Indian food has a history

history : Indian food in Berlin

When it comes to Indian food, most people immediately think of bhatura and chicken tikka. And not in vain. The "balloon breads" and sizzling meat platters can be found with most orders in Indian restaurants. Since the humble beginnings 43 years ago, the Indian restaurant landscape in Berlin has changed a lot. Initially quiet and inconspicuous, it slowly but continuously spread until it became an integral part of Berlin's food culture. From family recipes to brilliant success stories; from Taj Mahals and sitar solos to Buddhas and Bollywood rhythms.

Westside story

It was the British who brought Indian food culture to Berlin. The English, who put many a ship out to sea in search of spices, were the first customers for Indian specialties in West Berlin in the years before 1989. The first restaurant to open its doors to these troops 43 years ago was Calcutta, the owner of which Mr. Taneja had to travel to London to replenish his supplies of Indian ingredients. A few years later, Ashoka, only about one and a half kilometers away, opened. "In 1989 there were already around 6 restaurants and around 20 Indian bistros, which were mainly located in areas like Wilmersdorf, Charlottenburg and Steglitz," reports Ashok Kachroo, who came to Germany as an engineer in the late 1960s, where he ended up running Calcutta bought from its original owner. At the time, customers weren't afraid to take the 30km drive to dine at this traditional eatery.

Since the ingredients were difficult to come by, it had to be improvised. For example, white flour was mixed with brown flour in order to be able to make Indian flatbreads in spite of the shortage. In Germany there was only one supplier for Indian ingredients, which was located in Darmstadt and obtained its supplies from India and England. An expensive pleasure. "He came to Berlin once or twice a month," reports Mubarak Ahmad, owner of Chaudhry Food Traders (CFT), who founded his Indian wholesaler 16 years ago and now supplies 90 percent of Indian restaurants in Berlin. Many Sikh families came to Berlin in the early 1980s and opened restaurants in West Berlin.

After the wall

And then the wall fell. In search of cheap rents, students and artists moved to the east of the city. Prenzlauer Berg became the new cult district. The newcomers needed cheap and nutritious food, and the mushrooming snack bars met their needs. This boom was fueled by the drastically reduced cost of Indian ingredients, which CFT has now imported directly from India. "Between 1995 and 2006, three or four Indian restaurants opened every day," reports Ahmad. "When we got into this business in 1984, there were only 30-35 restaurants, mostly medium-sized and around 70 take-aways. Today the list has grown to a total of 251." The action quickly shifted to the east, where students and tourists set the tone.

However, it was the brothers Bitu and Bunty Bans, owners of the Mirchi restaurant chain, who gave the industry a new upswing and a facelift with their first restaurant Amrit 15 years ago in Oranienstrasse. "Before we appeared, every Indian restaurant offered the same conservative culinary experiences. We gave the Indian restaurants a completely new look," says Bitu Bans, who at the time regularly flew to Bali to bring temple parts and the large Buddha figures to Berlin characteristic of the brothers ’restaurants. "After the success of Amrit, there was a real surge of new store openings. Everyone just had to modernize if they wanted to survive," reports Ahmad.

The boss rules

While sales multiplied and the number of restaurants increased, more and more Indians came to Berlin, especially from northern India, to work as chefs here - some with 5-star pedigree, others from unknown restaurants on the Indian small-town scene. Almost eighty-five percent of the chefs of that time now own their own eateries - both large and small. These people lead a modest life - they share the apartment with others and eat in the restaurant where they work. "Each of the chefs who worked for me once bought some property in India," says Kachroo. "Many married a German so that they could stay here and open their own restaurant," says Bhushan, owner of the Punjab restaurant on Knaackstrasse, Prenzlauer Berg, who came to Germany as a chef more than two decades ago.

Good Indian chefs quickly became coveted objects in the expanding culinary landscape. "If I'm looking for a good chef, I rent an apartment in Delhi and let the applicants cook traditional as well as modern dishes," explains Bitu Bans. Ahmed reports that four years ago he even opened an office in Delhi, where ambitious chefs who want to go to Berlin can register. “Two to three chefs come to Berlin every month,” he reports. "The restaurant owners go out of their way when it comes to keeping a good chef. They help them adapt and settle in here so that they don't leave after a short time," he adds.

Fusion cuisine

Despite the 40-year history of Indian food culture in Berlin, hardly anything has changed on the menu. A book the size of a Bible would not be enough to document India's incredible culinary diversity - Andhra, Tamil, Malayali, Bengali, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Rajasthani, the list is endless. However, the same names can be found on every menu - Chicken Jalfrezi, Tikka, Tandoori and there are hardly any restaurants with authentic regional dishes. Even restaurants that are run by people from countries with old culinary traditions adapt to Berlin's tastes.

Ajanta on Grohlmann Straße in Charlottenburg, which is operated by Thyagaraja Bhaskar from Sri Lanka, recently switched to Indian dishes. To do this, he himself did an apprenticeship with an Indian chef. Surya Kanthi in Prenzlauer Berg, which is actually a Sri Lanka restaurant, also offers Indian Mutton Saag and Biryani. "Indian cuisine is just too popular, which is why we added it to our menu." Kachroo believes that Berliners are open to new things, but like to stay true to what they are familiar with. "Germans don't like to experiment with their food," he says. That could be, or Indian restaurants like to play it safe. But there are also well-traveled Berliners who are desperately looking for authentic Indian cuisine. The Indian restaurant business is flourishing and the market is not yet saturated.

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