Episode five acknowledges the homogeneity found currently in discussions of food and agriculture in Berlin and questions how we can expand the conversations to include many more perspectives moving forward. Part I dives in to the tensions that arise when places designed for the people are not built in collaboration with people; how public procurement could help usher in a new era of food and farming; and how we should be making space for the first-hand expertise of people with diverse cultural traditions. Part II continues to explore different food cultures and Berlin, the stereotypes and prejudices that shape the food system, and the beautiful diversity within different food cultures that we could all do better to appreciate and support.
Turşu - Traditional Pickling From Turkey
Intro: Hey I'm Samie and welcome to Food in my Kiez.
Samie: Alright friends, we’ve been exploring different aspects of the food system throughout the last four episodes and so I’m curious - without any limitations, what would a food system rooted in resilience look like to you?
Voices of Slow Food Youth Berlin:
"I want to have good clean food for everybody that is affordable, not cheap. That is my idea. Food that is good for the environment. That's not sustainable, but regenerative. So we put back into the soil and that everybody can afford food on a high quality"
"Yeah, I would like to have more regional food and more information like politicians are saying like, what is good food and what a seasonal food and that we have more education about food in our school systems, and more chances to buy regional food, what is in season. Stuff like that."
"I think that we can only tackle the climate crisis if we really have, um.......whats that word, Ernahrungswende…. a change in our food system or in the communication"
"We can change this through politics and through education, education on young children and people, how to nourish themselves with food and how to cook and also by politics that make sure that the production of food is clean and fair. And also, giving more money to people that farm this way"
Samie: Those were some thoughts shared by members of Slow Food Youth Berlin, recorded during the climate march last fall, and they reflect a steadily growing demand for a food system that is more transparent, more nutrition-focused and more accessible in general. Yet while there are many initiatives with such goals in Berlin, participation and reach of such projects is still relatively low.
Right now, the conversation around the future of food and food systems is very Euro-centric and often elitist. Berlin is a multicultural city where nearly a third of the population was born or has roots elsewhere. Who and which communities are we including in conversations around a healthy, resilient food system?
Achieving some of the things we’ve been discussing so far on this podcast will require us to think in multiple strands of justice. For example, Global Justice for farmers, especially those in the Global South, who are directly affected by EU trade policies and the unregulated power of multinational agri-food companies. Economic justice in regard to establishing the true cost of food in societies that are already struggling with an ever expanding wealth gap. Or Social Justice when it comes to respecting the diets of diaspora communities in our push for more resilient, local food systems - what do we define as local in a globalized, metropolitan city like this one? And finally, what role do stereotypes and prejudices have in all of this?
Whew, its a lot, I know. So, let’s get right to it…
This episode, we are kicking things off in Wrangelkiez, where tensions over visions for the future of the local food system have been a big topic the last few years….
Something that I spoke a bit about with my friend Kavita, who has been deeply involved in the Berlin food scene for over a decade.
Kavita: My name is Kavita Meelu, not Kavita Goodstar, which is what's on my social media [laughs]. Yeah, I've basically been working with food for the past decade now. I used to do food markets and food events, and now I actually work as an anthropologist [laughs] and I'm currently doing a residency as an urban practitioner at the Floating University. And I'm also part of the Smells Like food collective, which is a group of, um, BPoC cooks and chefs and food lovers in Berlin, who connected over the connection between food and identity.
Samie: If you’ve lived in Berlin for a while now, you may remember the Burgers & Hip Hop parties Kavita used to curate at Prince Charles - they were liiiit. But even if you are new to the city, you’ve likely heard of Street Food Thursdays at Markthalle Nuen - Kavita was instrumental in creating this now iconic food event. And, she was also there at the very beginning days of the Markthalle, so she has seen first hand how it developed over the years…
We got ino the whole history around the regeneration of the Martkhalle, which, for those of you who are unfamiliar, dates back to 2011 when the City of Berlin sold it to a group of investors for about 1 million euros. To quote a blog from the BerlinLayers website, “The hall was refurbished and re-oriented to focus on local high-quality food manufacturers. The interest in this kind of “craft” food happened, not surprisingly, in tandem with Kreuzberg’s gentrification”
But this article, like the majority I found online about the Markthalle and the tensions with local residents, lacks the nuance and rightful criticisms of what actually transpired…. Especially because Kreuzberg is a district in Berlin with a strong history of resistance and social justice…
Kavita: I think one thing is that I think people in that neighborhood, who are already making specific choices about where they buy foods or like choosing to buy organic. They have relationships, they built relationships with collectives, they’ve built relationship with spaces in the neighborhood. Example I can give to you: the Frauen Kollektiv who has Kraut and Rüben, or Wrangelstraße, there is a bio supermarket. These places have been around since the seventies and the eighties, plus also have other little markets in the area in the neighborhood, where people have also been going to shop for years. Do you know what I mean?
And you know, it's such a fucking shame, the whole thing because nobody wants to be supporting Aldi. Like why the fuck did it become a fight between the people in the community who were supporting Aldi over supporting the Markthalle, like how fucked up is that? Right? That the people, the same people who 10 years ago, 15 years ago, started a campaign to stop supermarkets getting the hall, have been put into a position 15 years later, where they're saying we are so priced out and excluded from what you have made here, that we are on the side of Aldi.
Samie: we can debate what happened all we want, but what I do know is that when spaces like this are not created in true collaboration with the community around it, the sustainability of it, especially socially, comes into question…
Kavita: And I think my broader problem and that kind of links into the stuff that we were talking about with the wider sustainable food movement is that, because I see that sustainable movement having very like classist, gendered, racialized structures within it, I've often felt like, yeah, people think that the solution is that we just eat things which are hyper-local, you know, and I have a problem with that because actually our communities are not hyper-local. And Berlin in particular has always been a city of like reinvention and for communities to move to historically, you know, it's always been a city of migrants and migration. So I feel like that was one thing. Plus, the other thing is this kind of led to like a border issue which I really genuinely I’ve struggled with over the years, is that actually, this evangelical tone. The tone of like white wealthy men telling poor people telling people who got lower income than them how they need to be eating. And how they need to be cooking in order to be healthy and to a better human. It was never a let's figure out solutions to the system together.
Samie: Now, I know one of the founders and I see him often when I visit the Markethalle, so I asked him about all this and I learned that at least one of the early inspirations for the space was the Ancient Agora of Athens – a place of political, social and cultural importance – a centerpiece of the city. The founders hoped that the Markthalle could be a place where people would come together and buy food, eat and drink, but also to simply meet and debate. And while some of those things have definitely become reality, despite good intentions, Markthalle 9 unfortunately remains a place where not everyone feels welcome or represented…
Kavita: Yeah good intentions, definitely, because a space like that is needed for the city. But who creates that space? You may have an idea on a possibility and the capability to get a million and buy that property. But you want the people who're gonna create the space. The space is created by the communities that need to shop there, by the communities of people that need to set up products there, and there is the people you need to engage, there is the people who create the space, there is the one who gonna make your business. There is the people who will realize whether or not your idea is a possibility or not, right? And if you don't already take those stakeholders seriously, what are you creating for them? And who are the people who get heard and listened to? It's the same guys, it's the same men, it's the same people who talk a similar language, who talk in the same tone. And if you're a market hall for the people, which is actually what the winning slogan of the market was when they won the competition is like, which people you're talking about, who are the people? And so like for me also massive thing is why is there no Halal meat. Why is there not a Halal butcher in the Markthalle?
I think that if you engage all people, you will come up with solutions and guess what people who are marginalized have had to fucking think creatively about solutions consistently over time. Do you know this podcast called Rice and Shine? Yeah. Vanessa Vu. She's one of the people who does that podcast. So I just recently wrote her actually, because I've asked for her dissertation, but her BA dissertation was about urban gardens run by the Vietnamese community in South of Germany and this is like from decades ago. Okay. People in like this world of Kreuzberg, think like princessengarten is the first urban gardening project and let me use this as an example to show you how it can work in the city. And I'm like, how about you listen to other voices for a second and you'll maybe see that number one, other people have been forging like solutions to create other food systems within the city, but you just actually don't care about listening there.
Just look at a Turkish supermarket in the same neighbourhood and see how. I'm not talking about the politics of the produce here, and I'm not talking about how sustainable those products were made, and who's not exploited by making them, but to see how people with migrant heritages buy what they buy to nourish their families. Do you know what I mean? And guess what? It's vegetable heavy. Guess what? It's fresh produce heavy. Guess what? There are multiple grains in there. Guess what? There are multiple legumes in there, you know.
Samie: Kavita eventually decided to go back to London for a bit and kind of.. Regroup.. She loved the work she was doing, but it wasn’t touching on all the points that she felt deep down, needed to be focused on. She ended up going back to school for migration and diaspora studies with a focus on the anthropology of food.
Kavita: And this is the first time I've studied something that I actually wanted to study and it gave me some time to reflect on things, and also just generally, like capitalism is a fucking bitch and what capitalism have done to the food system in this world. How capitalism has been created in this food system it's like, there were so many layers about food conversations that I wasn't having with that group of people. But I was like, there must be other people in the city that also want to connect over food, and use it as a way to talk about other things, belonging, identity, making home. When I came back from London, I've realized that ok from now on I am gonna be back in Berlin and I wanna engage in more food work then I need to find community of people who were on a level, wanting to talk about food, and thats how "Smells Like" started.
Samie: Kavita said a bit about what Smells Like is when she introduced herself earlier, but how I’ve come to understand it is as a kind of close-knit mutual aid friend group, made up of people with diverse cultural backgrounds who have roots and family elsewhere, but who now call Berlin home. They eat and learn together, they support each other, and they have a strong connection to food as part of their various identities.
Kavita: I think the hard thing for people in diaspora particularly is that like, as like first, second, whatever generation you are food is the thing that remains even after the language has gone. Do you know what I mean? Like, so for example, I don't speak my ancestral language. I only speak English and now I speak German, and if I really had to boil it down into something that I could show people aside from my skin color, that really represents, like a heritage, or an ancestry, which is within me, it would be my food. Do you know what I mean? And I speak that language, that is a language and it communicate so many things, you know?
Samie: Yes, which is why food systems must reflect the needs, desires and identities of the people within them. Otherwise, how could they ever be truly resilient? I spoke with some long-term Wrangelkiez residents one afternoon and learned they still don’t like the Markthalle and what it represents - newer residents of the neighborhood were hardly aware of the tensions. Ultimately, the owners decided to replace Aldi with DM with the justification of Lidl being just 200m away and the lack of affordable drugstores in the area - which honestly, makes sense. They also made space for the Turkish family who has owned the Turkish supermarket on the corner for decades to become a vender inside the Markthalle, so beside the hyper-local direct from farm stands there is also an offering that is a bit more affordable there too. But what is the future of such places - how could they be managed so that they truly are a marketplace of the people?
Kavita: I think that the future of the Markthalle has to be - it can't be a for-profit business. It needs to be collectively owned as a Genossenschaft or yeah, the people who are selling the produce in the market need to have ownership over it. And the people who go to buy there need to be integrated into the decision making processes and, and feel ownership over the space too, you know? And I think that's how you then create real solutions for the needs of the neighborhood
Samie: Indeed. Collective ownership is an interesting alternative to our current economic setup. And while more demanding in some ways, committing to such structures often helps to disrupt power dynamics and asks us to find better ways of working together, something we need in building more resilience in our food system and beyond it.
From a policy perspective, one could argue that the concept of public procurement is kind of like a tool toward collective ownership. one that could be used to usher in a new era of food and agriculture
Stephanie Wunder: Public Procurement is everything where public institutions like schools, kindergartens, hospitals, jails, right. Um, canteens, public canteens are provided with food. Uh, and, um, there, you know, public money is invested. So it's quite big. It's not just because often it's connected to schools, but it's all the other institutions do play a role in particular if you talk about, for example, hospitals, there's a lot of room for improvement because like, you know, food is also should be part of the cure in many cases, but is also often regarded as a cost factor, uh, in, in hospitals and not really treated in the way it could and should be treated.”
Samie: That’s Stephanie. I reached out to her to understand better how Berlin is putting the power of public procurement - specifically for food - to practice.
Stephanie Wunder: Yeah, I'm Stephanie Wunder. I work for the Ecologic Institute in Berlin. We do applied Environmental Research and Policy consultancy. And within that work, I often, well, do research but often work with municipalities and people working in agriculture, in food processing, obviously, with citizens, so I think, yeah, I have a good perspective in the different parts of, of the value chain. And most importantly, I try to answer the question of like, how the hell can we shift to a sustainable food system?
Getting more regional food system is definitely part of the solution. That's something already to be said. But there's a big but in there. We need to have regional food systems that also work within the planetary boundaries, so are ecologically friendly, that give people the opportunity to participate in shaping their food system that, you know, pay fair, you know, wages. So is, you know, socially acceptable for both those who, you know, produce our food, but also to those who consume the food. So, if we get to manage that, that's great.
Samie: This “but” was a huge point Stephanie wanted to make sure we touched on when I first reached out to her.. She wanted to make sure my vision of local food systems was not neglecting the fact that, ultimately, what matters most in trying to transform our food systems toward more resiliency is the type of agriculture that is being practiced.
While local food systems bring many social and economic benefits, it's important that we aim to support agricultural systems that care for the natural and human resources that went into growing, producing and transporting our food, no matter where in the world that food is coming from. Granted, this is not always so easy, which is why we need policy. Policy should make it easier for consumers to make better choices and to access better food.
And on that note - policies that regulates other parts of our basic needs – like rent and housing prices, health insurance, our right to a clean and healthy environment, or even things like the basic income initiative, which activists in Berlin are currently collecting signatures for… all of these things work in tandem together to provide us with a higher standard of living – including the ability to afford the true cost of food.
I asked Stephanie about this – and what value she sees in using public procurement to build better food systems for everyone.
Stephanie Wunder: Yeah there are two parts for that question to be answered. And the one thing is like, people usually reply with like, it's too expensive, like to buy organic, or I would even say it's too much of a hassle to try to buy regional because you know, it's not easy, actually, a lot of the ingredients you don't find regional. Um, but that shouldn't lead to, well, then we don't do it because actually the, you know, the conventional way of producing food, um, is leading to costs that we face as a society. We simply don't see it in the price tag. So we do have immense costs in the health system due to, you know, wrong diets. Um, and we do have a lot of costs and, you know, clearing nitrate from groundwater, right? So we, we, as a society do face these costs already and they actually need to find their way into the price tag so that we have the right, you know, incentives in the price tag to buy the right food. That's nothing to be solved by Berlin or by Brandenburg. That is something to be solved in a global and on an EU level, and we call that to internalize external costs. And that's not, you know, putting simply a little tax on it. It's really making our agricultural support systems right. And not to subsidize stuff that is costing us more, uh, you know, on top of the subsidies, you know, we'd be put into that. That's important. It sounds basic, but it's so important. We are in a wrong food system and we need to get it right. But for now, because it's like, we need to do the big steps and we'd also need to do the smaller, medium steps. And there you're absolutely right. Public procurement is something that we can start right away because it's a huge buying power that all, um, municipalities have…..
Samie: So while many more laws and economic shifts will be needed to internalize the costs of unsustainable food production in our food system - and our markets - our governments can use public procurement as a way to set a precedent on the type of agriculture and food production that is most beneficial to society as a whole.
Launched in summer 2019, the Berlin Food Strategy is a prime example of a city aiming to correct food supply through the use of public procurement. It aims to promote a future-oriented, sustainable, and regionally inclined food system for the city of Berlin. A strong emphasis is put on healthy, nutritious and organic food and eight action tracks have been designed as a means of implementation: Things like using public meals as a role model in support of regional value chains; developing livelier and productive neighborhoods; supporting food education initiatives, especially those that focus on reducing food waste; and generally increasing transparency for consumers.
I was curious to know Stephanie’s thoughts on it as Berlin’s main policy tool when it comes to food, and what potential she sees it having in pushing significant food system change in the region…
Stephanie Wunder: I mean, I'm obviously not able to speak for the Berlin Senate, or the Senatsverwaltung actually who are in charge of it. But yes, there is a strategy made by Berlin, and to actually enhance collaboration in the value chain is part of that, it's good to see that, indeed, they're thinking about this combination of getting more regional, but also getting more organic at the same time. And also, you know, education, for example, as part of the strategy, increasing transparency, you know, doing using the power of procurement. That's all part of it. So I think that the the Berlin strategy is, you know, in all its objective, really good and really thinking in this integrated way.
It's probably fair enough to say that they started their journey, but it's still a long journey, right? It's also hard, because even if you have that strategy, it's a continuous need to exchange within administration in Berlin, like, you know, to, you know, coordinate, what health, education, economic support, environment, you know, all these different departments and administration units have to say, and to come up with a good strategy. And the second most important thing is then to actually also coordinate that with Brandenburg, right? So the Brandenburg food strategy is not yet public from but from what I heard, it's going partly in the right direction. But I already have my doubts, because that's going back to what we started our conversation. It's not really addressing the full range of issues we have with sustainable food systems. So if it's just about regional, but for example, not addressing that we need to reduce animal products, production and consumption, then it's just part of the way.
What Berlin, I think smartly did, was to fund an institution which is called Kantine Zukunft to actually work with the canteens, to educate the chefs and the people that work there, how they can do better. Right? In all regards - from more plant-based to less food waste, to regional procurement, to tasty fresh meals and all that kind of stuff. And I think that is a very good part of the Berliner Ernährungsstrategie that's, you know, funding change in the right direction, not just by informing, but actually by, you know, working with the people who, who serve these meals to hundreds and thousands of people in Berlin everyday.
Samie: But what about the hundreds and thousands of people who don’t eat at public canteens? Now, don’t get me wrong, I love what the Berlin Food Strategy and Kantine Zukunft are aiming to do, but neither of them, as far as I can tell, are encompassing the diversity of food cultures present in the city.
The Ernahrungsrat - or the Berlin Food Policy Council - tries their best to. At least they publish information in many different languages. And until the end of last year, they had a project called Alle an Tisch which aimed to connect people through and at the dinner table. I joined for one of the events they did in collaboration with Yesil Cember, an environmentally-focused Turkish community association active in the city – and that’s where I met Cacan.
Cacan: Hi, I am Cacan. I live since 22 years in Berlin and I am with organization Yesil Cember since 11 years. This organization is the national Turkish intercultural organization. And we give the information to the Turkish community, how can we change or with little steps, to sustain Klima, to sustain the nature. I have taken lots of seminars with Yesil Cember. They have shown us, how can we change our consumption with water, with eating meat it was interesting for me to make these changes first with me. I have changed my gas and electricity to the nature institutes and I take the electricity and gas from the nature companies which gives very importance to nature. It was for me the new things for 11 years ago. Now it is in my life.
Samie: When I met her, Cacan was actually just about to start her own program at Yesil Cember. It focuses on food and nutrition for kids and their families, and she was a big part of putting together the event I joined too - which focused on exploring traditional Turkish recipes and making them with as many local and environmentally friendly ingredients as possible.
As I looked around, it was nice to see so many people of many different ages, join to learn more about nutrition and sustainability through food. And there were some really nice convos happening at each table. At mine, we discussed tradition, and how the younger generations are kind of losing touch with it, but that many Turkish families still practice sustainable food techniques that are standard in their food culture.
Cacan: Actually all families, they are, uh, making the conserved, fermentation, for the next season. It is now high season for the tomatoes. You can make it tomato paste for your spaghetti sauce or for your eating in winter. Winter is coming. When you hear this, winter is coming. Oh, we must prepare something for the winter, what can we do? Then you make, it is the season for the, uh, this, the
Turşu... I have told you this sour, acidic, to make fermentation, and good for your bauch…stomach, haha…
Samie: The women who volunteered to cook that evening made lots of delicious dishes, including Yaprak Sarma, or grape leaves rolled around rice, but they used Bulgar instead because it requires less water. Little switches like this seem insignificant on their own, but often, they inspire more little switches that ultimately become habits in the long run.
Not everything was super local, but that was part of the discussion. And while Canan shared that the chefs were shocked when she told them she paid 15 euros for a kilq o of organic red peppers, she also said many of those who joined the event left feeling like contributing to a more sustainable food system was more accessible than it had felt before.
Cacan - Yesil Chember: It is very nice…. that we are - begiestering - making the people happy that are participating in our activities. They took something with us and we see the happiness on their faces and thats very good - ergebnis [result], result, haha, yeah. And there are lots of Turkish women that are interested how to change the behaviors for our world. This world is not a German, but it is our world too. We are migrations, hinterground… backgrounds, heits…
Samie: What Cacan said made me think about how environmentalism has for too long been framed as a wealthy, mostly white, activity, despite the varied histories of Black & Brown communities around the world having strong ties to land and the natural world. Like Kavita shared at the beginning of the episode, many people with migrant heritages already incorporate sustainable foods and food techniques in their diets. Maybe we need to be making more room for them and their first-hand expertise when seeking so-called sustainable food experts…
Again, Berlin is a city full of all kinds of people and food cultures. Building resilient food systems must include their needs, thoughts and perspectives, too. More on this in part II.
Samie: Hey ya’ll, thanks for listening to this episode of Food in my Kiez. If you enjoyed it, make sure to share it with a friend or two and subscribe now to be sure you don’t miss any upcoming episodes. You can follow me on Instagram @FoodinmyKiez or send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org - I’d love to hear from you.
🌱 Audio for this episode was produced by Grettch ⬅️
🌱 Production, Script, Narration and Creative Direction by Samie Blasingame
Thanks again for listening. Until next time
Intro: Hey. I’m Samie and welcome to Food in my Kiez.
Samie: Alright ya’ll, lots to cover here, so we’re back with Part II!
We left off last time talking about how we need to be making more room for the first-hand expertise of people from various food cultures that are represented in the City.. and this made me curious to understand more deeply the history of diaspora food in Berlin, as well as the push and pulls that have shaped the food system over the years.
One person who I thought might know a bit about that is Sissi, the woman behind EatinginBerlin - one of, in my opinion, Berlin’s best food accounts on Instagram. I found her at the very start of this project when I was looking for other food-focused instagram profiles but while there are plenty of food bloggers out there, none were really looking at the politics of food, which is why I was so happy to meet Sissi and that she was willing to sit down and chat
Sissi: So, I'm Sissi. I have lived in Berlin for 11 years now and, It's quite difficult to frame a term of what I do, but I just say I'm a food content creator. Um, so basically I’m talking about foods and in the context of gastronomy, but also, or more in the context of where, where certain dishes come from, more the cultural, the historic, the social economic background of food and dishes. And I think in the context of identity and food, there's just so much connected to that. Um, tradition, history, heritage, and I think that goes for me and my background, but also for every other culture background. And that's what I'm exploring.
Samie: If you live in Berlin you know that while you may be able to find many different types of food in this city, the diversity of food options within those food cultures is still pretty lacking. I asked Sissi about this, and her thoughts on why that might be. And I learned that this actually has a long history, one that those who came here as guest workers starting in the 50s - or as political and climate refugees in more recently - know all too well: sharing one’s food culture is a straightforward way to make a living - especially when other means are systematically denied - but it is also extremely hard work. While one issue is a lack of understanding for the depth of different cuisines around the world - and for what it takes to build a successful restaurant - another, especially for Asian communities, is the stereotype that their food should always be cheap. This keeps these kitchens in the loop of having to provide people with cheap generic dishes because that's what the general public expects of them.
Sissi: it's like a vicious circle kind of, because you want to offer the food that you eat at home, but you cannot. And then you have people who want to have the, the other type of food, but then, the masses still ask for, um, the generic menu. Some of them try to offer a more, a less generic menu, but they struggle so much because they had, they've told me that sometimes people come in and they ask for crispy fried duck on red Curry. And if you don't have it, they will leave. And it's really, really a struggle for them to keep the balance between having a kind of generic menu to bring the people in, but also trying to make it less generic because you want to sell the food that you also eat, where you come from. So it's a huge, huge struggle.
Samie: Diversifying the menu and providing so-called “authentic” dishes requires more time, craft and specific ingredients - all of which increases its value. While working on this episode, I learned that especially Thai and Vietnamese restaurants - which are all over the city, offering pretty much the same dishes and flavors - were often started by older generations in a time when culturally-specific ingredients were largely unavailable here. They made what they could from what they had, and Germans loved it. It was only until they began to travel and taste different foods did they come back and start demanding quote-unquote “authenticity” – but a general perception of Asian food as cheap remains…
Sissi: So, um, Vietnamense, for example of, I think is very, very low price, but maybe because there are so many Vietnamese places.and interestingly, um, for example, Japanese food is, uh, has a very different context. So people are more willing to pay. People are willing to pay more for Japanese food because there's this entire reputation of Japanese people in the culture, um, being more, um, you know, they care more about quality. They do everything very precisely. They do everything with love. I have no idea if that is true per se, but that's the reputation. And that's very interesting because I think people translate that cultural reputation to the food and they are more willing to pay more money. And I think because Chinese food, for example, you know, Chinese products, there is still this thing “Made in China” or that people refer to when something is broken or just not durable. And I think a lot of this also plays a role in food and how people, how people think about Chinese food, um, and how people frame Chinese things and Chinese culture
For me, these questions are so insightful because it's not only about the food. So, because I know there's a huge movement, also talking about food in the context of ingredients, right. Um, whether it's sustainable, resourceful, regional, local, um, the ingredients of one dish, excetera, which is super, super important, but I come more from the side of seeing food from the cultural context and theres just, I cannot disregard the racist part of seeing certain foods.
Samie: Racism in our food system is actually a very important part of building a food system for everyone. It affects the way food habits are formed because it impacts the general availability of food in certain neighborhoods - something known as food aparthied in the US. And while this concept is less pronounced in Berlin, it certainly still exists. And as we touch on in episode 2 - food justice and food sovereignty do not just include a community’s ability to farm in a way that allows them to achieve self-sufficiency, it also involves ensuring the availability of culturally appropriate food as well.
But stereotypes and prejudices play a big part here, and tend to influence how the food system is shaped in the long run. Stereotypes like those that reproduce assumptions about one type of food being somehow better or more valuable than another – or prejudices like the EU ban of halal and kosher meat production last year, or specifically with Chinese food, the horrible myth of MSG…
Sissi: I'm not fully, fully a hundred percent sure if that's the correct way to tell it, but from my understanding, there was, so in America in the, in the eighties, maybe, there was a Doctor who, who has never been proved that that person exists, wrote an article for a medical magazine or paper about MSG and he was saying that, um, he realized that a lot of people complain about, I don't know, feeling sick or unwell after going to Chinese restaurant. And then there was this article and somehow a lot of, um, very huge national or international magazines and papers, picked it up and then published it. Um, and from then on everybody or people in the entire world believe that this, this Chinese restaurant syndrome exists. But it is, it's never been proven. There's no test. There's no scientific proof that this is bad. And there's just, it's just so weird for me because people still didn't understand that MSG is basically a natural enhancer. It's like, it's like, imagine if you sell salami or tomatoes in a supermarket and then you write “new and improved now without MSG” , this is really weird because MSG is natural in salami and cheese and tomatoes. It is a natural flavor enhancer. And that's why I feel stabbed when I read the No MSG signs in front of Asian restaurants, because this is the hugest misconception. That's the hugest racist misconception. That's still, uh, tolerated and accepted.
Samie: I haven’t noticed a sign for no-msg in awhile, but I do remember when this was a huge topic, and how the media made it sound so scary… learning that history was too interesting not to share here, and just another example of how valuable food and nutrition education through a lens of food justice is to our collective well-being. Thankfully, because I started asking people about it since, this myth seems to be dying down, or so I hope… but how most people understand different food cultures still has a long way to go. For example, Sissi told me that in Chinese culture, going out to eat is a very communal experience, but that is not at all how the experience of eating Chinese food is in a place like Germany….
Sissi: so in Germany, everybody has their own plate and it's just not a shared experience because everybody has their own food and you ask, oh, how was your food? And and the other person is, oh its OK. And you have no idea what it means. something that I find very amusing for Chinese restaurants [in Berlin?] in Berlin, but I, I also think not only in Berlin, but Germany and also Europe is that, um, uh, Chinese restaurants try to fit the concept of how Chinese dishes are created and how Chinese people eat into the German or the Eurocentric concept of eating. So, nobody in China usually just eats rice with Mapu Tofu as one plate. So you would, even if you go out for food by yourself, most of the time you will probably eat two dishes, one protein, one vegetable. Um, and it's so funny because then I will see people ordering, for example, one entire fish or sometimes a stew that is served in a hot pot with a candle underneath. I think for me, and for all Chinese people, it is just very, very funny because that's not how you're supposed to eat it. It's supposed to be in the middle and then with a hygienic spoon so everybody can take their part.
I don't know any restaurant that basically….. says um, that's how we eat in China. And that's how, that's how you're supposed to order. And we are trying to, to show you how we in China eat that. I think a lot of younger Chinese people or younger generations of immigrants, are doing a very good job to break out of the stereotypical way, how food is served. I can see a lot of different concepts in London for example, and I see that it's much closer to how you would eat in China. And I think those concepts work there, but there's also a much more awareness for that. And much more, I don't know, openness maybe. And the thing is, most of the Chinese restaurants are still run by, I don't know, first generation Chinese people coming to Germany maybe, and so they don't have the awareness or knowledge for that, and for them it's always risking that their business might fail.
Samie: Someone who knows a bit about what Sissi was describing and the challenges of establishing yourself and the food you wish to serve is Deang - a member of Smells Like collective along with Kavita, who recently launched a short documentary series called Papaya & Pommes which explores different food cultures in Berlin and compares their Co2 impact with that of a typical and beloved German snack - pommes & currywurst. It shows that many dishes from so-called “ethnic” food cultures in Berlin are often way more environmentally friendly than one may originally think and, in some cases, can be made with local ingredients too. So, I got in touch with Deang, who is also the owner of the Panda Noodle in Wrangelkiez, to learn more about how she sees the food she and others of the diaspora are making, contributing to Berlin’s changing, hopefully more resilient, food system.
Deang: Yeah I'm doing the Panda Noodle for five years now. We pretty much changed our concept in the past years to be more focused on Thai lunches, which I feel more comfortable and close to myself cooking. It started out from basically for me being a single mom and, um, had to stop working freelance, because it was always a topic in my life. And then I just tried to think of what's lacking in restaurants in Berlin or in this area. And then just search my own cravings. And then I came up with this noodle idea because I was cooking a different noodle dish every day for my son, because he's a pasta and noodle freak to this day and I craved like some certain noodle dishes that they don't have here in Berlin. Yeah. And then that's how the restaurant started.
Samie: Although Deang started Panda Noodle pretty much out of a need for more stability, her love and passion for cooking food connected to her identity has grown steadily over the years. Through Smells Like, too, shes been able to connect with parts of herself that were impossible as a young Asian kid growing up in a small German village.
Deang: you know, I come from a culture where food and flavor, this is like a topic 24/7 in every single person's life. People in Thailand, not only want to eat, to fill their bellies, they want to eat good. They want to eat well. And because that is so important to every single person there, that's why good made food is accessible everywhere, for everyone, in every kind of price range. So what I see in Germany is that. How they value food and products. It's just really sad. You know, just like, I think Germany is, out of Europe, like the bottom 10 of spending their income and food. Yeah. And, um, and of course, if, if like, you know, I feel like, you know, with the food that I'm doing and if they can see that there is like joy and enjoyment and quality of flavor in food, they will maybe some kind of things in their head switched into a general appreciation for food itself. And from there, you might like rethink what you buying, where you buying it.
What Germans really appreciate is a good price value, right? If you get like a whole rotisserie chicken that costs only five euros, which I wonder, why don't you question how you can have like a grown whole chicken raised, killed, processed, sold for just only five euros it's just like beyond my imagination, but they would always value this more than my food, which is just really next door, which costs a bit more but it's made like, you know, from fresh products and everything's made from scratch. I think that is the reason why there's like all this like really average kind of food and the menus are all the same because there is not much confidence to, um, to offer more, um, more authentic or more niche food because this comes with a price as well.
When I'm talking to my colleagues or my, um, you know, people in business who are like Asian, east Asian, or like people of color. And when we're talking about, you know, when we, when they have new dishes and it's amazing. And then we talking about, um, how much could I charge for it, everybody's like really hesitant to just charge, to me, the appropriate amount of money for it, because they said like, no one, like how often I heard that phrase, no, one's going to pay 12 euros for this……..but if it costs you 12 euros to make it, you should ask for it. Right. So, um, there is still not enough confidence, um, from our side to. Um, you know, make quality food and ask the appropriate price for it.
Samie: If we want these different food cultures in the city, which we love to consume on a daily basis, to feel valued and ultimately part of the local food movement (despite the fact that they are whether we acknowledge it or not) we need to be making space for their needs and cultural traditions in discussing how the food system will and must change.
We’ve talked a bit in past episodes of how new crops are being grown in the region, many of which are popular in diaspora cuisines we love to consume in the city. I was curious to hear Deang’s thoughts on this and wondered whether there are any products that she uses in her kitchen that could be grown more locally too?
Deang: I heard there's like some, um, the Szechuan peppers growing regional, there's lemon grass, like produced regional. Um, what else do they have? Like a lot of stuff, actually, I think, but I know there's regional, um, grown coriander, but it's not particularly, I think not the Thai coriander, which we use with the roots because the roots are like sacred gold. Um, but just, I just only hear it, like, you know, from other friends, from the business who have some kind of more like an upper scale kind of food business and their access to, um, more exotic, um, plant products or produce, um, uh, or like a different than I have, you know, I'm just like, I'm just kind of like, kind of stuck within my community and just find my way around that. But the quality is amazing. I had it in my own hand. I had like the fresh peppers and it's just of course, really amazing, but that like, you know, it's not produced for Szechuan Chinese kitchen who really needs plenty of it, It's produced of course, for another type of kitchen and another scale of gastronomy who likes to play around with those products, right. Who would infuse an oil with it to make like their own product or their own dish, like more interesting or exocticise it, or wants to have the freedom to play around with more things. So they would use it differently than like, you know, a Chinese restaurant would do.
Samie: Because I am someone who is very keen on getting more and more people involved in food and agriculture conversations, my initial thought when seeing these speciality crops on some of the farms I’ve visited in Brandenburg was - cool, now how can we get that in to the hands of chefs who use those products on a daily basis? And I felt a little sad that they were being grown exclusively for fine dining kitchens
Deang: I don't have any issue with that. Everybody can play around with everything would they ever want, you know? I mean, of course, like, you know, it's bitter when you think of like, those things are produced because there's demand from like certain like scale level of business and people, um, who wants to play around with, whereas there are other people, uh, which is like, you know, fundamental to the diet, you know. Of course that's bittersweet somehow. Like what I have a problem with is when they, when they would take, for example, like, you know, something from the Thai cuisine and it's white people and they say they make it better with locally sourced products, which kind of implies that Thai food is basically made with low quality products. Which is still like the label on like east Asian food.
Samie: This got me thinking even more about how the food system is shaped - whose voices, opinions and desires shape it and for what end? Deang and I discussed this quite a bit, and agreed that the push is often not from the BIPoC communities that make or identify somehow with the food, it's often to please the white German palette, which again, has a bad reputation of valuing food in the first place… with Berlin being such a multi-ethnic and cross-cultural city, there must be a better way to circumvent that….
Deang: I certainly don't know. I just like... I need to focus on what I'm doing today, what I'm doing tomorrow, who I'm doing it for, who I'm cooking for, to me is the only thing I can do is, as I said, is I just want to serve good food. I just want to people, you know, value like good food and their life, and maybe that's going to change the way, how they consume food and how they expect what is offered to them
Samie: Well, that indeed is one way – and, as Sissi said, we are starting to see it more and more with younger generations of diaspora communities. They are starting food businesses that stand out amongst the array of generic options we have become so used to - and not all of them are super fancy, either. One way Deang and the Smells Like collective has gone about expressing the craft and value of their food recently is through the Smells Like pop up market. During the pandemic, mamy restaurants, mainly higher end ones, got together to sell what they normally serve in-house, directly to consumers to eat at home, so Smells Like got together and did something similar which turned into a huge success
Deang: first and foremost, what I loved about the Smells Like market is, was it just grew so much. And I felt like I love to showcase like the craft and talent of the BPoC community here. Like the variety of stuff that you could get in this homemade quality, this is, it was nowhere to find. People would like, see things they've never seen before, but as soon as they would smell it and eat it, they were just hooked. And they came every day, like, you know, to stock up on those things. And I, and I love to showcase like all those people because every single product includes so much labour, so much labour. And the complexity in the like, you know, handmade Curry paste from Kaotahn, the sambal from Kailin. I know how Jules is making the kimchi is just, just tiring just to look at them doing this right. So this should be valued. You know, this should be - people should know that it's just not just like a jar of cabbage or chili sauce.
Samie: One last place I wanted to go by and talk to people about food and food culture was YAAM - the Young African Art Market near Ostbahnhof. A place that has become one of the most popular addresses for African and Caribbean food in the city. I met some of the guys hanging out around the restaurants and started chatting with them about food and how they eat in the city. I learned that for multiple reasons, people from the African diaspora generally prefer to cook for themselves and for friends or family, at home. So, despite the growth of Afroshops and afro food stores, African restaurants compared with other food cultures in the city are still horribly underrepresented - especially because Africa is a huge continent full of many diverse food cultures
While at YAAM, I was fortunate to meet someone who has long been establishing a space for African food culture in the city. His name is Alumi, and seeing all the love and respect he got from people as we talked and walked around YAAM, it was not surprising to learn that he is one of the OGs that helped put African food on the map, starting with the very early days of Karneval der Kulturen.
Alumi: My name is Alumi. Born in Ghana. Educated at one of the best schools. Graduated 1975. And before I came to Germany, self-employed private business man. I had a big poultry farm. I had two trucks. I had buses running between Accra and Cape Coast. After my graduation - my bachelor's - I went straight into business.
Samie: Alumi came to Berlin to do his Masters at the FU but before the program even started he got offered a job with the military, which sent him to Munich. He worked for almost 12 years and won about four awards for exceptional performance, but after the wall fell, Germany wouldn’t offer him work with a salary that reflected his skill and experience, so he took another path. He told me that in his youth his mom taught him how to cook, forced him even – because he liked to stay out late and would often miss dinner, she told him he could start cooking for himself and, so he did! This kicked off a long life of making a living through food and agriculture
Alumi: See, when I started this business 30 to 20 years ago, I was stigmatized here in Berlin. Look at the doctor's brother, doing this plan of shit. He's broke. That's why he's frying plantains on the streets in Berlin. Africans are saying that. Ghanians are saying that. He's broke. I have to laugh at that mentality, because my nature is that, I’m stubborn. When I graduated in Ghana, 1975, and I went to agriculture. I got the same stigmatization in Ghana. Yes. He didn't pass. He didn't graduate. He didn't finish. Otherwise he wouldn't be on a farm doing dirty work. But two, three years they saw my wealth and then they knew that there's something good in farming. The guy had something good in farming. The guy has something good.
This is my mission. I dream. And I do. I don’t hear what people say and I don’t work with what people see. I work with how I feel and how I want to do my thing. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here by now. Believe me.
Samie: At some point, after a rough period working and being in Berlin for so long, Alumi went back to Ghana to develop some project Ideas there. But his son convinced him to come back and make those same dreams happen here.
Alumi: My son said, Papa, don't dream - the dreams are also here, positive, we can do something, sit down here and plan, re-strategize. So that was when I said, okay, we also live in Berlin and we take the advantage to do something, to find a space for the African kitchen in Berlin, Germany. Because Germans, by nature, like to travel and the food scene developed with the habit of Germans traveling. And we studied, and now understand that Africans are now on the scene. They love to go to Gambia. You traveled to Africa, to Kenya. And most of these African countries. So we started introducing our spicy food and the African kitchen. Right now, for instance, I’m lucky to sell something that is really moving on the market, which wasn’t so popular some years ago. I have a product called the Manioc, Brazilians call it Ipium, or Machatera, Indians call it Tapioca and some people call it Yuca - Manioc. I am proud to sell it just because all of a sudden I can bring so many cultures together. The product alone has so many names, which tells you there are so many cultures that love this product. And all of a sudden, since I have this product, I've got a broad representation of customers. Either Brazilians, either Portuguese or Spanish customers or English customers or Indian customers. This is interesting here is Berlin, because all these kind of subcultures are here.
Samie: I asked Alumi a bit about YAAM as a cultural space, and how it came to be, and I learned that how the food part is set up is very similar to the ideas he had when he wanted to go back to Ghana
Alumi: Yes. I was one of the few people to do the concept here. We had a big area like this and we needed to construct it and to organize it to suit what we represent. Now we are from different different countries, everybody has to buy something from their own country, different from each other, so that we have a nice variety and diversity of food.Representing your country and your land, that was the idea. So that if you are doing a Ghanian food, you concentrate do it purely according to Ghanian standards. And if you're representing The Gambia, we do it according to Gambian standards. We have been successful because three of us here have had open experience with the Carnivals before. YAAM used to, every year,represent itself at the Carnival of Cultures. And on three occasions, YAAM won the best decorated van at the Carnival of Cultures. So it became popular from year to year and growing to growing. But unfortunately you have been a social organization, not supposed to make profits. So each time we had a setup in an area and the land becomes, for commercial interest availability, they kick us out. And we got moved to another place because most of the time, the lands and area that we occupy fortunately happened to be one of the attractive places in Berlin that investors like. So for the past, uh, 10 to 12 years, YAAM has moved around to two or three places. We landed here about five years ago. So we hope, with this place, we’re going to get proper backup from the Senate. We have strong people in the politics who will lobby for us, who are right now lobbying for us, but the chances are that how long if they are not there anymore, who lobbies for us as long as they are there, maybe we have a chance to stay here. We are trying to do our best and so far, they have been able to carve a good name for us, in the Berlin landscape of tourism.
Samie: Alumni and I talked a lot, too much to include it all here, about getting young people of the African Diaspora excited about a career in food, and so finally, I asked what he hoped the future would look like for African food and the African community, here in Berlin
Alumi: Well, the future will be good because some of us have come here to stay and we have kids and most of our kids, they love to eat our African food and the new young ones, some are enterprising and, uh, opening the restaurants and shops to continue the growth of the African foods, eating quality. So as long as the set up gets stable, like, as it is, and we hope to continue to grow positively, the future of African food will also be good. Young people eating our food, patronizing, proud to eat it, and proud to introduce it to their friends.
The point is African food, we need to do it more and we need to be organized like I said, we have to come together. Fix the prices the same. And represent similar products, not the same products, Africa is big. You have to be proud to present different products. But the tendency is that Africans we tend to copy - you understand - if you are doing this and it's moving then they want to do the same. Which shouldnt be the way. Because Africa is biiiiig, you have so much variety. Even in Ghana. You can call it Fante food. You can call it Ga food, you can call it Ewe food. Because even in Ghana, other tribes have different different different foods. In fact, we are rich with food. We are very lucky to have a very large sortiment of food right. Different plantains… we are introducing plantain on different, different taste levels, different styles, different different patterns. Oh, every style, every five, every presented differently. Some fry it, some boil it, some cook it, some pound it, it's different, you know
Since I established this business, I've had the opportunity to train close to 60 young people. You know, they spread all around. Some are in the food industry, some opened their shops and restaurants. And some have traveled to England and America and they are doing it there too. So we hope that with time we can also get to the dimension and the level of the big ones too.
Samie:: So, while I initially imagined that this episode would focus on how to get more local food in the kitchens of places many of us eat at every day, or how to involve many more diverse perspectives in imagining the future of food systems, what you’ve heard here, as well as in part I, was what came up as I began to reach out to people and ask them about their eating habits and how they see and understand the food system around them.
Obviously, what I was able to touch on is a tiny fraction of the complexity that is building a food system for everyone, and only a few of the many food cultures in Berlin were explored. But hopefully, as always, it helped spark something and inspired you to continue asking the hard questions, questioning the status quo and making space for needs, initiatives and perspectives from outside the mainstream.
Thanks for being here, and as always - stay curious.
Samie: Hey ya’ll, thanks for listening to this episode of Food in my Kiez. If you enjoyed it, make sure to share it with a friend or two and subscribe now so you don’t miss any upcoming episodes. You can follow me on Instagram @FoodinmyKiez or send me a message at email@example.com - I’d love to hear from you.
🌱 Audio for this episode was produced by Grettch ⬅️
🌱 Production, Script, Narration and Creative Direction by Samie Blasingame
Thanks again for listening. Until next time