How a Block Party Called Kebabistan Is Shaking Up Berlin’s Food Scene
Kebabistan is one part block party and one part ode to the unsung hero of Berlin’s multifaceted, multikulti food world: the mighty döner kebab.
It's Thursday night, which means that under the glow of Edison bulbs, thousands of Berliners are lining up at food stalls in Markthalle Neun, a refurbished hall in Kreuzberg. I elbow my way past a Peruvian ceviche vendor, an Indian spot selling made-to-order naan dripping with ghee, and an Egyptian stand ladeling out cumin-scented chickpeas. Launched in 2013, Street Food Thursday quickly became a focal point of the city's nascent gastro scene, a weekly gathering that spawned an army of trucks.
I'm not here for the slow-smoked barbecue or the vegan doughnuts, so I squeeze through the crowds to the back of the building, where something big is in the works. Wedged into a tiny office with a jug of wine and some plastic cups are half a dozen people preparing for the launch of Kebabistan, a new event that's one part block party and one part ode to the unsung hero of Berlin's multifaceted, multikulti food world: the mighty döner kebab.
When I enter, Cevat Akpolat is having a chat with Cory Andreen, a young expat from Washington, DC, about the nuances of ayran, a popular Turkish yogurt drink. Both have quite a bit to say on the subject. The former has run Adana Grill-Haus, the first of Kreuzberg's beloved Turkish barbecue joints, for more than two decades, while the latter is planning to serve the smooth, tangy beverage on tap at the event.
Akpolat beams with pride when I express my admiration for his restaurant, which I've been visiting for several years for heaping plates of mezze and charred lamb chops. "We go through a [metric] ton of meat per week, but we only use the best—free-range lamb from specific farms near Mannheim and Stuttgart," he says, showing me pictures on his phone. "We grill over coconut husks, because they smell less. They cost three times as much, but who cares? I'm not in this for the money. It's about doing what you do with love."
His dedication to the craft conflicts with the low-brow stereotypes that plague the local kebab scene. Despite its ubiquity, the city's most prominent street food staple and culinary export seldom commands much respect on its home turf. Mention döner to a Berliner—even one who frequently ends their Saturday nights by scarfing down one—and you're likely to hear a derisive comment about the origins of the meat. This event by Souk Berlin, an evolving project focusing on immigrant cultures in the Hauptstadt, aims to restore the kebab's besmirched reputation and honor the community that created it.
In the middle of it all sits Kavita Meelu (a.k.a. Kavita Goodstar), the British woman behind not only Street Food Thursdays, but also Mother's Mother and Burgers & Hip-Hop. She's a blur of action, switching rapidly from English to German as the team pulls together finishing touches. Three days from this moment, the event will sell out as eager customers snap up Thai-style döners from Khwan and grilled lamb with pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and pistachios from Fes Turkish BBQ, while DJs spin Turkish tunes and Arabic funk. By the time it's over, the team will be hard at work planning their next festival, United Street Food, as well as unveiling of an organic, halal döner in the fall.
Meelu took a break for a conversation about the community outreach, the trouble with foodie culture, and learning to love the kebab.
MUNCHIES: Let's start from the beginning. What brought you here? Kavita Meelu: I moved to Berlin for love, which was a secret. My dream was to figure out how to use food as a tool to share culture and stories, to bring people closer together and combat misunderstanding. It's a very democratic basis to do that. Everyone loves good food and everyone loves to have a sense of conviviality, to sit in communities around food.
At what point did Street Food Thursday come about? The idea of doing a market was always there as a way to make the food scene more international. Restauranteurs here are traditionally a little more old-school, and I totally understand why. I mean, Berlin was a war zone up until a couple of decades ago.
There are other "street food" events now, but this was the first of its size. What kind of impact would you say it's had? It was good to show restauranteurs that it was OK to do things that were a little more out of the box. The first time we did it, 14,000 people turned up. It was insane, insane. The food sold out in an hour. Everyone in the city saw that and was like, "Shit, that was great. Let's try something new."
Clearly, it's going well. Why do something different? This is a process and it's been great. But basically, a couple of years ago, I started to get a little bit pissed with myself, because this has become a platform for people like me, who have a very similar life to me, who have traveled, who have these multidimensional identities—basically expats—who come here and bring their ideas with them. A lot of what we do when we look for inspiration is we look outside.
I mean, as much as I like the stuff everyone's selling out there, you have a point. Food has become so important for people in terms of how they express their lifestyle choices. We all want to go to the same coffee shop and we all want to go to street food markets and we all want to eat at restaurants from some list. There's something very one-dimensional to it, in a way. We talk a lot about "local," but "local" means farmers and products and so on. We forget that our neighbors are also our "local."
This is something you see in a lot of cities, though—it's hardly unique to Berlin. I've become obsessed a bit about this whole situation. I went to do a talk in Toronto recently and I realized that, luckily, we're not the only ones who have this problem. There are plenty of other people fucking up in the same way all around our international metropoles all around the world. We're creating these foodie ghettos. We go to an area, which gives us this urban decay, which is part of our concept, and this cheap rent. I'm not even talking so much about gentrification as the fact that we don't look into our own neighborhood.
What would Berlin's "local" look like? You hear a lot of discussion about food tradition in other German cities, but not as much here. There is food tradition and food heritage here that immigrants brought with them. Despite the disgusting parts of German history, there is something special about the fact that Germany has always had a great deal of immigration. It's basically been an open playing field for people to come over and establish themselves, and I think in Berlin even more so. That's what makes Berlin so distinctive and probably why we are here. I think this definition of what Germany looks like, if we don't bring it together with the old-school, immigrant food cultures, we lose a whole chance for German food identity to be something unique.
Do you ever regret starting Markthalle Neun? In the end, we're so thankful for the market. If it wasn't for this, we wouldn't have come to the next point. It's a process. It's a journey. And it's great that you can get kimchi tacos and ramen burgers. It's given people an impulse to be a bit more open and to access foods that they wouldn't normally. No regrets about that at all.
How's Souk Berlin going address this? Souk Berlin is going to be a Markthalle which is dedicated to celebrating the food cultures of immigrants, both those who have been here for decades and newcomers, refugees. It's about creating a platform for "ethnic" food to come outside of that category that it's put in, which is at the bottom echelons of the food world. We demand an Asian place to be grubby, because it's more "authentic"—all of these constraints, which have such horrible racial connotations to them. The truth of the matter is that food is the tool that can destroy all of those barriers because, at the end of the day, we love exploring the world through food.
You're clearly focusing on a specific group with this event. Why do you feel it's important to reach out to the Turkish-German community? There is this really weird bullshit that happened with the treatment of Turkish immigrants in Germany and it needs to be corrected, especially because we now have 1 million newcomers from a similar part of the world. Everyone is pretty welcoming now, but I guarantee the moment that anybody tries to open a mosque on their street, there's going to be a discourse that shifts a little bit.
Let's talk about the "bullshit" a bit. How does that manifest in the present? If you grow up in a country where your identity is a little bit repressed, and then at some point you can feel pride in the color of your skin and what your parents look like and how smelly their food is, I feel like this is a step forward. For example, I define myself as British-Asian, because it's something that I'm proud to be and something I'm comfortable being. In my head, it's got a definition that means I go to clubs and listen to hip-hop and R&B; but every few songs, I'll listen to maybe an Indian song from the 70s. It means I don't eat pork and beef, but I love going out to restaurants. It means I have certain role models who define British-Indians and British-Asianness. It's something I feel doesn't exist for Turkish-Germans, for the second generation.
Could you give an example? There's a guy I know who opened a third-wave coffee store, one of the very first in Berlin, and he's Turkish-German. We talked about the "expat advantage"and the fact that he wasn't able to be in this cool, third-wave coffee scene, because he didn't fit that category. He was like, "Why is it that no blogs ever wrote about my place? There's an assumption that I'm some kind of copycat." I know a young Turkish-German restaurant owner who's doing really exciting things, but is afraid to say that the meat he uses on his menu is halal, because he doesn't want to be put into a certain box.
I can't imagine how frustrating that must be. That is not my city. Berlin for me is where I come and I do what I want. And everybody says, "Wow, that's amazing. This brown British girl does what she wants." I have a completely different experience. It's part of my story, and it's a proud part.
So where does Kebabistan come in? The whole point of Kebabistan is to connect the foodie world with this immigrant world, to show that, actually, the great thing is that we really are interested in all types of food. We're genuinely interested in Turkish-German culture. It's not gonna shift mountain ranges, but it's a conversation that's just not happening and it should happen.
And what better way to launch a dialogue than with food? We want to celebrate this trend that came out of Berlin the 1970s. Kebab culture is such a great part of the city and it's got so many political and cultural facets to it. That's basically what Kebabistan is about: celebrating the old-school grill masters, celebrating what could be new. We want to explore how kebab culture in Berlin has ended up in loads of different parts of the world and how kebab culture from the Middle East is translated through immigrants from all across the world. I think that tells some really interesting stories.
Wrapping up, what do you hope comes out of this down the road? Our hope is that maybe Turkish-German kids won't go and open another fucking burger shop; they might open an artisanal kebab shop. I want second-generation immigrants here to have the opportunity to be like, "We're fucking great. This is what our identity looks like, and look at it—isn't it amazing! Don't you want to be a part of it, don't you want to learn about it?"
Thanks so much for speaking with me.