December 14, 2010

A Taste of Chinatown in Berlin

Aroma - Chinese Restaurant

Some countries seem to be stuck in a time warp looping within a certain decade. France has never left the 1970’s, America is waddling through the 90’s and Italy has never stopped reliving the 1690’s. At the end of the day, it’s all about countries trying to preserve their heydays. Never say never, but it is all too probable that Paris will never again be the intellectual and trend setting capital of the world as it was in the 70’s, America will never regain its undisputed role as the world’s leader as in the 90’s, and Italy will never become a modern country as it was considered to be centuries ago. As Berlin is supposedly the cutting- edge worldly trend-setting capital of the cool and of the now, you would expect it to show a bit of commitment to the aesthetics of the 21st Century. But wait a second, if it really is the case, why does so much here still feel like an embarrassingly bad TV production from the 80’s?

Some of it might be explained by that 80’s comeback we’ve been forced to witness since the late 90’s. But it can’t be all. In too many cases it goes a few steps too far for it to be a backlash of coolness. Think mullet families, think perms and shoulder pads. It’s everywhere. The sad fact is that bad TV productions from the 80’s are Germany’s heyday; the 80’s remain synonymous for a time in which the East Germans had regained their dignity by initiating a peaceful revolution and triggering the fall of the Iron Curtain. The West Germans were living a peaceful suburban joy in their perfect economy and the future just seemed remarkably bright in its all-encompassing greyness. Walking around the older parts of Berlin (basically anywhere outside the Mitte-Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain-P’berg-Kreuzkölln ring), it becomes impossible to ignore the 80’s vibe: the forms, the colours and the general aesthetics. It’s enough to look at the brown carpets or the bright neon lights in areas like Schöneberg or Charlottenburg to beam me over twenty years back to a time I perceive as naïve as it was aesthetically displeasing.

One element I now miss from the fabric of memories otherwise known as my childhood is Chinese restaurants. The ones with awful brown carpets, neon aquariums and fortune cookies. I used to go there a lot and I remember the food as being fantastic. I wanted to say “authentic”, but I doubt my European sense of taste would appreciate real Chinese food. My definition of “authentic” comes down to food with real taste, with fantastic sauces, cashew nuts, dim sum and ducks in all shapes and forms. I have never found any of those in Berlin. But then again, never say never. This week I decided to check out Aroma on Kantstraße in Charlottenburg. This part of the street has been transformed into a Berlin version of Chinatown in the last couple of years. Don’t expect narrow streets filled with masses of people and stores packed with curiosities you wouldn’t find anywhere else. We’re still in Berlin – the streets are wide, spacious and German, yet parts of Kantstraße are paved with a whole variety of Chinese restaurants. Aroma is – despite its name – one of the more authentic-looking ones.

Authentic would mean – in this case – a random array of lights, aquariums and naff Chinese looking patters. Oh, and yes, the crowd is also quite Chinese. The menus are all written in four languages, with Chinese and Russian being the main two followed by English and German. With over 400 different courses, the menu is frighteningly vast and does not seem to offer and logical structure. We decided to start with a variety of six different dim sums: Há cáo (steamed prawn dumplings, 4.30 €), Bánh lec gá (steamed lotus leaves filled with rice and meat, 4.50 €), Bánh bao xá xiú (fluffy buns filled with sweet roast pork, 3.20 €), Bánh xúon (steamed rice leaves with prawn filling, 4.50 €), Dau hu ky chiên (soy dough with pork filling, 3.20 €) and Chân vit háp (steamed duck feet, 3.20 €). Some were excellent (the pork buns and the prawn dumplings), some were both interesting and very good (the lotus leaves) some were nice (the rice leaves), bland (the soy dough) and then the duck feet were just a bit… different. They were pleasing once you got to understand which parts were edible and which parts were not. Another unexpected difficulty was dividing the lotus leaves in two. Now – you might say we should have just eaten them as they were, but there were four of us and two of them and each one was big enough to feed two people. The leaves were quite dividable, but they were held by their veins that were as solid as a man’s tooth (I might be exaggerating here, but it still was not possible to cut through them with a spoon). We had to order a knife, followed by a cross examination by the sceptical waiter, after which he frowned and handed over a set of silverware with a look of pure disdain covering his face. These white people, they can’t use their sticks properly.

Dim Sum in all its glory
Main courses

We then moved to the main courses, which were not easy to choose, as we had a list of 419 options to choose from. We compromised on a Cantonese stew of eel and grilled pork belly (also served with tofu, 18€), two kinds of squids in shrimp sauce (two kinds basically means the dry one and the rubbery one, 12.50 €) and two kinds of crispy ducks (Cantonese – with hoi sin sauce, and another one served together with different vegetables, both for 12.50 €). The food was served with one large bowl of white rice, which was actually more than enough for the four of us. All the portions were very generous, the stew was even nearly too big. The stew was great value and fantastic quality. The squids were quite alright: they were not fried to death and the texture was quite interesting, but the shrimp sauce was a tad disappointing. Both ducks were very well served: the meat was tender and the batter was just right. The hoi sin sauce was also quite good. The vegetables and the sauce of the second duck were a bit bland and did not add much to the overall taste.

We left thoroughly pleased and satiated. It felt like dining in one of the Chinese restaurants of my childhood: good food surrounded by perversely bright lights or just obscenely tacky images and figurines. I could not help but appreciate the element of fun and can only recommend the place for an amusing night out. Four prints, fair and square.

Overall mark:
Aroma - China Restaurant
Kantstraße 35, 10625 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 3759 1628

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