Itay Lotem takes on Berlin’s “Mission Impossible” and goes on a hunt for a decent curry in Berlin…
As a concept, ‘curry’ is a matter of definition. The word ‘curry’ is an anglicised version of the Tamil word ‘kari’ meaning sauce. When English speakers say ‘curry’, they allude to a generic description of dishes from either the Subcontinent or South-East Asia.
Germans, however, think primarily of yellow curry powder. A basic commodity in Germany, curry shakers are available at every German supermarket right next to rows of pepper, oregano or sweet paprika.
Moreover, no other element has yet to influence the Berliner cuisine as much as curry powder. In 1949, a certain Herta Heuwer received ketchup, Worcester sauce and curry powder from British soldiers stationed in a war ravaged West-Berlin. She mixed the ingredients together and poured the viscously thick sauce over a grilled pork sausage.
The result was a snack that would later become Berlin’s notorious ‘Currywurst’. Greasy and unhealthy the Currywurst may be, but the fast-food dish has attained a true cult status. Established as one of the most popular dishes in Germany with sales estimated around 800 million a year, its numerous fans can now even enjoy an afternoon in the Currywurst museum just off Checkpoint Charlie.
Less fast and more foody, however, the Subcontinental version of curry has a different story in Berlin. In terms of visibility, the offer is staggering. Curry houses have made their mark on the local landscape, with local chains like Amrit-Mirchi thriving along the hottest tourist spots in Berlin.
With an ‘Indisches Restaurant’ looming at every second street corner, Berlin may seem like a curry metropolis for the untrained eye. Yet most of these places are a case in point for a local curry phenomenon that is mainly defined by a genuine lack of authenticity. All over Berlin, sauces are usually based on prodigious amounts of cream rather than on spices, with sugar being a common addition. Chilli powder makes way for sweet paprika and coriander is replaced by parsley. The sense of stodgy mass is only highlighted by the disgraceful presence of cheese, copiously sprinkled over bland vindaloos.
Curry houses in Berlin therefore have to cater to the German sense of taste, otherwise accustomed to creamy sauces and very little spiciness. The abundance of Indian restaurants may give Berliners a sense of validation about living in a true, multicultural metropolis.
Simultaneously, however, the Europeanised version these restaurants serve often means that many locals never need to step out of their comfort zone and confront unknown flavours. Yet not all hope is lost for those searching for more authentic curry in the Hauptstadt. A quick review of a few local options:
The first curry house in Berlin was opened in 1975 in one of the narrower streets leading to the elegant Savignyplatz. The restaurant is still a success, with the small imbiss-like space packed with smartly-dressed Charlottenburg crowds sipping mango-lassi and munching on steamy samosas. The added value of seeing a living Berlin institution may justify an early-evening visit, yet the food quality is fairly representative of the local curry affliction, with the overriding taste moving somewhere on the scale between sweet and bland.
Ashoka, Grolmannstraße 51, 10623 Berlin (Charlottenburg), 030 31 01 58 06. Open: Mon – Sun, 11-midnight .
One of the many typically generic Indian restaurants in Kreuzberg, this time on the edge of the genteel Graefekiez. In the height of summer, Grimmstraße turns into an oasis of quiet, lush green in the middle of town, and Yogi is perfectly located to enjoy a balmy evening under comforting chestnuts and sycamores.
The food, however, is inconsistent at best. The positive end is that the dishes are never sweet and spiciness is attainable after a short negotiation. Order a vindaloo with the request “bitte wirklich scharf”, and it will indeed come spicy. The downside, however, is that the general quality is not much higher than what Berlin usually has on offer.
Müllenhofstraße 1, 10967 Berlin (Kreuzberg), 030 69 13 887.
In the heart of Friedrichshain’s bustling (some may say loud) ‘Szeneviertel’, between a seemingly unstoppable influx of burger houses, this small, Sri Lankan restaurant can be easily overlooked. Unlike the generically bland curry houses just a few blocks away on Gabriel-Max-Straße, this one is nearly the real thing.
The various dishes are all well-prepared and refined, with the focus rightly turned on spices. The menu even starts with an overview of the different spices used in the Subcontinent. Not all too surprisingly, the food is heavily coconut-oriented: from the hoppers (Sri-Lankan dough casks in the form of a dish) to the various curries, most dishes contain unmistakeable traces of coconut and coconut milk (thankfully, however, no cream or cheese to be found).
Also on the bread-front, the delightful Sri-Lankan pol-roti (coconut bread) is a must where naans or rotis will otherwise be called for.
Sigiriya, Grünberger Straße 66, 10245 Berlin (Friedrichshain), 030 29 04 42 08, Open: daily 12-midnight.
A relatively new addition to Charlottenburg’s gourmet landscape, Buddha Republic is Berlin’s first attempt at upper-scale curry. The deco is densely colourful with an abundance of details that seem to bear no relation to one another, yet somehow manage to stay pleasing. Buddha Republic prides itself in its tandoori-oven and excellent tandoori specials. And this with good reason. The meat is well marinated and tender, the spices and sauces perfectly handled and executed. The Maharaja Tandoori Special for two is especially pleasing and fulfills the high expectations its price raises.
Buddha Republic, Knesebeckstraße 88, 10623 Berlin (Charlottenburg), 030 31 16 42 04, Open: Mon-Sun, 16-midnight.
The real thing is hidden a stone-cast away from the banks of the Spree, in the otherwise low-key part of Moabit. Sanjay, the owner and the chef, runs the kitchen together with his wife. He moved to Berlin twelve years ago after studying catering with the ITDC Ashok group in Delhi. He then worked for several restaurants in Berlin and opened his own place in the summer of 2010. Most specialities are tandoori-style dishes, but there is also a variety of excellent curries.
Next to the open kitchen, there is a miniscule space left for guests with three tables. The walls may be barren, but fortunately, they are not covered with the tacky Buddha-paraphernalia that always seems to dumb-down any other Indian restaurant in town. The ambiance here is made of scents and flavours. The smell of tandoori is overwhelming and the sumptuous kebabs, rotis and daal are enough to impress even the most skeptical of visitors.
Agni, Kaiserin-Augusta-Allee 1, 10553 (Tiergarten – Moabit), 030 65 79 16 61. Open: Mon-Sun 11-23.
Berlin’s newest addition is hopefully a signal to a new dawn for the city’s Indian scene. Prenzlauer Berg’s Chutnify isn’t your average curry restaurant; the emphasis here is on fresh Southern Indian street food, and the menu is focused on dosas – a crepe made from rice and lentils, filled with various spicy (yep – they do real spice here!) fillings and garnished with pots of chutneys and dips. The interior, which is as colourful and vibrant as the food, was designed by owner Aparna Aurora and could just as easily be used as a Bollywood film set as well as a restaurant. The restaurant gets very busy in the evening; get there early if you’re in a small group as reservations can only be made for groups of six or more.
Chutnify, Sredzkistraße 43, 10435 (Prenzlauer Berg), 030 440 107 95, Open: Tues-Sun 12-23.