Berlin’s Vegan Food Scene Is Flourishing

When Tran Mai Huy Thong was growing up as a vegetarian in West Germany, his peers couldn’t comprehend his choice to not eat meat.

As an adult, he moved to Berlin in the early 2000s, and his options for dining out in Germany’s capital were slim, with meatless options largely limited to Vietnamese-run restaurants — and even then, a dish with fish sauce or chicken broth may have been labeled vegan.

In Germany’s capital, Mr. Tran, the son of Vietnamese refugees who was working in fashion, also began doing concept designs for restaurants. Partly out of frustration with his own lack of choices, he gave clients a discount if they added a vegan dish to the menu.

He was confident his clients would discover that he was not alone in wanting more vegan-friendly menus.

“I tried to confront people in an easy way, to tell them that there are a lot of people out there, younger people out there, they think about their food, their health,” Mr. Tran said.

Mr. Tran’s conviction that there was a lot of pent-up demand proved accurate.

Twenty years later, Berlin’s thriving vegan dining scene reflects a broad host of cultural and culinary influences, with the city having become one of the richest vegan food cities in Europe, thanks in large part to risk-taking transplants attracted by the city’s openness to experiments.

Now, most bars, cafes and restaurants — as well as corner snack stands, canteens and even the Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s state-owned railway — are stocked with options like oat milk and veggie currywurst.

Ron Meyer, a founder of Veganfreundlich, an organization that has cataloged the hundreds of vegan dining options in Berlin, said the city’s “decay and reconstruction” made it “ideal breeding ground for new ideas and alternative lifestyles,” including veganism.

The neighborhood of Neukölln, a longtime immigrant enclave where artist studios and trendy coffee shops have popped up next to Turkish supermarkets and hookah bars, has come to embody the city’s evolving food scene and its embrace of veganism. Here, the entirely vegan menu of Spanish tapas at Alaska Bar is hardly out of place.

Late on a weeknight, Estefania Eid Jordan, a Berlin resident, was halfway through a plate of foie gras made from mushrooms, lentils and walnuts. Her 1-year-old Chihuahua, Ramona, was curled up under her coat.

Ms. Jordan is not vegan, but had a simple explanation for what had brought her here: “You don’t really miss meat,” she said. “The options are really good, the food is tasty, the people are very friendly.”

Alaska Bar was opened nine years ago by Estefanía Medina and David Ballesteros, both of whom had moved to Berlin from Spain.

They had no previous experience running an eatery, but Ms. Medina set ambitious goals for each handcrafted recipe, curdling ricotta made from almonds in-house and crafting tortilla de patatas with chickpea flour substituted for eggs.

The most popular menu items include the nut-based cheese boards, made from scratch daily, and patatas bravas with a thick, crispy exterior that holds up when doused in housemade Sichuan chili oil.

“We do things quite elaborately that you cannot find in other places,” Mr. Ballesteros said.

Mr. Tran has himself opened a series of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Berlin that experiment with traditional East Asian food.

A follower of the five precepts of Buddhism, the first of which calls on the faithful to not take the life of a living creature, Mr. Tran drew inspiration from the food served by Buddhist monks and nuns.

His latest venture, Oukan, is in Berlin’s central district, Mitte, tucked away in a dark alley behind a bright red door. The eight-course menu and tea pairing selected by a tea master plays with fermentation techniques on everything from tofu to kombucha, with the fermenting done in a vast tunnel under the restaurant.

In one course, soy replaces steamed eggs to achieve the perfect consistency for chawanmushi, a traditional Japanese custard. And in a noodle-like dish, king oyster mushrooms are steeped in kombu (an edible kelp) for three days to intensify the umami flavor before being sliced into strips, grilled on charcoal and dusted with koji powder.

Several blocks away, the Alexanderplatz location of Brammibal’s Donuts was bustling on a weekday, the pink interior matching the pink sprinkle on the doughnuts behind the display case, with the shop offering a less experimental but more Instagramable side of Berlin’s vegan scene.

After moving to Berlin in 2014, Jessica Jeworutzki began selling doughnuts baked in her apartment’s kitchen. They became so popular that people would fly across Europe for the chance to snag one at a pop-up, only to be left in tears when the doughnuts sold out. When Brammibal’s opened a permanent storefront in 2016, the doughnuts kept disappearing.

“We have 14 different flavors, and they change every month, and all our coffee drinks are also vegan,” Ms. Jeworutzki said. Most in demand are the custard-filled Berliner-style doughnuts. Of these, the bienenstich, topped with an abundance of finely shaved almonds, is especially popular, even at more than 4 euros each, or nearly $5.

For Ms. Jeworutzki, vegan since 15, it’s no small feat for her high-end doughnuts to have gained such popularity. “You have a lot of cafes that also do vegan options, but then maybe they still serve dairy because they’re afraid they might lose customers if they went all vegan, and I always think it’s a bit of a shame,” she said.

For Berlin’s more budget-minded vegans, there’s Yoyo Foodworld, a fast-food restaurant that opened in 2008. The owner, Nihat Karayel, hoped his vegan spot would attract the city’s large population of open-minded, environmentally aware people who don’t make a lot of money.

The menu features vegan takes on German fast food, from smoky döner meat served with a salad to more than 15 burger varieties.

His concept for his customers, Mr. Karayel said, was “eating really good and cheap, and after, you are never hungry.”

However odd vegan fast-food might have been to Berliners two decades ago, it now seems right at home in the capital.

“It’s typical Berlin style,” said Ben Neu, a longtime Yoyo Foodworld customer, who sat on a picnic bench in front of the restaurant, reading a newspaper next to the remnants of a burger. “It’s simple, a bit rough, you know?”

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