The question of culinary appropriation, or who “gets” to cook what, has long been a lightning-rod topic in the food world, but like hard seltzer and high-speed internet, it’s taken its sweet time to reach Berlin. While internet critics debate British chef Fuschia Dunlop’s perceived authority on Sichuan cuisine, or whether burger franchise Shake Shack should be selling Korean fried chicken, any white person claiming to “finally” bring “real” Indian, Thai or Mexican flavours to the Hauptstadt is still welcomed with open arms.
It’s not that chefs can’t take inspiration from cultures that aren’t their own – as long as respect and due credit are involved. The problem is rather that word “finally”, its white-saviour implications and the way it’s unquestioningly parroted by local media. As if restaurateurs from the regions in question had been cooking milder dishes as part of a cruel conspiracy to deprive Berlin of spicy food.
Back around 2016, the king of “finally” was Zed Marke, the German-Canadian owner of Indian restaurant Moksa. Claiming bona fides due to his subcontinental travels and upbringing in a Vancouver Punjabi enclave, he and his tandoori chicken were hailed as Berlin Indian cuisine’s Great White Hope, gathering accolades as they went from restaurant to street food stand and back again. Zed himself played into the narrative, trumpeting his exclusive spice connections and expert palate… until he didn’t. Last year, perhaps in response to some online flak, Moksa was rebranded as a “Canadian Indian Kitchen”, its website proclaiming “This is not authentic, this is not traditional.” The food, which had always been on the experimental side, made a full-on pivot to fusion; the takeaway/delivery options (which are, at time of writing, the only options) became cheesier, saltier and more fried.
The problem is rather that word “finally”, its white-saviour implications and the way it’s unquestioningly parroted by local media. As if restaurateurs from the regions in question had been cooking milder dishes as part of a cruel conspiracy to deprive Berlin of spicy food.
A recent sampling confirmed the stoner-food nature of Moksa 2.0. The menu centers on a handful of llings – chicken, goat, eggplant and Beyond Meat – in various configurations, from quesadillas to mac ‘n’ cheese to a burrito- sized “Naanwich” dominated by the flavour of mango pickle (mains €10-18, sides €2.50-5.50). The latest offering is a tandoori-fried take on the ubiquitous fried chicken sandwich in which the firm, cured texture of the three- week-marinated bird doesn’t quite jibe with the breading, although the chewy fried poori “bun” is a nice touch. For more traditional fare, you can try the curries and tandoori kebabs; we tried the latter with goat (from a farm outside Magdeburg) and found it well-spiced if sorely in need of external lubrication.
The overall verdict? Well, “interesting”. While you certainly won’t find this stuff anywhere else, it won’t satisfy any particular cravings – unless you’re drunk and stumbling down Oranienstraße, which, fair enough, does describe a significant Berlin demographic.
But by mid-December, the best food coming out of Moksa wasn’t made by Zed and co. It was from Tiffin Berlin, a delivery-only “ghost restaurant” that launched in Moksa’s prep kitchen (with a few of its spices) to produce a limited number of Indian and Pakistani dishes each weekend. The team, which has since found a new space, is run by Sachin Obaid (from southern India, last seen running creative agency TookTook) and Suleman Thakar (from Karachi, co-owner of Thai BBQ joint Khwan). Tiffin has quickly become one of the most in-demand orders of lockdown, partly due to the founders’ media and gastro scene connections but also because, yeah, it really is that good. Cobbled together from family tips, personal memories and trial-and-error development, the curries and other specials on offer (€8-14, sides €2.50-4) have a depth and complexity of flavour far beyond what their “home cooking” label would suggest.
The keema, a warming, lightly spicy blend of mutton and peas spiked with ginger and green chili, gets all the press, but we were most blown away by the Kerala-style chicken curry, fork-tender in a coconut gravy that hits just the right balance between sweet and savoury. Even the obligatory lentil dal and side of rice are a treasure trove of aromatics and whole spices, perfectly complemented by a spoonful of soothing raita or tangy mixed pickle. Swap the naan out with Moksa’s stretchy sourdough version and you’d have a Galaxy Brain-level meal – as it is, the Tiffin experience is still a must.
There are no plans for a brick-and-mortar version, even post-lockdown. For the foreseeable future, the only way to get your hands on this food (and perhaps a complementary craft beer or bottle of low-intervention wine) is to make a delivery reservation early in the week, before they sell out. Apparently some zealots hover over the refresh button on Mondays at 7am, waiting for the moment the weekly menu goes online. If you think that’s a little extreme, remember this is Indian food that finally deserves a “finally”.