Eritrean beef and bubble waffles: discovering Berlin's street food scene at Markthalle Neun

Martkhalle Neun is transforming Berlin street food, introducing the likes of Eritrean beef stew and bubble waffles to a city weaned on currywurst and Pilsner.Tuesday, 17 September 2019

It’s 8pm on a Thursday, and beneath a string of bare light bulbs in the high-roofed Markthalle Neun, there’s a sprawling, happy crowd drinking beer. Squeezing through the throng, I make my way to the temporary food stalls to investigate why everyone’s here. The Markthalle Neun’s Street Food Thursday is buzzing: I spot pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread), and sugary Hungarian chimney cakes rotating on a spit. There are large pots of deep red Eritrean beef stew, paper-wrapped bubble waffles drenched in various glossy sauces, and arepas (South American cornbread baps) — hot off the griddle and stuffed with chorizo and vegetables. The regular market stands are open too: I admire wooden boards laden with cured meats and cheeses; and big, fat, dry-aged beef burgers being passed over the butcher’s counter at Kumpel & Keule.

Until relatively recently, much of this exotic global fare would’ve been very hard to come by in the German capital. Five years ago, you might have wolfed down a currywurst at the end of a night fuelled by Berliner Pilsner, but you’d never have planned a trip here for the cuisine. Food concept innovator Kavita Goodstar moved from Birmingham to Berlin in 2009, and — despite the city’s reputation for creative freedom — found the gastronomic scene to be very traditional and closed. Her response was to launch a supper club for fellow immigrants, who came together “to make meals in honour of their matriarchs and present their stories”. As the community rapidly grew, Kavita seized her chance to shake things up. In 2013, she launched a street food event at the Markthalle Neun.

Around 14,000 people turned up to the inaugural Street Food Thursday and, within 30 minutes, every scrap of food had been sold. It showed there was a huge appetite for culinary diversity and suggested Berlin’s residents were ready for something new. Since then, Street Food Thursday has taken on a life of its own, even if Kavita has moved on. But the steady influx of immigrants to Berlin shows no signs of slowing, and the city’s food scene continues to evolve. With the recent revival of Sonnenallee, a street in the Neukölln district that’s packed with restaurants offering a variety of Middle Eastern and Arabic cuisines, Kavita says immigrants are no longer speaking “just to their own communities, but to the foodie community, too”.

Swedish food and restaurant blogger Per Meurling made Berlin his home in 2009. He tells me he moved here because “you could do what you wanted, when you wanted, all without limits”. Today, this applies not just to the arts, music and all-night clubbing, but to the food and drink scene, too. Per believes Berlin’s culinary diversity is now on a par with that of New York. “You can eat well in any cuisine, from Japanese to Syrian to Szechuan, and you can spend as much or as little money as you want,” he says.

Glass of German Scheurebe in hand, I join the queue at Italian bakery Sironi and begin chatting to two Ligurian Berliners. They tell me the thick, rustic focaccia allo stracchino  is unmissable, and I order myself a slice. Served warm, the bread’s underside is crispy and golden, its centre soft and salty, while its edges ooze shiny beads of oil. I polish it off happily, take a large gulp of wine, and eye up a Portuguese custard tart across the way. 

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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