, the only milk kosher restaurant in town. The space is tucked away in the border area between Charlottenburg and Schöneberg where some 50,000 Jews lived before the Nazis came to power, including many poets, writers, intellectuals, artists and journalists.

In the 1920s, some of the established Jewish women in this area opened their apartments to refugees arriving from the east, serving traditional Russian and Jewish dishes as a way of supplementing their income. The food gave some of the migrants a sense of community, belonging and identity. Friday meals were often observed together in people’s houses, and kosher bakeries and delis offered the right ingredients and a feeling of home.

This is also where most of the few Berlin Jews who survived the Nazi regime chose to live after the war. The synagogue in Pestalozzistrasse was one of the few Jewish places of worship left standing and provided a bridge for observant Jews between pre-and post-war Berlin. It’s also where many Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants chose to live. 

Now that Gabriel in the Jewish community centre in Fasanenstrasse has closed down, Bleibergs is one of the few kosher places left that serves gefilte fish. My dining partner, a Russian with Jewish origins, also ordered this Sabbath classic, which was simply presented on a white plate: not as good as her grandfather’s, apparently, but a worthy attempt.

I particularly liked the red chrain, a horseradish relish with beet, which provided a nice counterpoint to the slight sweetness of the fish. There were other Ashkenazi dishes on the menu such as blintsches (pancakes) but also international staples such as spaghetti and meatballs made from soy substitutes. The Israeli tourists who shared the dining room with us seemed very satisfied with their pizza.

Next I tried some contemporary places, starting with my home kiez in Neukölln. This part of the city once had a Jewish population of 3,000 in 1933, though it has all but vanished now. Gordon, a decidedly hip Israeli record store and cafe that supplies Fine Bagels in Warschauerstrasse with delicious rugelach, serves a lovely home-made hummus and a good sabich – a sandwich with aubergines and hard-boiled eggs – which come with a fantastic Yemenite green chilli and coriander relish called zhoug. There’s also great coffee and scrumptious, crumbly apple tarts.

Image from Kibbuz
Image courtesy of Der Kibbuz

Gordon is representative of a growing number of places opened by young Israelis in Berlin that are cool and funky but also welcoming and aim to foster community spirit and locavore sourcing as much as possible. Der Kibbuz is another such community-based project. Located in a quiet part of Friedrichshain, a district once home to some 8,000 eastern European Jews who had come to Berlin on their way to the US but could never afford passage, the place is sparsely decorated with wooden structures on which hang cast iron pans and pots of herbs.

Der Kibbuz specialises in hummus and variations on shakshuka, a traditional Middle Eastern egg and tomato dish that’s often served for breakfast I found the former underwhelming but my green shakshuka, served with Swiss chard and spinach and a nutmeg sauce instead of tomatoes, was hearty, creamy and full of interesting textures and flavours – including, unfortunately, grit from the vegetables that had obviously not been washed thoroughly enough. They also serve a vegan shakshuka (tofu, mushrooms and aubergines), homemade “Israeli pita”, a fresh and crunchy cabbage salad, and tahini cookies that melt in the mouth like the sesame and honey confection halva. What was best though was the price – 14 euros for two, including green tea with mint.

A similar bargain can be found at across the river in Kreuzberg at The Devil’s Kitchen, which was opened by an Israeli a few years ago. Spacious, dimly-lit and lively, the bar-restaurant attracts a young international crowd and serves, among other dishes like artichoke hearts stuffed with lamb, a fantastic mixed plate (19 euros) that consists of mounds of roasted cauliflower with citrus zest and fresh herbs, roasted peppers, felafel, zucchini salad, chickpea salad with celery.

Back in Mitte I visited one of the only Jewish dining spots that has prompted some local and even international media hype: the trendy, deli-style space Mogg & Melzer (now called Mogg since Melzer left this year). Since opening in 2012 inside the refurbished Jewish girls’ school on Auguststrasse, the establishment’s pastrami sandwich has prompted a kind of local hysteria amongst some foodies that includes frequent and positive comparisons to New York.

While such things are endlessly debatable, I was certainly impressed to see a range of less-renowned traditional items on the menu: matzoh ball soup, chicken liver brûlée – a contemporary version of chopped liver, an Ashkenazi classic that’s also a mainstay of Berlin cuisine – and a merguez dish with charred aubergines and salted lemon.

All of them were delicious, as was the shakshuka, though it could have benefitted from a little bit more spice. What did feel slightly dissonant was dining in a hip space that was once filled with the voices of young Jewish girls whose lives were brutally cut off in their prime; even the building’s Jewish architect, Alexander Beer, was murdered in Theresienstadt in 1944.

Image from Neni.
Image courtesy of Neni

From a culinary point of view, it was not quite the food that I have become accustomed to eating at Ottolenghi’s various London delis. The closest to an Ottolenghi-esque experience can perhaps be found at Neni, in West Berlin’s 25 Hours Hotel. The menu here is highly cosmopolitan, taking in Persian, Russian, Arab, Moroccan, Turkish, Spanish, German and Austrian influences.

It features steak and fish dishes, as well as Jewish and Middle Eastern classics, such as sabich, baba ghanoush, hummus, caramelised aubergines, felafel, fatoush, a North African tagine and that American favourite, the Reuben sandwich. Skeptically, we opted for the Dreierlei Hummus with horseradish, curry and mango, which was beautifully presented but unconvincing in terms of taste – any puritan will tell you that curry powder does not belong in hummus. The scallops, though, were grilled to perfection and served with a delicious accompaniment of Beluga lentils and candied organic carrots. Neni is a place worth coming back to again to check out everything on the menu and also to see the treetops as they change through the seasons.

We stepped out into the Berlin night and stumbled on the lit-up Gedaechtniskirche, a symbol of the city’s destruction after 12 years of madness and horror, but also of the fact that life goes on and people continue to cook and eat. In fact this brings to mind another film, 2012’s Oma & Bella, which features two Holocaust survivors – Regina Karolinski and her best friend Bella Katz – who moved to Berlin after the war and have been cooking and entertaining ever since – celebrating the pleasures of Jewish food and culture in the country which once tried to eradicate them forever.