There’s nothing wrong with Berlin’s new “street food” scene. Except the name.
So there I was last week going about my normal internet business (y’know, bookmarking barbacoa recipes, fruitlessly Googling “bun cha ca thang long Berlin” for the 30th time) when I saw a phrase that stopped me in my virtual tracks. It was part of the Facebook event for Stadt Land Food, a ‘real food festival’ with its own problems, and it was advertising the festival’s Thursday market. I quote:
“Finally, time to celebrate Berlin’s best street food on the streets!”
Uh, wie bitte? Isn’t street food already on the streets by definition? Shouldn’t “street food on the streets” be some sort of tautological Zen koan, not a goal to aspire to?
Apparently not. Because ‘Berlin’s best street food’ refers only to the wave of artisanal, gourmet vendors that has been washing over the city for the past year and a half-ish. You know ’em from Street Food Thursday, Village Market and Bite Club, but not, until last week, from the actual pavements. On October 2 they set up their stalls around Lausitzer Platz, and the hungry hordes swarmed around them in the autumn sunshine.
Was that inaugural venture enough to legitimise them as street vendors? Let’s break it down. In my experience, the “best street food” anywhere fulfils at least one if not all of the following conditions:
1. It’s cheap. Street vendors aren’t renting a storefront or paying waiters or investing in actual plates and silverware – shouldn’t that result in savings that they pass on to you, the customer? By the time you’ve gotten full at your average Berlin street food market, you’ve spent about as much as you would have at a mid-priced restaurant for the experience of eating buttcheek-to-buttcheek with a hundred other zealous foodies on an overloaded picnic bench.
2. It’s convenient. Another advantage of not having a ton of staff or a set location is that vendors can sell their food anywhere, anytime. They’re there for you when you’re staggering out of a bar half-dead at 4am; there for you on your way to work when you’re already running late but have to put something in your stomach or you’ll die. Unlike the current crop of artisanal vendors, which keep to cordoned-off areas and close down before 10pm.
3. It’s not a branch of a brick-and-mortar restaurant trying too hard to be hip. Sometimes, street chefs attract such a huge following that they’re able to open their own restaurant. That is cool. The reverse – places like Scent, the restaurant from Mitte’s Cosmo Hotel, or the Michelin-starred Tim Raue (both of whom took part in Stadt Land Food), slumming it outside a Späti in SO36 – is less so. On a related note:
4. It doesn’t care about looking pretty. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the “Berlin Street Food Awards“, which happened as part of that same festival, included a prize for “Best Design and Branding”. But real street food chefs don’t waste time picking out the perfect frilly little awning for their truck or updating their chalkboard menu in neat Wes Anderson Futura script. They’re too busy cooking their asses off.
5. It’s got competition. This one isn’t strictly necessary, I guess, but I have noticed that at Berlin’s oh-so-curated food festivals, you’ll never see two people selling the same dish. Whereas at the Asian night markets they’re trying to emulate, you see things like five guys in a row hawking oyster pancakes. They’re kinda forced to step up their cooking game that way. When you play the game of oyster pancakes, you win or you die.
So by those measures, what qualifies as actual street food in Berlin? Well, there’s still Konnopke’s, the ancient currywurst Imbiss under the U-Bahn tracks in Prenzlauer Berg, where excitable tourists and grizzled Ossis pick at ketchup-smothered sausage bits side by side. There’s Mustafa’s (or Nur Gemüse if you can’t stomach the wait) or Imren Grill or any other of the handful of Laden in the city that prove eating a döner doesn’t have to be an entirely regrettable affair. My latest discovery, Tandur Lasan on Kottbusser Damm, where for €1.20 one of the perpetually swamped workers will sprinkle some sesame seeds on a ball of dough, slap it in a tandoori oven till it’s bubbly and chewy-crisp and roll it up with a chunk of sheep’s cheese. The grillwalkers, bless their hearts. The families who materialise on Oranienstraße every May 1 to peddle köfte sandwiches, couscous and toothache-inducing mojitos. Hell, even Ban Ban, the Korean fusion shack that took a big ol’ stretch of nothing on Hermannstraße and turned it into a buzzing meeting point for Neu-Neuköllners. And more, much much more.
It’s not that I don’t like any of the new booths and trucks on the scene. They’ve brought some tasty and relatively rare dishes to the city, put something edible on Potsdamer Platz during last year’s Berlinale and provided a viable career option for German-deficient expats who know how to sous-vide a little. But I’d like them a lot more if they didn’t call themselves “street food”. ‘Cause what they do? It ain’t street food. And “finally” going out on the streets for one Thursday afternoon isn’t gonna make them street food.