Around the world local cuisine is said to both reflect and shape the people. Many countries are famous for their culinary specialties. Some dishes even become powerful symbols, a self-image for a whole culture and a way to include or exclude others. But who decides what is hot and what is not? And why go bananas when the apple of your eye asks you not to spill the beans? Such significant issues will be properly dealt with as the Great Dane takes a look at Berlin’s great food culture.
The Great Dane felt a great hunger coming. And that meant he soon would become weak and a pain in the ass to everyone. For like most of the world’s outstanding men and women, eating was an important part of what made the Great Dane so exceptionally great. As the saying goes, you are what you eat. Which implied that the Great Dane had to eat great food. Lots of great food, or else he would begin to shrink and become a Lesser Great Dane, and such Danes were often not so nice – for they knew that they were far from as great as they wanted to be. The Lesser Great Danes could be recognized as those who: Disliked sharing with people different from themselves, hid in gated communities or behind high fences, would prefer their own kind to be the only kind, always complained about others good fortune, believed that everything could be measured in time and money, placed tracking devices on their children, believed that strength came from the humiliation of others, thought that global warming was a sign of human supremacy, believed that more was good and less was bad, and always took the last piece of cake.
The Great Dane obviously didn’t want to end up like that, but he didn’t know where to get great food in Berlin. So he hurried out to find somebody who could help him before it was too late. He visited all of his friends, who usually were proud to serve him food. But it seemed that today was a day with a general lack of great food, love and understanding towards the Great Dane. By late afternoon he had become so hungry that he began to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable with his own great self. He knew this was the first sign of degradation into a Lesser Great Dane.
In the middle of his despair, he suddenly heard the ring of a bell, and a bicycle rickshaw stopped next to him. He recognised the driver as the Mysterious Jew Boy whom he sometimes met in the early morning hours running around on Tempelhofer Freiheit stripped to the waist and singing old forgotten folk songs while carrying a spade. In the back of the rickshaw was the sexy and intellectual Street Fighter Girl. She had grown up on the streets of Berlin and now lived a double life, hunting bad street artists by night while studying at an elite art school by day. She used knives, kicked the guys in the balls, or talked peoples’ head off with deconstructionism, depending on her often capricious mood. They had heard a slick backyard bird make a beat about the Great Dane’s need and had now come to help him get some great Berlin food to eat.
The Great Berlin Currywurst
With the breath of God the Jew Boy drove the rickshaw through the streets like he wanted to reach the synagogue before Sabbath. In the meantime it was essential to keep up the Great Dane’s spirits, so on their way they drank some bottles of fine champagne that the Street Fighter Girl had won in a romantic balls-kicking-lovers-fight. First they introduced the Great Dane to the famous Berlin currywurst. He was told by the Street Fighter Girl that it was her great street protector Herta Heuwer who had invented it back in 1959, and that today 800 million currywurst were eaten every year in Germany, 70 million in Berlin alone, since the Berliners liked to eat currywurst all day long and also used it to keep warm. This was the reason why Berliners had such remarkable health and were so warm hearted. The Great Dane was obviously very excited to taste this popular dish, loved so strongly by the people.
But there was so much more to this icon of German culture than the great taste. The whole ritual of preparing and serving the currywurst fascinated him. A specially developed wurst-machine was used to slice the sausage into equal sized pieces, after which it was served with the legendary curry sauce and a stroke of curry powder on a nice white paper plate with a little coloured plastic fork. When he asked nicely, he was even allowed to choose the colour of the fork himself. He preferred blue, as it reminded him of the clear blue sky of his childhood which ceded at the end of the day to the most beautiful curry-coloured sunset.
They also made the obligatory visit to the Deutsches Currywurst Museum and followed here the curry sauce trail through the great history of the currywurst. And for five extra Euro at a currywurst stall overlooking the Reichstag, the Great Dane got served some interesting insider information about the currywurst’s influence on German politics: For example, that every currywurst eaten in public by a politician provided at least 100 votes, and that the Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was nicknamed the Currywurst Chancellor when he let himself be photographed together with ordinary people in front of a currywurst stall: Look, I’m a currywurst like you. Vote for me! But the Great Dane was warned not to venture too deep into the matter of currywurst and politics, for as Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany once said: The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep at night.
On their currywurst journey they visited eleven currywurst stalls where the Great Dane ate seventy two portions of currywurst and an unknown number of side dishes. Then it was time to change the menu and move on to: The döner kebab sandwich.
The Great Berlin Döner Kebab sandwich
In order to clear the taste of currywurst from their throats, on their way they drank some bottles of excellent cognac that the Street Fighter Girl had won in an I-either-love-you-or-hate-you-lovers-fight. She presented him with some historical facts: The döner kebab had been around since the 18th century and was one of Turkey’s national dishes. It was introduced to Berlin in the 1970s by Turkish immigrants, and had since become one of the most popular fast food products in Germany. With more than thirteen hundred döner stalls, Berlin was the döner capital of the world. Berliners liked to eat a döner kebab every time they went for a walk or just before taking a nap in the park. This was also the reason why Berliners were so courageous and strong – so the Great Dane was obviously very excited to taste this dish. But he had to wait just a little longer to do so, because the Street Fighter Girl wasn’t finished with her history lesson. According to legend, the popular döner kebab sandwich was invented in Berlin around 1971 by her great street mentor Mehmet Aygün, but others pointed out that before the döner kebab sandwich’s breakthrough Aygün had been a dishwasher at a kebab stall owned by Kadir Nurman, arguing that it was him who made the first döner kebab sandwich. Or maybe it had been someone else entirely. The fact was, there was an ongoing debate about who had really invented the döner kebab sandwich. Once in a while it even came to döner-kebab-street-fights between different factions of döner fanatics. It didn’t matter to the Great Dane who made the first döner kebab sandwich, where döner kebab originally came from or who washed whose dishes. He just wanted to satisfy his great hunger so he didn’t became a Lesser Great Dane, and after the Street Fighter Girl’s long history lesson he felt that he could eat a whole wagonload of döner kebab’s.
The Great Dane was also introduced to the most thrilling card game, the Döner Berlin Quartett, where you play with döner kebab stall categories such as price, founding year, opening hours, number of seats, distance to Istanbul, number of Turkish brothers who ran the place. He thought it was such great fun that he decided to buy one thousand and one games so he could give one to each of his friends and also have one for himself.
The Great Dane visited ten döner stalls and ate sixty-six döner kebab sandwiches and also tasted other variants such as the running döner kebab. Then the Jew Boy hurried them on because he had to return the rickshaw before Sabbath began at sunset.
The Great Knödel Miracle
The Great Dane could feel that his great hunger was on the retreat, even though he still would like to squeeze down a dish or two more just to be sure that there was no room left for the Lesser Great Dane. It turned out, however, that the Street Fight Girl had no ideas about what else they could eat, since she couldn’t imagine any Berlin food better than currywurst and döner kebab. They soon passed a small humble restaurant with a sign that said “The Knödel Miracle”. And without any notice, the Great Dane took the Street Fighter Girl and the Jew Boy by their noses and dragged them into the restaurant where they served Knödels and Miracles.
The owner of the restaurant welcomed them and explained that the place once had been his humble home where he had gotten his start serving knödel for his friends once in a while in his living room. His knödels had however become such a success that he had expanded into his bedroom, which was why he now lived in another apartment. He told them about the mysterious ways of the knödel, also known as dumplings. Some people believed that the knödel dated from thousand of years ago, when it was dried and used on longer journeys. Today there were many variations of knödel. They could be sweet or savoury, filled with meat, herbs, or vegetables, or unfilled, but all knödels were balls of dough boiled in water. In Central European countries knödel had for many centuries been a common part of the cuisine. In the south of Germany, especially in Bavaria, the knödel had a special place in people’s hearts. It was even said that the secret behind Bavaria’s great wealth and success was that all people there ate knödel. For knödel was a dish for everyone. And now the knödel had come to Berlin.The official knödel border began south of Berlin, so that historically knödels have had to be smuggled into Berlin’s food culture. But people in Berlin were slowly beginning to get used to the presence of knödel.
The Great Dane was obviously very excited to taste this old exotic dish that was a part of the south German people’s hearts and had helped them to succeed. He hoped that the Berliners would be as open hearted as he and welcome this great ancient dish. But just as the first knödels were put on the table, the Street Fighter Girl jumped up from her chair with a knödel in her hand, yelling that she was a true born Berlin street girl and would never become a primitive Bavarian peasant girl with her head stuffed with knödel. At first the Great Dane thought that she had become over-excited knowing she was going to taste knödel for the first time. He looked her into the eyes to calm her down and told her not to spoil the surprise. But this only made her condition worse. She held the knödel towards the owner of the restaurant, saying: Ich Bin Ein Berliner, Du Bist Ein Knödel! and then threw the knödel right in the owner’s face. In a moment the whole restaurant was transformed into one great knödel fight. From the kitchen people ran back and forth carrying buckets filled with knödel, throwing them at each other. People took cover behind tables, one side yelling: Ich Bin Ein Berliner! and the other: Ich Bin Ein Knödel! The Great Dane thought it was the end of the civilized world whereby all Great Danes would perish. Then a great miracle happened: the owner of the restaurant ended the fight by bringing forth thirteen bottles of good strong German schnaps, which everybody shared with great joy while they ate every one of the knödels from the fight. The Street Fighter Girl ate so many that her eyes in the end looked like two small sparkling knödels. The Great Dane also took part in the feast. He ate three and a half buckets of knödel, and a single sweet knödel with cinnamon for dessert. The remaining half bucket of knödel he saved for his breakfast the next day.
It had been a long and exciting journey through Berlin’s great food culture. The Great Dane felt really great, and not lesser great at all, only a little tired. When they again sat in the rickshaw, the Street Fighting Girl put a blanket over him and gently stroked his hair, while the Jew Boy sang an old German folk song about the enjoyment of life, friendship and great food. Soon the Great Dane fell asleep. He dreamt of a blue sky with clouds of knödel and döner kebabs flying into a beautiful curry-coloured sunset. The Great Dane smiled in his sleep. It had been such a great day.
Just Another Alter Ego is a series of articles about a bumpy road trip into an urban utopia: not one still to come, not one that someday may be, but one that already is the hard, thrilling and colourful hyperreality of life in Berlin.
Illustrations © Sally Wilde