Skip to text

Global roaming: Berlin

Germany’s capital of cool is home to a diverse cultural landscape and a melting pot of nationalities. Vanessa Murray meets Berlin’s strong Turkish community who have enriched the city’s cultural and culinary offerings

An edited version of this article appeared in SBS Feast Magazine, October 2012

Every Tuesday and Friday for the past century, Maybachufer Strasse, a pretty, tree-lined street running alongside the Landwehrkanal (Landwehr Canal) in Neukölln, has been coming alive with the hustle and bustle of Berlin's biggest Turkish market, the Türkenmarkt.

Locals of native German and Turkish origin alike haggle over freshly made breads and cheeses, dips and dolma, produce, fish and meat, and goods imported direct from Turkey: jams, yoghurts, spices, coffee, and more.

There's no need to wait until you get home to indulge: many of the munchies on display – like the wares at Hüseyin Ayvaz’s stall – are Turkish snack foods, designed to be eaten on the move. Hüseyin does a roaring trade in various types of dolma, or stuffed vegetables, börek pastries layered with spinach and tulum, a soft white cheese, and the house specialty, gözleme, an oven-baked, soft flatbread baked in a sač – a large, bell-shaped metal dish covered with ashes and live coals – that his niece, 20-year-old Gökçe Agezoğlu, deftly fills with cheese, tomato and rocket then rolls for easy handling and eating.

Thirty-nine year old Hüseyin moved to Berlin from Trabzon, a city on the Black Sea on Turkey’s north-eastern coast, in 1987, and has been trading at the Türkenmarkt for eight years. In addition to his popular snack foods, he also sells homemade cheeses, dips, olives and breads, and, with up to 15 members of his family getting together to make breads like bazlama, a circular, leavened flatbread baked on a hot plate, and simit, a sesame-seed-covered cross between a bagel and a donut, it’s a bonafide family affair.

Gökçe and Hüseyin are just two of Berlin's estimated 110,000 German Turks. Between 3.5 million and 4 million people of Turkish origin – known as German Turks or Turkish Germans – live in Germany, and after the Germans themselves, form the country’s largest ethnic group.

Turks first settled in Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries, following the Ottoman Empire's unsuccessful attempt to expand its territories with sieges in Vienna in 1529, and again 1683. It was in the 1960’s that large scale waves of migration began, as Turks seeking relief from political unrest and mass unemployment at home took up the German government's offer to recruit foreign workers and relocated to Berlin.

They were allowed to settle in one of three suburbs: Neukölln, Wedding, and Kreuzberg. Today, Kreuzberg is affectionately termed Little Istanbul by the locals, and for good reason.

Successful restauranteur Kazim Binici's father, Veli, migrated to Berlin from Turkey’s second largest city, Ankara, in 1969. "He and my mother were village people; they couldn't read or write. But my father was always seeking a better life, so as soon as he could, he came to Berlin."

Kazim's father lived and worked in a carpet factory in the suburb of Wedding alongside other Turkish migrants until 1971, when ten-year-old Kazim, his mother and brother joined him in Berlin, and the family moved into a one bedroom apartment. Kazim's father continued working in the carpet factory. His mother Sediye found work in a laundromat, and had four more children.

Kazim and his brother Ali attended a class for migrant children in a German school for a couple of years until they learned German. Then, they were integrated into normal classes with German children. When he finished school, Kazim became a social worker, working with German and Turkish youth running amok on the streets of Berlin. Then, he ran a successful cocktail bar, and today he is the co-owner of a popular Turkish restaurant called Defne in Kreuzberg.

Defne is considered one of the best Turkish fine-dining restaurants in Berlin. Like the Türkenmarkt, it is located near the Landwehrkanal, and in summer diners sit outside and soak up the evening sunshine that keeps Berlin aglow until as late as 10pm. They can have an entrée, main and dessert from the East Anatolian-inspired à la carte menu, or dine meze-style by grazing on appetizers like amavut cigeri, lamb’s liver with onions, parsley, yoghurt-garlic sauce and herbed butter, or baharatli beyaz penir – pickled feta cheese with olive oil, fresh thyme, oregano, mint and rosemary on a bed of rocket and dried tomatoes.

Turkish food is typically simple and full of flavour. Like their neighbours in the Mediterranean, Turkish chefs value fresh vegetables, meat and seafood, fragrant olive oil, taste bud tingling spice combinations and the izgara, or grill. Middle Eastern influences like rice, dried fruits, grape leaves, yoghurt and spices like cinnamon and saffron are laid over the top, and Buyurun! Afiyet olsun! (Here you go! Bon appétit!).”

"I love Berlin," Kazim says emphatically over a mouth-watering platter of künefe, a sweet meets savoury dessert dish of shredded phyllo dough and a gooey cheese like mozzarella and a tall glass of 'mother's milk' – two fingers of raki (ouzo) a clear spirit that turns a cloudy white when iced water is added, and is a traditional Turkish beverage. "Berlin brought me up; it's one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It's different, it's unique. Berlin never sleeps! It's a nice mix of people of all ages and cultures; it's like a rainbow of colours."

It's true. Life on the streets of Berlin is culturally diverse, exciting and dynamic. Once, there was a sausage stand on every Berlin street corner; now, it's a kebab shop. In fact, the döner kebap, or doner kebab as we know it in the West today – lamb, beef or chicken strips served in a Turkish pita with salad and sauce – was invented in Berlin in the early 1970's by Mehmet Aygün, founder of the popular Hasir Kebab Houses.

Mehmet put the iskender kebab, which is normally served on a plate, in bread, and the doner kebab was born. He went on to invent the yoghurt sauce that accompanies many a late night kebab, and was hailed as a national hero when he died in 2009.

Ismail Firat, a softly spoken, gentle man from the city of Adiyaman in southeastern Turkey, came to Berlin in 1990. Soon after arriving he met Uzeyir Kahramanogli, and together they opened a cosy, blue-tiled eatery cum takeaway joint on a cobblestoned corner in Kreuzberg, Doyum Restaurant.

Meaning 'hearty', or 'satisfying' in Turkish, Doyum serves adana, doner, iskender and shish kebabs from 11am until late seven days a week, along with a range of pides, Turkish pizzas, salads, sweets and secret-recipe soups: such as kelle-paca corbasi (an oily soup with lamb's brains and trotters), and mercimek corbasi (a thick and creamy lentil soup).

Ismail takes his wife and children to Turkey to see family every couple of years, but has no plans to return permanently. "I will always feel more Turkish than German, but I've been here for 21 years; Berlin is my home. And my children? They are both German, and Turkish! Their lives are here; our lives are here."

Yet despite the popularity of Turkish food in Berlin, the relationship between the Turkish community and its host, Germany, is not always easy. In 2010, debate raged when Chancellor Angela Merkel told members of her Christian Democrats (CDU) party that Germany's approach to multi-kulti, or multiculturalism, has "failed, utterly failed".

"It's not true," Gökçe disagrees. "Multiculturalism is not dead; it's living. It's living here in Berlin, and Germany. Look at this market! It's full of people, different people, living side by side."

Others like Kazim Binici take a more pragmatic view. “I don’t really like the term multi-kulti. They’ve been talking about multi-kulti here for years: about immigration, emigration, integration. There are a lot of people with a Turkish background who speak little or no German. That’s just the truth!”

"Language is very important; you can get to know a culture better through its language,” continues Kazim. “Of course, it works the other way too; a language functions as a bridge between cultures. For example, if one of us is from Turkey and the other from Australia, it’s best if we both speak each other's language, so that we can better understand each other."

“There are many challenges for Turkish people in Germany,” says Ismail. “Policy is not on our side. If you are German, it is easier to get ahead. I am not against multiculturalism; I am not against other people. When people focus on multiculturalism, or on migrant people, they focus on religion.”

My religion is important to me, but it should not be important for Germany,” continues Ismail. “Today, for example, it is Ramadan, and I am fasting. But some of my staff, they are not fasting! That's okay; it is an individual thing.”

Merkel responds to comments like these by saying too little was required of immigrants in the past, and stresses that they must learn German in order to get by in school, find work and integrate with wider German society. But Merkel also gives German’s a reality check, by telling them they must accept that mosques have become part of their landscape.

She’s right. Forty-four mosques are spread throughout Germany, with four in Berlin alone, including the Ahmadiyya Mosque in Wilmersdorf, which was built in 1924 and is Germany's oldest mosque. Berlin also boasts two primary and two secondary schools, more than 300 community centres, numerous shisha cafes, and several hamams, or traditional Turkish baths, and a theatre, the Komische Opera Berlin, which has recently introduced performances in Turkish.

One overcast day, I visit the Women's Hamam in Kreuzberg, and spend an afternoon scrubbing and bathing and relaxing in its sumptuous surrounds. Located in a former chocolate factory, the Hamam was founded in 1988 and was the country’s first. Now, there are several more, including one at Soho House in Mitte, which welcomes both men and women for a more modern and more quintessentially Germanic (read: no bathers necessary) public bathing experience.

Berlin’s Turkish foodies have been quick to adapt their traditional Turkish fare to the German palate and way of life, too. It didn’t take long for 38-year-old Erol Çamli to realise that keeping the doors of his Turkish bakery just around the corner from busy Schlesischestrasse in Kreuzberg open all hours would be good for business.

“When we opened in 1994, we had normal opening hours. But I was here baking in the early hours of the morning - that is the baker's life! And I quickly realised we could be open then too – there were people around, they were looking in the window, they wanted to buy things.”

So he did, and today, Bakerei Salut is not only popular with locals wanting to buy fresh bread early in the morning, it’s a hot spot for club kids wanting a late night snack. Punters can choose from a range of sweet and savoury German and Turkish baked goods - think gebäck (almond-filled pastries), yufka (flatbread), and tahlina pasta (tahini cookies). It is however the king of Turkish sweets, baklava,  that reigns supreme as Erol’s most popular pastry.

Baking is in Erol’s blood. His father, Tefvik, owns two bakeries in the municipality of Beşiktaş in Istanbul, and all four of his brothers are bakers. “One is a traditional bakery selling a lot of bread,” says Erol, “and the other is more like Backerei Salut; it sells a little bread and a lot of sweets and drinks.”
Erol has witnessed Kreuzberg’s rapid gentrification firsthand. “We used to sell Turkish bread in big lots to large families living nearby, but that doesn't happen so much anymore; the big families aren't around.”

“People in Berlin are always in a hurry; they don't have time to stop and savor things. In Turkey, we like to eat our food slowly. We sit down together, we might listen to some music, we eat and talk, we enjoy it.”

That said,” he continues, “things are changing in Turkey too. Families used to bake at home; my mother always baked at home. Now, it's more common for people to buy their bread. I guess life is getting faster everywhere.”