Photo by Erica Löfman
Even in the age of enlightened eating, the phrase “the best Chinese restaurant in Berlin” remains equivalent to “the most talented member of Nickelback”. Are we doomed to drown in sweet-and-sour mediocrity?
What’s a girl got to do to get a good bowl of beef noodle soup around here? How about a proper mapo tofu? Who do I have to sleep with to get some Kung Pao chicken that actually tastes like something, or some Sichuanese dan dan noodles slick with sesame paste and enough face-numbing chili oil to leave you gasping for more? Anyone?
There are well over a billion people on this planet who cook and eat the cuisine that falls under the wide umbrella of “Chinese”. I cannot speak for all of them, but being half-Taiwanese and having spent my entire childhood in Taiwan, I literally grew up on Chinese food. From noodles slurped on the street to shark fin soup served at a lavish banquet to my mother’s and grandmother’s home cooking, Chinese flavours are the very foundation of my palate. And it’s based on this that I say: Berlin doesn’t do Chinese food well. That’s putting it mildly.
It’s not that all Asian food in Berlin is bad – far from it. But Chinese food is lagging in a lacklustre class of its own. It’s as if all the Chinese restaurants got together and agreed to a competition in mediocrity.
Why? It’s a question I’ve asked myself often, after yet another disappointing meal at yet another well-reviewed and hotly hyped Chinese restaurant. Where the primary flavour accents were salt and grease and maybe some garlic, the whole sorry mess doused in a sweetish, brownish generic sauce gloppy with too much cornstarch. I’ve finished meals and thought, “Well, the rice was okay.”
Here’s my theory: for a long time, Germans were afraid of Chinese food. It’s spicy! Chinese people eat everything, literally everything! What if I’m served dog meat? Fear of “ethnic” food is culinary xenophobia, which, thankfully, has abated over the past decades. But Chinese restaurants in Berlin continue catering to these fears. Beyond the China Box-type Imbisse, which don’t count because what they serve doesn’t count as food, there are two types of Chinese restaurants here. The first is the slick pan-Asian place with hip décor, a dose of exoticism that lets guests stay in their Western comfort zone. Calling the cuisine “Chinese fusion” would be generous. If you’ve gone to Yumcha Heroes or Long March Canteen and left hungry, sad and confused after shelling out upwards of €25 for what the menu said would be “dim sum,” you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Then there are the restaurants that actually serve Chinese food cooked by Chinese people. Often, you’ll even spot real, live Chinese people eating there, like in the places along Kantstraße, Berlin’s so-called Chinatown (no comment). Be not misled – even these restaurants cater to the German palate. I have no doubt the people behind Ming Dynastie, Aroma and Good Friends know their food is middling at best. But why aim higher when most clientele won’t notice the difference, or, worse, would prefer the blander version?
Yes, some of these restaurants have “secret” Chinese menus, which are actually no secret – just ask and you shall receive. But don’t expect it to open a portal to culinary bliss. Because the real secret is this: There is no holy grail of Chinese food in Berlin. No El Dorado where you can point to anything on the “secret” menu and do no wrong. Every place caters, to some extent, to the lowest common denominator.
That said, there are some standout dishes... if you know where to look. So until eaters start informing themselves and demanding better, and until the restaurateurs start trusting us more – which will happen, slowly but surely – this is what I’ll do. I’ll keep going to Wok Show and gorging on their handmade jiao zi dumplings. Of all the fillings, from beef to lamb to vegetarian, I always go for the classic pork and cabbage. The cold starters, like kao fu, wheat gluten braised in soy and five spice powder, aren’t bad, either.
I’ll keep returning to Shaniu’s House of Noodles in Wilmersdorf and feasting on their hand-pulled noodles and one of my childhood favourites: cold silken tofu quivering in a puddle of soy sauce. And I’ll get my chilli fix at Yami Yami, a recent discovery that has jumped to the top of my list. Order the garlicky cucumber salad, making sure to specify that you don’t fear the scharf. Get #805, ribbons of chewy tripe dressed in vinegar, chili oil and coriander, and #857, kou rou, a homey dish of luscious pork belly braised in a rich sauce of preserved mustard greens. Just don’t expect any fortune cookies at the end of the meal, please.
- Yami Yami, Grunewaldstr. 60, Schöneberg, U-Bhf Bayerischer Platz, Mon 17-23, Tue-Sun 12-23
- Shaniu’s House of Noodles, Pariser Str. 58, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstr., Mon-Sun 12-23
- Wok Show, Greifenhagener Str. 61, Prenzlauer Berg, S+U-Bhf Schönhauser Allee, Mon-Wed 17-22:30, Thu-Sun 12:30-22:30