I’m listening to the Gayatri mantra, being sung by a German in a laundromat in Berlin. Between showing me how to start the washing machine and work the clothes-dryer, he tells me about his fascination for India. It would be surreal, if it wasn’t so familiar. I have heard so many similar versions of the story over the course of the one month I’ve been in Berlin. At my neighbourhood bar, I bump into an aging pony-tailed hippy who tearily talks of falling in love with a Indian drifter in Mumbai, and then returning to India 14 times to find her. An edgy street artist tells me he plays Shah Rukh Khan’s bodyguard in the upcoming “Don 2”, set in Berlin. And every neighbourhood flaunts bustling Indian restaurants — all crammed with locals wallowing in butter chicken, vindaloo and palak paneer.
Berlin’s favourite fast food is the curry-wurst, a startling combination of sliced sausages and a dark, viscous tomato sauce, deepened with paprika and flavoured with curry powder. At the sun-filled Sgaminegg café, my Berliner friend regularly orders frothy cinnamon-dusted ‘Chai lattes’ with apple pie. I snootily dismiss them as inauthentic, but as time goes by I’m gradually captivated by their sweet, vanilla-scented lushness.
The Germans I meet ask about my opinion of the Indian restaurants in Berlin. They tell me the food’s unapologetically inauthentic. However, inauthentic is not always a bad thing. Look at what we’ve done to Chinese food in India, creating a fiery, oily but delicious new cuisine by blending the most obvious, populist elements of Chinese cooking, and reinterpreting them for a mass desi audience. A cuisine should be strong enough to be adapted in many ways and tailored to suit different tastes without losing its soul. This way it transcends borders.
Yet, I’m decidedly less forgiving when a friend takes me to Ashoka, a trendy Indian restaurant in chic Charlottenburg, West Berlin. It looks promising, crammed with German customers happily spooning up their ‘lentil dal’ and ‘saag aloo’.
The meal starts promisingly with steaming samosas, liberally dusted with chaat masala. Then comes a sugary raita, butter chicken that tastes like a cross between cranberry juice and tomato sauce and finally a black dal that’s chewy with husk. It’s all washed down with refreshing mango lassi, a German-Indian restaurant staple, made from canned mangos.
Is this Indian food? Across Berlin, Indian restaurants serve the same fare. They use paprika instead of chilli powder, parsley instead of coriander and pour prodigious amounts of cream into every curry. Sometimes you’ll find sugar in a dish, sometime cheese floating on top of a curry. Yet, in a city with very few Indians, it works. From ‘Yogi-Haus’ to ‘Maharadscha’ to ‘Namaskar’, on Saturday night, every Indian restaurant is full. So who decides what’s traditional?
Personally, I prefer the W-Imbiss approach. Instead of hankering for authenticity it calls itself Indian-Californian fusion. The steamy little kitchen specialises in naan pizzas.
We stagger in late at night, exhausted and starving, and are quickly served a Jewish naan, slathered with sour cream, capers, sliced onions and generous slices of salmon.
Despite being tempted by the Dirty Naan — ghee, garlic, fenugreek and chillies — we settle for a Indian red lentil soup, which tastes like sambar and is served with a salad. The vibe’s relaxed and friendly. So friendly we get into an intense political discussion with the guy eating a quesadilla at the next table, and end up polishing off his bowl of super-hot sauce.
However, since I’m on a mission to find at least one authentic Indian restaurant in Berlin for this story, the pressure is on.
Finally, through a network of Indian friends, I hear about a tiny place called Agni in Alt-Moabit, a quiet part of Berlin. As soon as we enter, the smell of tandoori and presence of Indian customers convinces me that we’ve finally hit gold. ‘Uncle Sanjay’ who runs the kitchen with his wife, is from Delhi where he studied catering with ITDC Ashok group. He moved to Germany as a cook 21 years ago, worked with a series of restaurants and finally decided to start his own.
In classic Indian style, he cooks us a massive meal of kebabs, stuffed parathas and dal, and then brings out a complimentary tray of rich, milk sweets as he pulls his chair up to our table and settles down for a gossip. He eats his own lunch as we chat — dal-roti.
“In the end,” he chuckles, “this is what I like best.” It seems appropriate. To cross continents and end up feeling the most at home with a plate of dal-roti in a small room shiny with plastic lights and alive with the sound of Kishore Kumar.”