It’s another sunny Saturday afternoon and Preußenpark, an otherwise unremarkable wedge of grass in Wilmersdorf, is packed. Families lounge on the grass, twentysomething revellers sip mojitos, groups of men play card games while their wives grill food on picnic blankets under colourful umbrellas. Draw closer to the crowd, though, and you notice a couple of unusual things. First, all the food is for sale. Second, everyone’s from Southeast Asia. Welcome to Thai-Wiese (Thai Meadow), the closest Berlin will ever get to Bangkok.
What started some 20 years ago as a private weekly gathering has morphed into an unofficial meeting point for the city’s Thai community, held on every rain-free Saturday and Sunday in summer. There are only about 5000 Thais in Berlin, many of them women with German husbands, spread out across various parts of the city. Preußenpark gives them a chance to come together, gossip, gamble… and of course, eat. You’ll find a sprinkling of Vietnamese, Filipino and Laotian families as well, not to mention hordes of hungry ‘foreigners’ of all nationalities looking for an authentic bite.
There’s sizzling fried catfish, tangy papaya salad, incendiary stir-fried noodles, unctuous grass jelly drinks. Chillis and fish sauce are thrown around with abandon; customers in the know reach for condiment trays to spice up their orders even further. Everything costs about €3-6, though there seems to be some bartering going on between blankets – my coconut sticky rice for your chicken satay? My shrimp for your Issan sausage?
Don’t let the well-meaning woman from Chiang Mai withhold the raw pig’s blood from your order of kuai tiao (rice noodle soup). If you insist, she’ll gladly capitulate and squeeze a healthy dose from a plastic bottle, adding unique flavour and depth to the delicious, minerally broth. “Most foreigners don’t understand the blood. They ask if I have tofu, you know?”
Over the past few years, Thai-Wiese has come under fire for the lack of adherence to health regulations, the mess of bottles and Styrofoam plates and the business lost by neighbouring restaurants. Upon clearing out the park in 2011, police cited (unconfirmed) rumours of drug dealing and even prostitution. Since then, however, the authorities have been turning a blind eye.
For how long, though? As Berlin’s westside continues to clean up its act, there’s no guarantee that the only bowl of kuai tiao nam tok in town will be there forever. The Thai-Wiese is as magical and as ephemeral as a sunny day in Berlin… enjoy it while you still can.