You know what’s big? A Ghee Roast Masala dosa from Saravanaa Bhavan. At nearly a half metre long, this majestic burnished brown scroll is a showstopper of a dish, the kind that ought to arrive at your table accompanied by sparklers, not chutneys. It cannot be contained by the tin plate it’s served on nor photographed in its entirety without having to stand on a chair. Viewed from the side, it resembles a cavernous aircraft hangar, the part of the plane being played by a solitary scoop of spiced potatoes.
You know what else is big? Saravanaa Bhavan. Established 40 years ago in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the vegetarian chain now comprises over 100 locations across five continents. Its popularity, especially with Indians living abroad, is such that even the 2004 murder conviction of founder P. Rajagopal barely dented its reputation. Sidenote: Rajagopal went on to receive a life sentence for ordering employees to kill the husband of a woman he believed he was astrologically fated to marry, but succumbed to health issues before he could carry it out.
It’s so big that the moment it opened a branch in Berlin, in a former Starbucks next to the Potsdamer Platz Vapiano, it was immediately thronged with South Asian fans who’d previously had to sojourn to Frankfurt to get their fix. Fast forward a few months and the crowds have thinned out, so you don’t have to wait forever for a table (at least, not on a Monday night), but the two-level space is still packed with diners from the subcontinent and gourmand adventure-seekers who’ve heard rumours of “the most authentic Indian food in Berlin”.
Those who fall into the latter group may need assistance navigating the 323-item menu, a hardcover tome whose cover resembles a ‘90s geography textbook. Even those familiar with dosas, sambar, idli and the other lentil- and rice-based cornerstones of vegetarian Tamil cuisine might wonder why there’s a page and a half dedicated to Indian-Chinese fusion (an entire culinary genre in the motherland, rarely if ever seen here), or get lost in the litany of new-to-Berlin dishes from bisbelabath to ghee pongal.
Chances are, you’ll spot a dosa at your neighbour’s table. The Ghee Roast Masala and its vegan cousin, the Paper Roast Masala, are but two stars in a galaxy of crepe-like cylinders, triangles, cones and squares whose many possible fillings include potatoes, cheddar cheese, Mysore chilli chutney, a crunchy mix of dried roast lentils, sesame seeds and spices or any number of the North Indian curries and Chinese stir-fries from the latter, more skippable half of the menu. Resist dessert options like chocolate and peanut butter, but do try the Onion Rava dosa, a lacy flat package made with semolina and a healthy amount of alliums inside.
An uttapam is also a safe bet; Saravanaa Bhavan’s version of the thick rice-lentil pancake is moister, nuttier and less sour than anywhere else we’ve tried. Idli, those spongy white discs made from a similar batter, are served with classic sambar and chutneys, but you’ll have more fun eating them as Kaima Idli, a house special that creatively repurposes leftovers by deep-frying them and coating them in a spicy tomato sauce.
Then there’s the Saravanaa Special Meal, a roulette wheel of soups, stews, dips and more arranged around a bowl of rice and fried flatbread. At €17, it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, but the crash course in southern Indian specialties – from poriyal (green beans stir-fried with coconut and spices) to kootu (a thick lentil-vegetable stew) – is worth it.
So, is this the most authentic Indian food in Berlin? Replace “Indian” with “south Indian” and keep in mind that “authentic” doesn’t always translate to “best”, and the answer is yes. There are a few other places in Berlin offering higher-quality ingredients, chutneys with a bit more zing, and the opportunity to support a business that doesn’t directly benefit the wealthy heirs of an actual murderer, but they can’t compete with the sheer depth and breadth of Saravanaa Bhavan’s menu, nor with its perfectly engineered dosas. Nothing can compare for those of you who know and love the chain. And if you’re not yet acquainted, it’s probably time to head for a visit.
Saravanaa Bhavan Potsdamer Platz 5, daily 11 – 22:30