This is the story of a country smashed by 20th century wars; forcibly split into two states, the proxy battlefield of the superpowers. A country that has pulled itself out of the mud by sheer hard work.
Yes, that’s right, Vietnam. I have had a soft spot for Vietnam ever since reading Graham Greene’s novel about the last days of French colonial rule, the Quiet American. The hero was Thomas Fowler, a Times correspondent in constant conflict with his distant Redaktion. Even when he was played by the irritating Michael Caine in the 2002 film, Fowler always seemed to me to be a sympathetic character: cynical, yet capable of love.
I wanted to go to Saigon, hang around the seedy Continental Hotel where Greene used to write his articles for the Times – apparently it has not changed that much since the 1950s – but I never got round to it. Instead Vietnam came to me. You buy flowers from the Vietnamese and every half-way interesting street in Berlin now has a Vietnam restaurant. The Wilhelmstraße? The Heritage! The wilmersdorferstrasse? The Saigon Today and Viets.How strange it is to eat at Monsieur Voung on the Alte Schönhauser Straße, peer up at the large photograph of Dat Voung as a teenager and order dishes from the Mekong Delta. As schoolboys we followed every twist and turn of the war. For me, the Mekong doesn’t mean Tofu and ginger it means the frightening efficiency of the Viet Cong, the smashing of Ban Tre and the terrible statement of some long-forgotten American major: “sometimes it is necessary to destroy a town in order to save it.” Hah! But Mr. Voung’s soup based on Mekong recipes are just fine.
Most Berliners of a certain age know how the Vietnamese invaded the city. Some were Boat People who had fled the communist state. And others had been contract workers in the DDR, helping to pay off the Ostblock loans to communist Vietnam by building oil and gas pipelines or doing the dirtiest work in the Rostock shipyards. The second group was probably the most exploited group in Europe during the 1980s. They lived in primitive hostels, were underpaid by the DDR and out of that income had a big chunk deducted by the Vietnamese government. From what was left, they sent cash home to their families. After the Wende, many of these Vertragsarbeiter stayed, some of them illegally trading and smuggling (cigarettes from Poland); but all, legal or schwarz, managed to save money.
Out of this Kraftakt, 20 years after the Wende, has come the Vietnamisation of Berlin’s low-cost Gastronomie. And their children- now usually fluent in German – are taking over. Prenzlauer Berg is so densely populated with Vietnamese cafes it could just as well be Ho-chi-minh Berg.
A perfect model of immigrant assimilation, you could say. Twenty years ago they were exploited by the DDR; fifteen years ago many inhabited a judicial grey zone; now their offspring are paying German taxes, providing a useful service to Berliners and even employing native Germans.
But here is the problem: the Vietnamese are so sensitive to the market they have adapted their menus to what they think are German tastes. Eating at the Heritage last week I was offered Rindfleisch gebraten mit Ananas, süß-sauer for 5,80 Euros. Not exactly the authentic flavour of Asia, but a favourite, apparently, in the Wilhelmstraße. Alarm-bells should surely sound if you see a café offering Viet-Thai-sushi from one kitchen. I am not being snobbish about this. Britain’s favourite dish (Ahead of fish and chips) is, after all, the pseudo-Indian Chicken Masala. And I remember in the 1980s eating in Warsaw’s “Shanghai” restaurant “gefillte Fish Chinese style” (the cook had once worked with the Polish ambassador to Peking, came back with him to Warsaw and married a Polish-Jewish girl – the cuisine suffered accordingly).
The problem is that real Vietnamese cooking is distinguished by its use of seasonal vegetables and fresh herbs: mint,Zitronengras, ginger. Berliners reluctant to pay more than five Euros for a meat dish are being served up rubbish. They go home with painful stomachs and end up hating the Vietnamese. So it was a relief that I discovered a brand new Vietnamese snackbar on the Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg. It is called Babaubè – meaning three friends – and has been set up by three white boys from Wilmersdorf who have thoroughly researched Vietnamese cuisine. Graham Greene would certainly have gone there – it is the first attempt in Germany to revive Franco-Vietnamese cuisine, offering for example the Banh Mi sandwich which uses a special variation of the French baguette and marinated Vietnamese ingredients. “We bought the recipe for the bread from an old Vietnamese baker in Saigon,” one of the founders, Moritz Duettmann told me. It is delicious.
So: three German Germans bring to Berlin the French food that was introduced to Vietnam in the colonial occupation of Indochina. And it is going to compete not only with the eingedeutschte Vietnamese food cooked by Deutsch-Vietnamesen, but also with the doener and the currywurst (R.I. P.) as the fast food of the capital. Immigration is a complicated business, nicht wahr, Monsieur Sarrrazin?