Archive | February, 2013

Wrappers’ delight

26 Feb


‘Authentically’ Mexican or not, burritos have taken over Berlin. John Riceburg talks to the men and women bridging the 9500-km gap between Germany and Mexico, one tortilla at a time.

Ten years ago, the Berlin burrito scene was bleak. There were only restaurants with names like “Speedy Gonzales” run by Bangladeshis serving Tex-Mex overflowing with gouda and canned corn. And then there was Dolores. When the San Francisco-style burrito slingers opened up in Mitte in 2003, Amis would come from as far away as Steglitz to get something that reminded them of the spicy food they loved at home. Now, Berlin’s in the midst of a burrito boom, with shops from Neukölln to Wittenbergplatz serving quality south-of-the-border cuisine. But who’s bringing all this Mexican food to Germany, considering that a mere 1180 Mexicans live in the city?

The trailblazers

“What we do is a lot of work,” says Philipp Krahé, co-founder of Dolores, at their Wittenbergplatz location. With a broad smile that makes him look very relaxed for a 45-year-old business owner, he explains how he started his first restaurant in 2003. “At the time, Berlin was just a backwater town with nothing but a great nightlife. Now, it’s a global city – but the quality of food is still quite low.” He had travelled in the US and also in Mexico, and he recognised a market for the belly-filling snack.

But how to get all the necessary ingredients? “We have to order ingredients from six different wholesalers, some of them from Mexico,” says Krahé. The biggest logistical problem is the avocados. “Most Germans can’t even tell if an avocado is ripe, so the sellers know that Germans will buy the worst ones.” He’s heard a lot of complaints about his guacamole costing €1, but that’s what he has to pay for a single good avocado.

The results are impressive. Dolores offers six spicy sauces, from mild to almost unbearable, and the burritos are big enough to fill up an American football player. But this quality is a lot of work, which is why Krahé hasn’t gotten much competition in the last decade. A steady flow of expats and Easyjet tourists keep the two locations booming.

Dolores, Bayreuter Str. 36, Schöneberg, U-Bhf Wittenbergplatz, Tel 030 5482 1590; Rosa-Luxemburg-Str. 7, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Alexanderplatz, Tel 030 2809 9597, Mon-Sat 11:30-22, Sun 13-22; burritos from €3.90

The local boys

“We make Berlin burritos,” says Ohmid Toni. Born in Berlin to Iranian parents, the 34-year-old and his two brothers opened Schöneberg’s Berlin Burrito Company in 2009. Their inspiration came from trips to the US – and also from Dolores. “A bit of competition helps business,” Toni explains. “And döner shops take ideas from each other all the time.” Even the light green walls are reminiscent of Dolores’ décor.

Customers will sometimes mistake the brothers for Mexicans, but in their restaurant they speak Persian, not Spanish. “Some people say this doesn’t taste like the food in Mexico. Well it’s not supposed to!” They prepare the rice the Iranian way, as they learned from their mother, but other ingredients seem to come from cheap German distributors, like hot sauce without Mexican chillis or guacamole with no real taste or texture.

Not many tourists come to the store – instead you see regulars, real Berliner Jungs. There’s no pork and no meat mixed in with the beans, so both Muslims and vegans can feel at home.

Berlin Burrito Company, Pallasstr. 21, Schöneberg, U-Bhf Nollendorfplatz, Tel 030 2362 4990, Mon-Sun 11:30-23; burritos from €3.60

Authentic Australian

“I’m trying to get as close to Mexican food as I can,” says Julian Boyce, owner and cook at Santa María in the heart of Kreuzberg 36. At the beginning, the Australian served tortas and tacos like a Mexican diner – “but people just didn’t get it,” he remembers. After a while, he added burritos to the menu. “Burritos in Northern Mexico are just beans and sometimes meat,” he explains. He’s proud that his don’t include any rice, corn, lettuce, or anything else ‘inauthentic’.

The former White Trash cook was part of a small group who opened three different Mexican restaurants in 2009-10. But that group has since split up, and while María Bonita – run by a Texan – is still going strong in Prenzlauer Berg, María Peligro in eastern Kreuzberg has folded. “It’s definitely getting busier here” says Boyce, but he’s also seen plenty of other Mexican joints shut their doors. His customers are mostly expats, but he’s working hard to make inroads with the locals. On his Taco Tuesdays, tacos and tequila shots are served for €1 each, attracting throngs of Kreuzbergers who are increasingly getting used to the extremely spicy yellow habanero sauce.

Most days you’ll see Boyce in his noisy open kitchen, making gigantic plates of enchiladas or chilaquiles (fried tortilla chips) smothered in chilli sauce. He has been known to come to work at 7:30am to make up to 2000 tortillas for the day. He would like to expand, but “it’s hard to find people who can really cook Mexican food”.

Santa María, Oranienstr. 170, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor, Tel 030 9221 0027, Mon-Sun 12-2, burritos from €6

Hablamos Hebrew

“Burritos aren’t Mexican food,” says Eitan Malkin who opened up No Hablo Español (“I don’t speak Spanish”) in Friedrichshain last year. The Israeli 36-year-old takes a light-hearted approach to dining: one promotion involves playing rock-paper-scissors with the server, with half off your cheque if you win.

Likewise, the tiny shop’s name is a bit of a joke, since Malkin worked as a chef in Madrid for two years and speaks Spanish well. The name is more about his burrito philosophy: “Like a burger – is that American food? Is it from Hamburg? No, it’s international.” Some of his burritos include mole, others Indian-style chicken curry.

For Malkin, one problem with the Berlin food scene is that most people are looking for a deal, and that means ingredients from a freezer or a can. “If you see a cocktail for €2.50, everyone in their right mind must realise something is wrong with it.” His burritos cost a bit more: “We make everything fresh here every day.” His customers are mostly office workers and just a few tourists – including those who come in to ask if, despite what the sign says, they speak Spanish.

No Hablo Español, Kopernikusstr. 22, Friedrichshain, S+U-Bhf Warschauer Str., Tel 030 9560 9351, Mon-Sun 12-23, burritos from €5

The real real deal

“Mexican cuisine is very diverse, but very few people in Europe know it,” says Paco Franco, who just opened the second location of Ta’Cabrón in Friedrichshain. With his long hair and black clothes, the 38-year-old from Mexico City might look like he belongs in a metal band, but he’s actually a trained dentist. “I would have had to essentially repeat university to be certified here,” he says, so he entered the restaurant business. “The only other time I worked in a restaurant was at the very first McDonald’s in Mexico, when I was 16.”

Along with Sinaloan partner (and ex-lawyer) Joaquín Robredo, he opened the first Ta’Cabrón location in Kreuzberg three years ago. The staff are mostly Mexican; the ones who aren’t are still fluent in Spanish. “Sixty percent of our customers are Germans, and about 15 percent are Latinos living here,” says Franco. He feels it’s the authentic food that customers value – as well as the fact that they can order in German (see page 23), which doesn’t always work at Dolores or Santa María.

The menu includes a few dishes unfamiliar to most Germans, like citrus-marinated cochinita pibil from the Yucatán and molletes, baked bread covered with beans (“a typical food for Mexican students,” one server explains). They also organise film screenings, solidarity parties for social movements in Mexico and holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day.

Ta’Cabrón, Wühlischstr. 12, Friedrichshain, S+U-Bhf Ostkreuz, Tel 030 3385 3395; Skalitzer Str. 60, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Schlesisches Tor, Tel 030 3266 2439, Mon-Thu, Sun 13-23, Fri-Sat 13-3, burritos from €5.50

Distrito Federal delicacies?

Another Mexico City expat, Raul Oliver, opened Chaparro on Wiener Straße last year. The 36-year-old trained chef opened his first restaurant 10 years ago in Marbella, Spain. More recently, he noticed the people of Berlin, where he’s lived for the past five years, developing a taste for burritos. He decided to throw his hat in the ring because “the trend is continuing”. Served with rice, lettuce, and pico de gallo in the Californian or New Mexican rather than typical Mexican style, Chaparro’s burritos have their own (damn good) unique taste that attracts tourists from across the Americas as well as locals. A real bonus is the homemade salsa, also available in bottles.

Oliver also offers cooking courses and catering: real Mexican cuisine is not just snacks but also multiple-course meals for gourmets. “I serve the Mexican embassy regularly,” he says with pride. “The Mexicans and Latinos will come again and again if you do it right.”

Chaparro, Wiener Str. 15A, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Görlitzer Bahnhof, Tel 030 3036 8730, Mon-Wed 12-22, Thu-Sat 12-23, Sun 15-21, burritos from €3.90

The Neukölln frontier

“Vegetarian Mexican food doesn’t really exist, because even the beans are usually cooked in animal lard,” says Australian expat Eliza Hiscox of Burrito Baby. In November, just a week after Hiscox married her German partner Alex Britting, the couple opened the first burrito shop in Neukölln.

A stand outside advertises “tasty burritos” – but doesn’t mention that they’re all vegetarian or vegan. “I’ve had people eat here and then thank me for not putting that on the sign, because they wouldn’t have tried a burrito with tofu if they hadn’t sat down first,” says Britting. The food is savoury and surprisingly light on the stomach.

“The Turkish supermarkets have been a godsend,” adds Hiscox, because they offer fresh cilantro and other ingredients used in Mexican and Turkish (but not German) cuisine.

In addition to being the only place in Berlin that serves a breakfast burrito (filled with eggs, potatoes and cheese), Burrito Baby doubles up the tortillas in their tacos, Mexican-style. The store does, however, have silverware available because, as Toni from Berlin Burrito Company says: “German culture can’t really deal with food that drips everywhere.”

Burrito Baby, Pflügerstr. 11, Neukölln, U-Bhf. Schönleinstr., Tel 030 3385 1520, Tue-Thu 13-21, Fri-Sat 13-22, Sun 15-21, burritos from €4


Foto: Marta Domínguez


Männer don’t cry

14 Feb

by John Riceburg

One in four women in Germany experience violence in a relationship at some point in their lives. But domestic violence also affects over 3000 men in Berlin every year. And they have a hard time finding assistance.

In March 2011 Peter Müller* was admitted to a hospital in Mönchengladbach for a broken cheekbone. He told the doctors he had fallen on the stairs. The 42-year-old is 1.82-metres tall and trained as a carpenter before working as a stage technician. Who would doubt his story?

Colleagues noticed he often had injuries. “When I had injuries on my face that I couldn’t hide, I would say that my dog had scratched me or I walked into a wall,” he remembers. But the truth was that he was being hit by his wife of five years. “She would pick a fight, which would start verbally but then escalate to a violent outburst on her part.” In extreme cases, “she would destroy my things (e.g., clothes, cameras, a guitar and a laptop). Or she would attack me with a pair of scissors, a knife, an ashtray, a hammer or whatever else was at hand.” His wife is only 1.65 metres tall and “not so strong”. But “when she got into a rage, she would have the strength of a bear.”

Müller couldn’t identify any triggers. Sometimes she might accuse him of looking at another woman – “but sometimes a word that she didn’t like was enough.” Why didn’t he fight back? “As a child, my brothers and I were beaten by my father. After these experiences, it was clear for me that I never wanted to be violent.” There were no children to worry about, but he didn’t know how to react. “After the second or third incident, I told myself I would end the relationship the next time.” But he didn’t. “I knew I needed to break up with her, but I was psychologically so powerless… I couldn’t.”

At work, someone even asked him, “Did you take a beating from your wife?” He wanted to tell people what was happening, but he didn’t know how. “Instead, I had suicidal thoughts for a time.” Even after moving out of their shared apartment in January of 2012, “I couldn’t find any help as a man who was hit and humiliated by his wife.” Only in May at a therapeutic men’s group was he able to speak about his experiences for the first time.

Müller’s story is shocking. Female-on-male domestic violence is very rarely taken seriously, relegated to slapstick cartoons and stand-up punchlines. But in the real world, it’s more common than we think.

According to statistics from the Berlin Police for 2011, 23.6 percent of the victims of domestic violence were men – about one out of every four – and 23.8 percent of the perpetrators were women. These sensational numbers led to a wave of stories in the German press over the summer: “More and more women beat up their partners.”

However, when it comes to domestic violence, data are both dubious and lacking.

First, the above numbers only register official complaints, as Jennifer Rotter from the Berlin Initiative Against Violence Against Women (BIG) explains. “Police have reported that when they respond to domestic violence calls, sometimes a man who has attacked his partner will then file a complaint against her to justify his actions.” A woman might have been acting in self-defence, or might have done nothing at all, but she would still appear in this statistic. In addition, the 3053 male victims might have been hurt by female or male partners.

No matter what, women remain the main victims of domestic violence. While the BIG defends the right of every victim to professional assistance, Rotter reminds people that “even if a quarter of cases involve women attacking men, then three quarters of all victims are still women”. The last representative study by the Federal Ministry for Families, Seniors, Women and Youth from 2004 found that one in four women in Germany experienced violence in a relationship within their lifetime. No such representative studies exist about domestic violence against men: “We can really only guess,” says Rotter.

The BIG, which offers counselling to victims of domestic violence, receives on average 7000 calls from women each year – last year only four came from men. But this number is also not representative. Numbers about domestic violence are always just the tip of the iceberg – most cases go unreported. “For women, it is difficult to admit they are victims. But for men, it is even more difficult because they will be asked, ‘What kind of man are you?’”

The most ‘serious’ violence tends to be male – men murder their female partners eight times as often as the other way around. But family therapist Peter Thiel cites several studies to argue that perpetrators of low- or mid-level violence, including psychological violence, could be up to 50 percent female. According to Alexander Tönnies of the Berlin police, female abusers “bite, hit, kick, scratch, take a frying pan or a stick, or throw a vase”.

BIG directs men to the Opferhilfe (Help for Victims), which assists between 15 and 40 men per year. “A man must probably overcome a lot of shame to disclose that he has been hit or humiliated,” says Opferhilfe worker Manuel Martay. When men come to them, there are limited options. While Berlin has seven publicly financed Frauenhäuser (women’s houses), there are no such houses for men. “The only public services available to these men are homeless shelters.”

In most cases of domestic violence, the police usually expel the perpetrator from the home. But if the victim is a man and there are children around, the man often has to leave the apartment so that the children can stay with the mother. Some men have also spoken to the Opferhilfe about “amused looks” from the police when they make reports.

This is where Thiel comes in. He runs a private Männerhaus (men’s house) – currently just a single apartment in Lichtenberg costing €30 per night. “Sometimes we get three calls in one week, and sometimes it is empty for two weeks.” Women ask for help much more easily; men need to be encouraged. He cites the example of Zürich, which ran a campaign with posters showing a man saying, “If she is angry, my wife will hit me. I can’t tell that to anyone…” accompanied by a telephone number. Berlin has never had such posters. “No help is offered, so men don’t have the feeling that they can receive any,” says Thiel. He has appealed to both the Berlin Senate and the Anti-Discrimination Agency for better campaigns and state funding for Mannerhäuser. His website states, “It is unacceptable that men are being treated worse than women.”

Thiel also criticises the fact that many hotlines for victims are staffed exclusively by women: “Sometimes when a man comes for counselling, they look at him suspiciously.” But men need help for their own reasons: “Men who ‘out’ themselves feel like they will be seen as crybabies. They are conditioned to appear strong. When they see themselves in a desperate situation, they don’t ask for help but instead throw themselves in front of a train.” The suicide rate in Germany is more than three times higher for men than for women.

For Martay, there’s no way around it: whether or not they feel they will be disbelieved or made fun of, male victims should definitely report. “I know cases of outstanding assistance from the police,” he says. Victims of physical attacks should also “try to defend themselves without injuring the other person, and gather evidence of their injuries”.

Müller has come a long way. The divorce proceedings with his wife are underway and although he still can’t talk about his experiences without stuttering or crying, he’s now working through his post-traumatic stress disorder in a therapeutic group for men. Based on his own experience, he also encourages male victims to admit to themselves that they need help. “You will receive more understanding than you can imagine.”


Frat boys gone ‘right’

6 Feb

Law students at the Free University of Berlin were receiving their diplomas at a ceremony on October 26. Among the attendees were four young men in militaristic uniforms. With their orange caps and black jackets, they looked like cadets, but in fact they belonged to one of Germany’s old-fashioned, right-wing student associations, or Burschenschaften – leftover “men’s clubs” in today’s Berlin.

Their presence at the ceremony caused a scandal. A student protested into the microphone – he couldn’t accept people from an “association that still requires an Aryan certificate!” Later, the head of the university wrote that the society’s uniforms should not be tolerated anywhere on campus.

Neo-Nazi sects? Not exactly. But these German “fraternities”, started as liberal patriotic collectives in the early 19th century, are much more problematic than their American counterparts.

“Burschenschaften have always been nationalistic, anti-French and anti-Semitic,” says Timo Meier, the anti-fascist officer of the student government of the Free University. “They are elitist and sexist, and many of them are right-wing extremists.”

Meier has demanded the dissolution of all Burschenschaften. “About 300 people protested against the national meeting of the Burschenschaften in Eisenach this summer,” he explains. The student government published a free pamphlet attacking the right-wing associations.

There are only half a dozen Burschenschaften in Berlin – none of whom agreed to a visit from Exberliner – but their networks are influential. Besides the students who live at the house (called the “Aktivias”), there are also the former students (“Alt-Herren”) who pay for everything.

These “old men” include Bild editor Kai Diekmann, federal transportation minister Peter Ramsauer and Berlin’s Minister of Social Affairs, Michael Büge from the conservative party CDU. Büge is a member of “Gothia”, the same group that caused the scandal at the Free University, The social democratic youth have called on him to resign, and he is considering giving up his Burschenschaft membership.

At the moment, the national association Deutsche Burschenschaft (DB) is on the verge of splitting, with a more liberal wing objecting to the majority’s refusal to distance themselves from fascists. “In the last two years,
they have gotten back in the news” because many refuse to accept
 non-Germans as members, Meier
 explained, and “today they have less 
than 10,000 members”.

Besides their political positions, they 
are also kind of strange. Their uniforms 
include colourful sashes and sometimes
 sabers, and many require that their
 members practice fencing, including
 getting a scar called a “Mensur” on the 
cheek. If you are looking for a room in
 a fancy old house with cheap rent, most
 Berlin Burschenschaften advertise they accept applications. But if you’re not German, don’t get your hopes up. JR