Berlin’s post-reunification hype has been largely centred around the inner city of the former East, as former GDR districts including Mitte, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg have gradually gentrified. But the last couple of years have seen the media spotlight swing gently back to City West (mostly Charlottenburg- Wilmersdorf), thanks largely to an expensive makeover of the area around the Zoologischer Garten S-Bahn, which has brought in a slew of upscale new hotels – check out the funky 25Hours Hotel Bikini and associated concept mall, and the Waldorf Astoria – as well as new restaurants, cafés and shops. The new western focus has also prompted renewed interest in the area’s food culture, which has long held diverse appeal thanks to the history of immigration into this part of the city. During the 1920s, so many Russians settled in the western district of Charlottenburg (including the writer Vladimir Nabokov) that it was nicknamed Charlottengrad; and during the 1960s and 1970s, West Berlin districts including Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding are where a huge influx of Turkish and Middle Eastern guest workers settled down, with the Kottbusser Tor area of Kreuzberg gaining the nickname “Little Istanbul”. Today the area is also well known for its communities of Eastern and Central Europeans, Africans, Asians and South Americans, many of which have contributed to West Berlin’s burgeoning foodscape.
The foundations of West Berlin’s Russian community can be traced back to the 1920s when many fled the Bolshevik revolution for the political and artistic freedoms of what was then the Weimar capital. After the Second World War, many Russian prisoners opted to stay in West Berlin rather than go home or migrate to the communist East, while many Russians of Jewish heritage immigrated to the city from the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet more arrived from Russia following the collapse of the USSR. Today, around 12,000 Russians live across the city, with the largest concentration in western districts including Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. Their presence is marked in many ways, but perhaps most notably in terms of food by the slew of Russian supermarkets. Ranging from vast warehouse-style stores to smaller kiosks, these places are testament to the varied and multicultural cuisine of Russia, often containing items from Mongolia and East and Central Asia, Persia and the Baltic region. Alongside standard products such as smoked fish, pickles and sauerkraut, you can usually find exotic foods like the Georgian cheese Sulguni, Ukrainian pork fatback salo and many kinds of pierogis.
Although East Berlin is better known for its Vietnamese community – a consequence of the guest-worker contracts issued between communist countries – many other East Asian communities, such as Taiwanese, Chinese, Thai and Japanese have long settled in the west of the city. Their culinary legacy is scattered around but there is a particularly dense cluster along Kantstrasse, a long, broad street that runs parallel to its bigger, more glamorous sister boulevard the Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm), and is lined on both sides by a compelling variety of establishments ranging from expensive design shops to dusty, long-forgotten pubs, with Asian-themed restaurants located at regular intervals in between. At the popular Lon-Men’s Noodle House – the only Taiwanese restaurant in Berlin – food lovers can find seriously succulent wontons and exquisite noodle soup. Chinese restaurants Aroma and Good Friends offer a staggering range of (mostly Cantonese) dishes, from stewed duck ‘claws’ to prawn dim sum, and Dao – reckoned to be one of the best Thai restaurants in the city – creates traditional dishes, including steamed whole fish with lemon sauce, from ingredients flown in from Thailand. If you prefer to cook at home, head to Go Asia, which brims with a cornucopia of Asian ingredients such as frozen duck tongues and endless varieties of kimchi, plus Indonesian and Indian spices.
One of the more recent immigration trends in Berlin may be surprising to many: Israelis. Indeed the city’s Jewish population has expanded from under 6,000 in 1990 to an estimated 50,000 now. Many of these Israelis are young people who see the contemporary German capital as an open and tolerant place, offering a cheap lifestyle, good universities and plenty of entrepreneurial and nightlife opportunities.
Testament to this influx is Gordon, a chic, laid-back hummuseria and record store located along a quiet side street in the trendy district of Neukölln. The venue is owned by Doron Eisenberg and Nir Ivenizki, who designed its charming, urban-rustic interior – wooden flea market-style furnishings, exposed brick walls and plenty of foliage – themselves. The menu features popular Israeli snacks such as shakshuka and sabih (a sandwich combining egg and aubergine with tahini and pickles) and a fiery hot sauce called skhug, which can all be washed down with coffee imported from the local Barn Roastery.
Although it started life as West Berlin’s Congress Hall, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) is today one of Berlin’s most pioneering institutions addressing the city’s globally minded, multicultural population. Located at the edge of the sprawling Tiergarten park, not far from the Reichstag and associated Government buildings, the architecturally distinctive building (its local nickname is the ‘pregnant oyster’) was designed by American architect Hugh Stubbins for the 1957 International Building Exhibition (Interbau). It was donated soon afterwards to the city of Berlin as a gesture of cultural and political support, and throughout the Cold War was used for political purposes such as President Kennedy’s 1963 speech. Following the fall of the Wall it became the HKW, a significant cultural space containing a theatre, museum, gallery, lecture hall and more, and focused on creative intercultural exchange. Its central auditorium can seat up to 1000 people and hosts an impressive range of events that span the artistic, philosophical and scientific in the form of exhibitions, interactive projects, workshops, lectures and symposia. Among its best-known annual events are the International Literature Award, the Berlin Documentary Forum and the Transmediale digital arts and music festival.