If your taste buds are looking for some exotic stimulation, the place to go is not a five-star restaurant, but Berlin's "fabric market." DW's Tam Eastley ate her way from Brazil to Nigeria - in the German capital.
When I visit Berlin's street markets, I tend to window shop - or should I say table shop - and prefer to keep my euros in my wallet.
At the Stoffmarkt, or fabric market, which takes place every Saturday along the canal on the Maybachufer, I enjoy wandering through the crowds, eyeing the hand-made jewelry made of antique spoons and forks.
Leafing through the stacks of fabric, from orangey-gray tweed to cotton checkered pastel, I rub the material between my thumb and middle finger and imagine what I would make with it if I ever learned to sew. A jacket, perhaps, or a wrap-around skirt? I normally do a few laps, consider making a purchase, then decide I don't actually need any of it and leave, empty handed but satisfied.
Through your stomach's eyes
One day, I come to the market hungry and am surprised to find that my rumbling stomach has given me brand new eyes for the Stoffmarkt: I discover dozens of food stands I had previously overlooked. Not only do they serve delicious on-the-go treats, but they also represent Berlin's multicultural population and its continued growth into a haven for internationals. To my delight, a huge amount of the offerings align with my vegetarian diet, so I can partake to my heart's (and stomach's) content.
My first stop is at Panzerotto, which sells little pizza pockets that are hand-made and deep fried on site. The puffy vegetarian pastries about the size of a coin purse are filled with tomato sauce, mozzarella and oregano. The women at the table, from Rome, explain over their deep frying and dough rolling that the snack comes from southern Italy. Handed over the counter with a single napkin, they are soft and salty, and steam rises through the pocket as I bite into the fresh dough.
Barely through my first purchase, my eyes settle on the arancini, a Sicilian specialty filled with rice, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and peas. Elated at another vegetarian find, I buy two. Biting into one, its hard outer shells crack to reveal its deliciously greasy insides.
I'm lured away from Panzerotto - and from the European continent - by a stand called Tante aus Marokko (Aunt from Morocco) and the bstila I see there: filo pastry expertly folded around spinach, chopped potatoes, and topped off with a spritz of lemon. It's surprisingly heavy to hold, and unexpectedly spicy.
A friend picks up the bean stew, made with potatoes, onions, corn, celery, and beans. It is hearty and delicious on a chilly day down by the canal, but also very spicy. We fight over a water bottle, our eyes watering, our mouths salivating.
Global puzzle pieces
Stopping for a break at the Queen Cha tea stand for some Milk Oolong, I meander through the market the way I used to: "just looking." A woman is selling large, hand-painted canvases displaying waves crashing against rocks. FotoLampe Berlin displays lamps made with transparent photos of the city wrapped around a bulb. And BuchBauBerlin's beautiful assortment of hand-made notebooks and photo albums call out to my wallet, their covers decorated with maps of Berlin's various neighborhoods.
Another stand draws crowds with its large prints of the capital's many abandoned spaces. I pause along the canal to watch one of the season's first tourist boats glide past, and to gaze dumbfounded at a few brave souls kayaking through the choppy cold water. Handfuls of people walk past, a mixture of languages merging together to form an indecipherable puzzle.
Having finished my tea, I make a beeline for Ruby Rabbit, a small cake and coffee stand whose plates of treats are sparse after a successful afternoon of sales. After humming and hawing over the banana bread and chocolate brownies, I order the last slice of carrot cake with cream cheese icing.
Cake still in hand, I pop in at the Brazilian food stand. A woman is stirring a large pot of galinha no molho de coco, a chicken-coconut dish with vegetables. The spicy coconut aroma from the miniature kitchen is delectable. A woman beside me shrieks with joy upon seeing the feijoada, a Brazilian bean stew with meat, served with rice and manioc flour, and tells her friends in quick, accented German that they just have to try it.
With nothing vegetarian to sample (the deep-fried cheese pockets normally served here are sold out), I settle on a can of the Brazilian soft drink Guaraná, which tastes like candy necklaces, a throwback to my childhood.
Something to show for it
Moving on, I decide against the British Fish and Chip stand with its Union Jacks and French fries in a cone, and instead stop in front of Unique, Tasty and Lecker, a table of Nigerian cuisine that has just debuted at the market. Fried yam root, cooked banana, tomato rice with potatoes, olive tomato sauce, bean moimoi, chakalaka vegetables from South Africa, and an assortment of fish beckon from paper plates and chafing dishes.
Off to one side are English meat pies and Scotch eggs. Christina Zosi, who is manning Unique, Tasty and Lecker tells me that these foods are common in Nigeria, which was once an English colony. Zosi explains each of the foods in mouthwatering detail, and I decide on the fried yam and bananas in bean and tomato sauce. She turns on her small oven top, oils up a frying pan, and throws in my chosen ingredients.
Presented in an unpretentious Chinese food take-away container, the combination of sweet and savory is refreshing, with subtle spices from the tomato sauce adding a welcome tanginess. It's a definite highlight of the market, and I make a mental note to start here next time.
With a full stomach and the unfinished remainder of Zosi's delicious dish in a bag to be savored at a later date, I decide it's time to leave. As I slowly pull myself home on my creaking bicycle, I'm content with the addition to my new Saturday tradition and, for once, I have something to show for my day out at the market.