Kitsch kebabs

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The Germans love Indian food, but mismatched dishes, counterfeit cuisine, and high prices make Indian restaurants more of a sell-out than their food

Food from the Indian sub-continent has won hearts and filled stomachs all over the world and Germany’s capital, Berlin, is no different. Many Germans salivate at the mention of samosas, dosas and biryani, but few know how to cook an Indian meal, which is why Indian restaurants are growing in popularity.

The downside is that one often does not find a decent restaurant around the city offering an Indian snack at cheap prices. Fine dining is a different matter as there are many places in Berlin where one can splurge 20 euros (27 USD) for a meal.

But despite the hiccups, some Indian restaurants have been around for long and have established a reputation. Take the chain of restaurants Amrit for instance. Amrits have become familiar sights in many of Berlin’s hip neighbourhoods. Almost all Amrit outlets are characterised by kitschy décor with blingy Bollywood stars plastered to the walls. Colourful umbrellas with silver sequins in the outside seating area are another popular decoration. It serves half-decent food by Indian standards but is a big favourite amongst American students who stay in Berlin for a while after college to experience “life”.

The authenticity of food though, served in most Indian restaurants here, is often debated and many agree that the food is altered to suit European tastes.

“The trick is to put cream in a curry,” says Shankar, a chef in an Indian restaurant in Friedrichshain, a suburb of Berlin. “Some Germans can handle spicy food but it is more about the business. We can’t feed the clients real Indian food as most won’t be able to handle the spices, so we alter it and call it Indian.”

This result is weird sounding dishes that one won’t ever come across in India. Most restaurant dishes usually have one exotic sounding word with a distinctly Indian association. You will find Mango Chicken, Lamb Jaipur and Fish Makhani in Berlin though you may never see them in India. The very mention of some dishes could kill the appetite of Indian food lovers. This does not deter true enthusiasts and they manage to find a few restaurants that do not compromise on quality.

Clearly, India is cool and so is everything Indian. It is cool to try out food at an Indian restaurant especially if one orders a vegetarian meal. Pakistani and Bangladeshi hotel owners have learnt this the hard way after months of running empty restaurants as their names didn’t have a distinct association with ancient India or Hindu culture. A restaurant in Kreuzkolln, an upcoming neighbourhood getting gentrified by international ‘students’, calls itself Sadhu. The owners of this restaurant are from Sialkot in Pakistan but ‘Sadhu’ gets in more people than ‘Sialkot Spice’. Sadhu also serves alcohol and has happy hours.

Germans are still hungry for more. Lilly Boettger, 24, says, “I go out to eat Indian food sometimes. Most restaurants are expensive. I like most Indian food such as chicken curry, palakpaneer and samosas but most places don’t have samosas. The best samosa I had was at Bodhgaya. It was massive and contained dry fruits. I have never found that anywhere again.”

Indians and Pakistanis have adapted to Germany when it comes to taste and pricing but ask about how much they pay their staff and the attitude changes. Most admit that their workers are illegal or do not have proper documents so they are exploited. Some employ Nepalese students for low hourly wages. Most workers don’t want to talk about their employment conditions for fear of getting fired.

The high price, the unauthentic food and rumours of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants lodged in the basement turn off many. Sri-Lankan restaurants though are not very affected. There is a Lankan community in Berlin and they do not compromise on taste or identity to draw in customers. Chandra Kumari is one such well-known place that serves authentic Sri-Lankan and South Indian fare.

For North Indian food one still has to depend on friends. Tanvir Singh, an Indian who studies in Germany, says, “I can’t eat at Indian restaurants as I can’t handle all that cream in my dal. Also, when I moved here my girlfriend was vegetarian. I teamed up with some German friends to cook at their house. We bought the ingredients and spices and cooked up a meal,” he says.

Jürgen Dusche, 36, frequently travels to India and has studied the country academically. He says, “I never go to Indian restaurants. They are so costly and that is why they are usually empty. I can cook Indian food. So, I usually cook instead of going out,” says Jürgen, who also has many Indian friends and regularly invites them over for house parties.

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