These Chinese, Indonesian, Thai and Korean chefs brought Berlin new dishes, overlooked cuisines and entire new paradigms.
More than any other international cuisine, Berliners got really into Chinese food during the pandemic. Armed with carbon steel woks, Fuchsia Dunlop cookbooks and a Go Asia’s worth of pantry ingredients, home chefs spent winter 2020-21 folding dumplings, frying chillis and thwacking biang biang noodles on their countertops. Once lockdown ended, the crew behind Asian fusion franchise Han West promptly opened Wen Cheng, an Imbiss focusing on the latter: thick, hand-pulled doughy strands with toppings like stewed tofu and shiitake or a Xi’an-style cumin lamb mixture, the heat level ranging from “mild” to “Asian spicy”. It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t matter. Three months later, you still have to queue for an hour to get a meal there.
Remember bubble tea? That came back in a big way, as presaged by TikTok-loving teens in 2019. While the drink itself is Taiwanese, some of the most interesting places selling it were from the mainland. Take the Görlitzer Park-adjacent branch of international chain Mr. Box Tea, which hides within it the only surviving branch of local Sichuan legend Grand Tang. Grand Tang – A Tasty Box serves a hit-or-miss mix of canteen-style steam table combos and a la carte dishes – many of them, like crayfish in a spicy black bean sauce, not actually on the menu.
Across the Spree, Friedrichshain’s Kong, previously known for its Sichuan set menus and precious aesthetic, morphed into Berlin’s most-Instagrammed vegan drink shop. Kong Yin’s soy, almond and coconut-based beverages aren’t strictly boba, but share the same satisfying mouthfeel and symphony of textures: a sticky rice ball here, a layer of salty soy cream or glob of sweet-potato puree there. The concept proved so popular, it stuck around even when Kong’s evening service resumed (as “Sichuan tapas”, over half of which are plant-based).
This isn’t even counting the heavy hitters, places like China Restaurant Holly – with its self-proclaimed “not Westernised” menu of grilled offal skewers, braised meats and homemade dumplings – and upscale hot-pot joint Ting Song, where your Mondrian grid’s worth of pork or mushroom broth comes with gorgeously presented add-ins from entrecote to brains.
Not to mention Wedding’s UUU, which is less a restaurant, more a John Malkovich-style portal into the minds of chef Yuhang Wu and host Jonas Borchers. Three nights a week, up to nine people sit around a semicircular wooden table in a fabulously tiled former Kneipe and receive a €129 set meal of Chinese influenced dishes made with regional ingredients, paired not with wine but with tea and homemade kombucha.
There’s not much point describing the menu, which can vary from week to week or even day to day as vegetables and animals go in and out of season. Suffice to say that it combines Michelin expertise (Wu is a veteran of Tim Raue, Coda and Aqua) with wide-eyed curiosity and a zeal for experimentation that never overrides the food itself. You’ll leave buzzing, and not just from all that fermented tea.
It’s the fourth-most-populous country in the world, but until very recently, the southeast Asian archipelago was barely represented on the Berlin food scene. The few brick-and-mortar restaurants, like Nusantara in Moabit, were tucked in out-of-the-way neighbourhoods, making it all the more refreshing when Koempul opened on a coveted slice of sidewalk in Prenzlauer Berg.
Its menu is a sort of ‘greatest hits’, satisfying both actual Indonesians and casual walk-ins who did that amazing yoga retreat in Bali once. Almost everyone gets the nasi padang, a Sumatran combination of stewed beef (or fried tempeh), kale-coconut stew, chunks of jackfruit, potato fritters, cucumber pickles and rice, all wrapped up in a banana leaf and brought to your table in a white paper package for ceremonial unboxing. Of the many fried seafood options, go for the pempek kapal selam, a crisp-edged fish cake stuffed with egg, sliced up and served with both rice and glass noodles in a sweet-sour-spicy sauce.
On the street-food front, there’s lunchery Daily Warteg, notable not only for owner Gabriele Winata’s soulful versions of dishes like fried chicken coated in salted egg yolk sauce or nasi kuning (golden turmeric-coconut rice with sweet glazed tempeh, green beans, a sambal-coated hard boiled egg and, optionally, marinated grilled chicken), but for its offbeat location in a new food truck mini-village next to Hauptbahnhof.
Appearing more sporadically is Lokarsa by Soydivision, the culinary branch of an anti-colonialist contemporary art collective spearheaded by Jakarta-born Ariel Orah. During lockdown, the crew operated a takeout window in Schillerkiez serving fiery stinky bean and cannabis seed sambal atop lunch combos like skewered tempeh and stewed aubergine over turmeric-tinted jasmine rice; peanut- sauced gado-gado salad; or coconut rendang with banana blossoms. Give them an Instagram follow to find out where they’ll pop up next.
In a city overstuffed with bibimbap and bulgogi, two places dared to introduce Berliners to something different. At Charlottenburg’s Pum, run by Korean Embassy chef and food researcher Hera Hwang, it’s bansang, the traditional culinary practice where your main – be it chilli tofu, crispy pork belly or, most enticingly, an entire raw crab slathered in chilli-garlic-ginger-paste – arrives among a galaxy of ever-changing side dishes. Think fermented radish, shredded potatoes, salted squid, burdock root, fried sausage, spinach-doenjang soup… and cabbage kimchi, of course.
Meanwhile at Lia Ppang in Prenzlauer Berg, Korean desserts are the order of the day. Owner Lia Hong used to supply homesick Koreans with traditional walnut cookies, or hodugwaja, at the Kulturbrauerei food market; now sweet-toothed locals of all ages swing by her café for a soybean dacquoise, her take on the classic macaroon (€3.50), or a large slice of the cakes du jour. Our favourite: the matcha roll cake, a fluffy, swirled affair filled with whole red beans and matcha cream. As the sign on her door cheekily explains, it’s not vegan, gluten-free or lactose free, but it’s certainly very good.
2021 was the year Thai Park went legit, which meant fewer vendors, tables instead of picnic blankets, and half-heartedly executed corona hygiene measures. But increasingly, fans of Thai cuisine no longer have to venture out west to get the good stuff. During lockdown, those in Neukölln or Prenzlauer Berg could order delivery from Khun Xyu Ban.
Jamie, a Mancunian who’d worked at hyped restaurants Khwan and Khao Taan, spent his forced retirement pounding curry paste, frying fish and steaming rice for homestyle dishes that comforted you even as they made your tastebuds cry for mercy. After a summer pause, he’s back doing pop-ups, but has been overshadowed by another Khwan alum: former head chef Monay Sakarin.
At his new shop Larb Koi in Friedrichshain, he turns out food that transcends its modest price and Imbiss setting: home-made Chiang Mai sausage with pickled vegetables and chilli dip; sun-dried, butterflied sea bass fried to a mouthwatering crisp; a lip-tingling rendition of the southern minced chicken curry kua kling kai. It’s as exhilarating as its neighbour Khao Taan, without requiring an entire evening’s commitment.