My first encounter with Berlin's vegan craze happened by accident. I came home from a language exchange boat party, still excited at the prospect of making Berlin friends and eager to search for all of my new contacts online. Having been a vegetarian since I was 11 years old and fully prepared to meet no allies in my new home, I was shocked to find the first person I looked up happened to be a vegan chef, based right here in Berlin.
In the year since I first saw Attila Hildmann's profile, his business has taken off. From self-publishing his cookbooks just a year ago to now being represented by a major German talent agency, appearing on several national cooking shows and getting his next book, "Vegan for Fun," put together by a professional publishing company, Attila is finding his vegan expertise in high demand.
"I'm getting calls or e-mails all the time from people who want me to open a vegan restaurant with them," he told me over a bowl of his home-made chocolate and peanut butter vegan ice cream.
Perhaps it was Jonathan Safran Foer's newest book, "Eating Animals," that kicked the vegan movement into high gear or maybe it's Berlin's international population creating a demand for diverse choices. Whatever the reason, Berlin is increasingly becoming a veg-friendly haven in Europe with every "soycinno" served and vegan restaurant built.
Where to eat
One day, while scouring through the flea market at Berlin's famous Mauer Park, I saw a long line of people standing in front of a green trailer. Assuming it was a line for ice cream or döner, I kept walking until I noticed a sign advertising a vegan sandwich with tofu steak, lettuce, sprouts, beets, tomatoes, fried onions, pickles, cucumbers and a "special sauce." Putting tofu and steak in the same category might sound like blasphemy to a meat-eater, but for a vegetarian, it sounds like protein heaven.
One bite and I was hooked; Sun Day Vegan Burgers became my new weekend treat.
"When I first got here three years ago, there was nothing for vegans that I could find," said Ray, Sun Day Burgers' founder. "So, I decided to find a way to promote cruelty-free food." Investing a few thousand euros in a trailer and some cooking equipment, Ray had his new restaurant colorfully painted and Sun Day Burgers was born. After a few rocky weeks of low sales, word spread, business picked up and Ray has more demand than he can meet.
"I just wanted to do it once a week as a way to be proactive in promoting vegan food," he told me while handing a free veggie burger to one of the park's workers. "Now, I might have to open another one because of all the requests. At this moment, we don't have enough space to service any more customers."
It's not just veggie burgers or fast-food vegan döner (affectionately known as "vöner") servicing the veg sector in Berlin either; there are vegan fine dining restaurants as well.
La Verde Mano is a soft candlelit restaurant nestled on a quiet street in Charlottenberg. It's a prime spot to bump into celebrity vegetarians stopping over in Berlin. The menu boasts both warm vegan dishes and gourmet raw cuisine. Recognizing the demand for high-quality vegan food, some of La Mano Verde's chefs have even branched out to open their own restaurants, like Viasko in the Kreuzberg district and Lucky Leek in Prenzlauerberg.
Lately, it seems like you have to work hard to avoid the vegan scene. While out for a run the other day, I passed right by the grand opening of a new restaurant in my neighborhood called Veganz and while looking for a good Sunday breakfast deal, I walked into Morgenrot - a cafe that serves only a vegan/vegetarian brunch. Sitting among my progressive peers, I thoroughly enjoyed a good helping of tofu scrambled "eggs," hummus, pinto bean salad, homemade peanut butter and vegan coco-puffs.
According to the online vegetarian guide Happycow, there are 56 establishments in Berlin that are completely or mostly vegetarian and vegan. The Berlin Vegan website lists 39 restaurants in the city and provides a guide for backpackers looking to grab an animal-friendly bite.
Now, Berlin wasn't coined "a vegan heaven" by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) just because it has some restaurants; the city is booming with activism as well.
The vegetarian summer festival held at Alexanderplatz in July is a day-long event with speeches on animal rights, songs about veganism, cooking demonstrations and dozens of booths sporting cruelty-free products and foods. The festival comes just a month after Berlin's veggie parade, which starts at Alexanderplatz and ends at the Brandenburg Gate, with some participants even dressed up as the very animals so many people like to eat. And, in order to come up with more ways to "veganize" the public, there is a monthly meeting for Berlin activists, with dinner at a different vegan restaurant each time.
But, while these activists may love animals, they don't necessarily all love each other. Attila's goal is to make the vegan movement mainstream, encouraging a change of lifestyle without completely changing one's life. He doesn't necessarily promote leather-free clothes or shoes and has clashed more than once with Berlin's more extreme activists.
"There are a lot of people who take it too far," he told me. "I mean, when I ate meat and saw people in animal costumes chanting, 'Meat is murder,' it didn't change my way of thinking. A lot of people still think vegans are nuts and that is part of the reason."
But, in Berlin, veganism doesn't even seem to be a fringe lifestyle anymore - which might actually do the movement more harm than good in this eclectic, alternative-lifestyle-loving city. Even diehard hamburger joints now offer at least one veggie burger on their menu and Berlin is also home to Umusan, the world's first (according to the company) high-end vegan fashion label.
While Berliners may be more likely to opt for the animal costumes over cost-inflated clothing, it is just one more sign of the city's meat-free transformation.
Author: Jenny Hoff
Editor: Kate Bowen