We were huddled under the awning on a rainy summer’s evening at Shaniu's House of Noodles (which, in my mind, is the glorious House of Dumplings). Ash was writing down the Cantonese name for the off-menu beef and Szechuan pepper dish she had ordered for us (and which we had devoured in a thrice); Giulia was telling me about the readable, well-researched book she had just published on moving to Berlin. One regret, she mentioned, was not having enough space to write about finding American ingredients in Berlin. “You should write a guest post!” I said, and lovely Giulia, she did.
Demerera sugar. Cane sugar. Sugar in the Raw. It’s the bane of my existence as an American! What the Germans call brauner Zucker is nothing like the sweet, wet, clumpy masses I grew up with. No, my brown sugar had to be carved out of a block with a large spoon (or a chisel if you didn’t have a microwave and piece of apple handy to soften it up). It had to be pushed down into a measuring cup with the spoon, a sandy-sweet lick its own reward....
Naturally, when I first moved to Germany in 2008 and started missing home, my instinct, like many Americans, was to make chocolate chip cookies. But where was the brown sugar I knew and loved? For that matter, where were the chocolate chips? The tiny cardboard packages I’d seen at normal supermarkets labeled Schokotropfen looked more greyish than chocolate brown. When I went to bake gingerbread around Christmas time, molasses, it seemed was out of the question.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that American or English ingredients, like any specialty item in Germany, are not to be picked up at the corner grocer, but rather must be sought out like buried treasure, rooted out like truffles and then hoarded as though life depended on it. Some things will always have to wait until the next trip home—or at least until a friend who owes you a favor takes that trip. For others, there are Asian-run grocers, a few food boutiques, and, in desperation (or depth of pocket), the almighty KaDeWe.
Brown sugar: The first and most important ingredient, since a number of classic American baking recipes depend on your having oodles of this stuff on hand. The easiest place to find this is at every single Asian grocer (Asia Markt in German) in the city. Look for the baking aisle (which often includes things like cake flour, corn flour, corn starch, baking soda, and cream of tartar as well). These shops are some of the best resources in the city for just about everything. They stock all manner of hard-to-find vegetables, Asian leafy greens (kai lan, bok choy), and fresh herbs (coriander with roots still attached, Thai basil). The most central are the Asia-Mekong Supermarket at Hackescher Markt and now also at Alexanderplatz, Go Asia (formerly known as Amazing Oriental) on Kanstrasse in Charlottenburg and Turmstrasse in Moabit, and the Vinh Loi chain, which has locations as far apart as Wedding and Steglitz as well as one just north of KaDeWe.
Vanilla extract: Some of these places will even have vanilla extract, although don’t count on it. If you’re all right with tiny amounts of the heavenly stuff for high prices (in other words, if you need it for a one-time-only baking venture, and don’t use it regularly), head to the baking or spice sections of either Karstadt or Galeria Kaufhof. Be careful what you end up buying, though: you may find tiny bottles of vile stuff labeled “vanilla aroma.” This is not vanilla extract, but rather an artificial flavoring similar to vanillin. (Most Germans in need of vanilla flavoring use vanilla sugar—also an option, although the taste won’t be as intense.)
The best place to get vanilla extract is, unfortunately a bit exclusive: The membership-only bulk supermarket known as Metro. Fortunately, gaining membership is as simple as being a freelancer or business owner. The point of this place is to fulfill bulk orders for restaurants and other businesses, but it’s also full of foodies flying under the radar, picking up goodies from the excellent fishmonger, butcher and the extensive wine and cheese selections. There you’ll find vanilla extract, real and true, in 100ml bottles labeled Vanillaschoten Extrakt.
Meat and butchers
First-time visitors to Berlin can be surprised by the general dearth of good butchers in this town. Those who may have wished for a good-humored neighborhood butcher with a sinister, blood-spattered apron should have perhaps headed to the small-town cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses of southern Germany. The rest of us head to the backs of Turkish markets, where halal butchers carve up beef and lamb. In fact, Turkish markets are the only places in town to get good cuts of lamb at non-outrageous prices: your only other option is a department store like Karstadt, which will inevitably charge you much more, and won’t carve the cuts to order. There are still a few local meat purveyors that have not yet succumbed to the almighty supermarket display case: look for Neuland Fleischereien, which many Germans and an increasing number of non-Germans swear by: they sell humanely raised, free-range meat, with no antibiotics. If you’re going for that old-world charm in addition to good quality, however, Fleischerei Naesert in Friedrichshain and the Blutwurstmanufaktur in Neukölln are both worth a visit.
If you’re looking for a whole chicken (especially an organic one), the best selections will be at Ullrich, the supermarket in Bahnhof Zoo (inexpensive) or the poultry counter at Galeries Lafayette (expensive). From time to time, Ullrich has also been known to carry ground turkey meat, but if you’re looking to get something as “exotic” as that on a regular basis, you may be out of luck.
There were rumors several years back about an American food shop somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Happily, the place still exists, even though there aren’t too many American servicemen left to frequent it. Head down to American Lifestyle in Tempelhof for an astonishing array of baking products, dry goods, preserves and sauces, peanut butter, and of course the crucial breakfast cereals. They even carry vegan versions of a lot of popular products, and it’s probably one of the only places in the Germany capital where you can stock up on childhood candy delights like Nerds, Twizzlers, Lemonheads, and Red Hots. Oh, and the real Hershey’s semi-sweet morsels you need to bake classic American chocolate chip cookies? They’re here.
Have you been on the hunt for a product not mentioned here? Know another great store for brown sugar or carved-to-order rib eye steaks? Leave a comment – this post will be updated to incorporate reader tips.
Giulia’s book Finding Your Feet in Berlin: A Guide to Making a Home in the Hauptstadt is available here, here and in select Berlin bookshops.
Shaniu House of Noodles, Pariser Str. 58, Berlin-Wilmersdorf (map)
Asia-Mekong Supermarket, Henriette-Herz-Platz 1, Berlin-Mitte (map)
Galeria Kaufhof, Alexanderplatz 9, Berlin-Mitte (map)
Metro, An der Ostbahn 5, Berlin-Friedrichshain (map)
Neuland Fleischerei, many shops in Berlin carry the label, but a few are Frank Bauermeister, Danckelmannstr. 11, Berlin-Charlottenburg (map) and Neuland Fleischerei Kluge, Fuldastr. 56, Berlin-Neukölln (map) and Rüdesheimer Str. 3, Berlin-Wilmersdorf (map)
Fleischerei Naesert, Koppenstr. 31-32, Berlin-Friedrichshain (map)
Blutwurstmanufaktur, Karl-Marx-Platz 9-11, Berlin-Neukölln (map)
Ullrich, Hardenbergstr. 25, Berlin-Charlottenburg (map)
Galeries Lafayette, Friedrichstr. 76-78, Berlin-Mitte (map)
American Lifestyle, Attilastr. 177, Berlin-Tempelhof (