Berlin is my favorite city in Europe and in fact I nearly called it home. Instead I spent three years in London working my dream job while battling a slew of health issues that never seemed to go away no matter how often I went to the doctor. My first trip to Berlin was fairly speedy and included a nasty bout of strep that I singlehandedly cured using a mixture of Romanian honey and raw garlic. As a result, food wasn’t that big a focus, though I do recall being quite impressed with the baked goods I sampled along the way. I also had my first experience with what translates as evening bread, which constitutes dinner for the majority of Germans. A quite simple meal, it is generally composed of one to two kinds of bread, a variety of cured meats, cheeses, and perhaps some chopped liver salad if the family is feeling fancy. This lovely food was had while couch surfing with a local Berliner who fathers two adorable pugs named Barney and Betty. Yes, from the Flintstones. This adorable fellow had but one motto in life: every problem can be solved with either a good German beer or a terrible coffee.
That being said, being in Berlin with another foodie is an entirely different ballgame. My partner, also a Berliner, loves to eat almost as much as I love to cook, and so our numerous trips to Berlin have been punctuated with a long and muddled series of amazing dining experiences. From neighborhood trattorias that easily rival any self respecting restaurant in Rome to locating the best currywurst in the city (which is no small feat as it is the municipal dish), Berlin always meant eating too much for very little money compared to the astronomical prices in Tel Aviv.
But the dish that perhaps best defines Berlin is the döner kebab. Originally invented in Berlin by Turkish immigrants, it is a humble and simple example of street food done right. A large crisp roll generously filled with charred meat and vegetables, it is then topped with either garlic, yogurt, or hot sauce. Extraordinarily messy to eat, it is said that if you aren’t getting food all over yourself, you aren’t eating a good döner. Because there is such a large Turkish community in Berlin, the döner has become an example of what constitutes late night eating. In that way it is much like the taco in California.
Any döner place goes through phases. When they first open, the cooks use a small machete to slice the meat off of the shawarma, but as soon as they become successful, that machete turns into an electric blade, which on some level ruins the experience, though it ends up speeding up the excruciatingly neat lines that Germans are so famous for, even in rebellious Berlin.
When I was in Berlin a few months before the pandemic started, my partner and his friends escorted me to what is known far and wide as the best döner place in the city. Already impressed, I happily sat down as the sixth person on a table seating four. Practically perched in my partner’s lap, my jaw dropped at the quantity of food that was appearing in front of us. Absolutely enormous sandwiches, even by American standards, with food already spilling out of the bread. We were off to a fabulous start.
Problem was, I wasn’t yet trained to eat a döner of this caliber. There is a whole art to eating them, and one that was this precarious wasn’t going to let itself be consumed without a hitch. My fairly neat eating habits quickly got replaced by bravely sticking my face in the sandwich and hoping to emerge with dignity. Mission fail. The shop owners walked out to check on us and regularly replenished my napkin pile with a laugh. By the time I’d eaten half of my döner, it was time to throw in the towel and ask for a fork. The bread had become soaked through with meat juices and sauce, which slightly complicated the handheld aspect of this eating experience.
This impromptu trip to Berlin was to be different. Sure, there would still be lavish amounts of eating, but perhaps with more intention being as I don’t eat pork or bread in the land of sausages and sourdough. The amusing thing is that we stayed across the street from that same döner place, and no, I still haven’t figured out a way to eat them without feeding my dress at the same time.