Ian Farrell goes on the hunt for authentic Turkish cuisine in Berlin…
It occurred to me a little while ago that, brimming though Berlin’s streets are with cheap eats that have a genuine relationship to Turkish cuisine – from the humble-but-beloved Döner kebab that Berlin Turks are routinely credited with inventing, to the tasty gözleme touted at many of the city’s food markets – ‘real’ Turkish restaurants are notable mostly for their almost total absence.
Given the city’s conspicuous and long-standing Turkish community, this seemed to me slightly scandalous – as did the fact that, even if I found myself in one, I wouldn’t even know what to order or even expect on the menu. Finding a real Turkish restaurant in Berlin, something beyond the bland, tourist-centric servings of well-known spots like Hasir, suddenly became a priority.
I began with the one place friends had consistently mentioned, but which I had never visited: Defne. Located on the south bank of the Landwehrkanal, this restaurant has been serving up decent Turkish cuisine for the last ten years. Despite being right on the edge of the hip Gräfekiez, the venue’s unassuming frontage and location on one of the quieter parts of the Ufer have kept it from drawing too much attention.
I arrive just after opening time to find a warm, homely interior with simple, real-wood chairs and tables and mustard-coloured walls, whose patches of exposed stone lend the place a pleasantly rustic air. A few of the staff are chatting amiably away at the bar, completing the aura of a family-run restaurant in a small Mediterranean town.
The menu at Defne is extensive, ranging from soups, salads and Turkish meze to grilled vegetable platters, Anatolian veal, lamb cutlets and kebabs – and something suspiciously called ‘Drunk Octopus’. But even to my untrained eye, the pasta dishes seem distinctly un-Turkish. An explanation is provided by the menu, which states that “…the Turkish Mediterranean region is home to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and religions, a mutually inspirational co-existence that has lasted for centuries.”
This is already a surprise: I’d never considered Turkish food to be part of a wider ‘Mediterranean’ cuisine, but as soon as I read it, it’s obvious – and certainly explains the pasta. Still, I settle on the most authentically Turkish thing I can find, a lamb dish called Ali Nazik, which comes served with a yoghurt sauce on a bed of grilled, puréed aubergines. Although the family resemblance to the Döner is clear, this feels altogether more sophisticated, nuanced and, well, better.
Defne’s barman, Eser, a young, laid-back type who obviously enjoys his job, is happy to answer my questions about what is traditional and what isn’t. “Turkey is a vast country,” he tells me. ”Each region has its own specialities. Our dishes come from the South, near Antakya. When we say that to a customer who is familiar with Turkish food, they know straight away what to expect, though of course many of our customers are German…”
Antakya cuisine apparently includes plenty of cumin-heavy beef and lamb dishes, as well as baked, filled aubergines with tomatoes and pine nuts. The grill platters on Defne’s menu, though, are apparently a national staple, with most restaurants in Turkey offering a similar selection of veal skewers, marinated chicken, lamb cutlets and minced beef, all served on a gigantic plate.
Traditional pide bread – soft, crusty and perfect for mopping up the delicious juices – is usually also a given in most Turkish restaurants, though the meze starters, Eser informs me, tend to have more regional variety, and the assortment of pastes, pickles and chopped vegetables is often good and filling enough to be taken instead of a main course.
My ongoing enquiries lead me next to another personal recommendation: Balikci Ergün in Moabit. Hidden away under the S-Bahn tracks between Hauptbahnhof and Bellevue and considered something of an insider tip, this fish restaurant has been quietly going about its business for even longer than Defne – an impressive 25 years.
The atmosphere here is immediately welcoming, if a little bizarre; as I descend the steps and open the door, it’s not the smell of food that arrests me, but the sight of row upon row of yellow postcards dangling from the ceiling. Held fast by Sellotape, they give the impression of a kind of bargain-basement Aladdin’s cave, though on closer examination they contain – in a variety of languages – accolades, tributes and little jokes left by visitors throughout the restaurant’s history.
It’s an odd touch, yet cleverly illustrates the down-to-earth approach of the venue, as well as the high esteem in which it’s evidently held by customers from around the world. And with good reason: the food, I discover, is excellent. The menu consists solely of varieties of fish, grilled whole and served with both the omnipresent pide and a juicy pomegranate-and-rocket side salad.
The staff clearly take pride in their work, and the waiter is happy to chat to me, explaining how all the fish is flown in directly from Istanbul, presumably for that extra-authentic touch. As we talk and I eat, the differences between a Turkish restaurant and a German or English restaurant are keenly felt at Balikci Ergün. Despite the fact it’s a Saturday evening, the staff show no signs of stress or rushing around.
The clientele dotted around the glass-topped tables seem to be a mixture of German families here for a slap-up meal and Turkish men sipping tea served from the imposing metal pot by the bar, many of them glued to the Turkish football league match on the television. The overriding feel is of a space not only designed for people to dine-and-split, but to hang out and spend some real time with friends and family – a little like visiting your Grandma’s house on a Sunday. So far, so authentic – although my next experience throws up some troubling questions.
Mercan is near to the Görlitzer Bahnhof, and is more a canteen than a restaurant. Its exposed brick walls, hanging glass lanterns and paintings of the Istanbul waterfront feels kitschily authentic, and the menu seems to be primarily based around the ten or so dishes of the day on display at the front counter – vast stew pans containing various bubbling casseroles, the names of which are rattled off by the waitress at too high a speed for me to follow.
I order something with veal in it, and the service turns out to be just as quick as the descriptions; my meal is on the table in front of me before I’ve even had chance to sit at it. To my surprise, the stew, rice and bean salad all come on separate plates, along with a generous basket of fluffy pide, meaning that my quick dinner almost takes up an entire table on its own.
But my optimism fades with the first forkful. Though hearty, the food lacks any distinct flavour, and is improved little by the bowl of dried chilli flakes on the table. I wonder if the place has maybe become too ‘Germanified’ – were those not Bouletten und Pommes in one of the pans? – but a glance around reveals plenty of customers of apparent Turkish descent. Have they perhaps been in Berlin so long that they don’t known any better? Or do similar “cheap and cheerful” establishments also exist in Turkey, perhaps in more working-class neighbourhoods?
Puzzled by this phenomenon, I go in search of someone more knowledgable about the history of Berlin’s largest immigrant population and their food – and find Rasmus Schou Therkildsen, a blonde, bearded Dane who had been visiting Berlin for almost a decade before finally settling here a year ago. He used to offer a variety of educational experiences in Berlin, including a surprisingly excellent Döner Safari tour, which explored the story of immigration in Berlin through the medium of everybody’s favourite Turkish-German street food.
“The Döner originated as a survival strategy for Gastarbeiter who had lost their jobs in the 1970s,” he tells me when we meet up around Kottbusser Tor. “They needed a cheap way of using the food they knew from back home to set up a business.” Having come to the city from humble backgrounds, and often without their wives and families in tow, many of these workers would have had little cooking ability of their own or experience of dining out. Setting up a full restaurant would have been a risky and expensive proposition.
Indeed, some areas of Berlin are now so full of Imbisse offering all kinds of street food from Turkey and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions that it’s often difficult to know where to start. Around the Kottbusser Tor area where the tour is centred, Rasmus reserves particular praise for the Doyum grill house in Admiralstraße and the Taka Fish House, a little fish grill around the back of Kotti’s market stands that still attracts a lot of Turkish clientele. The latter turns out to be a great spot for a quick lunch, offering the same type of fare as Balikci Ergün, but with more of a pit-stop feel; fresh fish baguettes are on offer in addition to the larger platters.
What with the apparently unquenchable hunger for this kind of street food, it’s mind-boggling that in (ad)venture-minded, constantly gentrifying Berlin, no one has managed to take or update these traditions and adapt them to a more contemporary experience – which is exactly what Arzu Bulut and Lale Yanik thought back in 2012 when they opened their restaurant – Osmans Töchter…in Prenzlauer Berg.
A part of the former East where the Gastarbeiter were predominantly Vietnamese, Prenzlauer Berg isn’t the most obvious district for Berlin’s first contemporary Turkish restaurant – but after a lot of hard graft and dedication, it has worked. Started as a homage to modern Istanbul cuisine, the restaurant is much more chic than Balikci Ergün and Defne, with smart wooden tables and chairs, brightly-coloured cushions and pretty hanging lamps – yet it is equally authentic.
Although born in Germany, the effervescent Arzu grew up in a Turkish family whose eating habits were centred around the home. “We couldn’t afford to eat out, and it wasn’t part of our culture, coming from the country,” she says. “But food was very important to us. We would often have friends and family over at the weekend – 30 or 40 people! We would get up at nine and be cooking all day. There wasn’t space in our apartment for everyone to eat at the same time, so we’d do it in sittings: the men first, then the women, the teenagers and the young children last.”
This was the case with most Turkish families who moved here, she tells me. The lack of a restaurant culture has persisted because a whole second generation had grown up without it. “I looked around at all Berlin’s restaurants – Italian, Greek, Spanish – and I thought “None of this is me.” So Lale and I started going to Istanbul to see what the food there was like, and we saw how much everything had moved on.”
After decades of public neglect, they realised that Turkish food in Berlin was stuck in the past and sought to combine these two worlds, the old and the new, to present Berlin with an up-to-date experience for a new generation of food enthusiasts. Having originally struggled to bring in a professional Turkish chef due to visa restrictions (Turkey is still not a member of the EU, hence work permits these days are hard to come by), the two friends decided to get around the problem by turning to local Turkish housewives.
This turned out to be a masterstroke in recreating the genuine, traditional feel of the food they had grown up with. “Housewives prepare food differently to a professional chef,” Arzu explains. “They are more patient, and used to cooking for their families – they cook from the soul.” At first a French chef was enlisted to add a professional edge and creativity, but the kitchen has now finally found a Turkish master to provide the extra zest, complementing the housewives’ traditional components with new ideas and compositions. The whole team is constantly scouring recipe books to provide inspiration for the restaurant’s ever-evolving menu.
Literally everything here is home-made, from the grapefruit and lavender lemonade to the mouth-watering grilled meats and the astounding variety of meze. Such has been its success, that the duo opened a second branch in Charlottenburg, in 2019—glowing and delicious evidence that, after some 50 years of immigration, serious Turkish cuisine has finally landed in Berlin.