The sun was out and the good denizens of Berlin’s Kottbusser Tor were on their way to lunch, coffee, a little bit of shopping. Or they were just loitering: it is, after all, a great place to loiter. I was waiting for a friend at everyone’s favourite Kreuzberg treffpunkt (meeting point), outside Kaisers supermarket – only it was no longer Kaisers, it had changed into Rewe due to a wholesale takeover of the Kaisers Tengelmann group by the Edeka owned Rewe; that is the food industry part of this article taken care of. As I was saying, I was waiting outside Kaisers, I mean Rewe, and the sun was shining and people were coming and going through the supermarket’s doors and I shuffled on my feet and took in the scene absentmindedly as one does when you’re waiting for a friend who has yet to show.
I noticed that there were some canvassers handing out flyers, the usual fare one sees during an election campaign: a little table or cart, in this case it was a box bike, an umbrella, some young adults, earnest entreaties with an outstretched hand as the canvassers sidle alongside the passersby, offering whatever politics their party peddles. Hope, optimism, indignation, platitudes, tax deductions, child care, intolerance. Only curiously these guys were also handing out wooden spoons. So I thought to myself, hey, I’d like a wooden spoon for my kitchen, so I kind of had to move from my spot as the canvassers had the good sense not to overly petition those stationary and waiting, that could, in the odd etiquette of pedestrianism, be a form of harassment. So I approached tentatively and essayed a sudden show of interest in their politics. Of course this was easy, like taking candy from a baby, as the rather dodgy cliché goes.
What they were giving out – and let me be open that the ‘they’ in question happened to the be the SPD, the German Social Democratic Party – was a wooden spoon, along with a little pamphlet that was in fact a recipe book containing the party’s Berlin candidates and their favourite recipes. On the cover was the line: Zeit für etwas Gutes (Time For Something Good) and showed some colourful ingredients on a rustic wooden table. I must admit that my first thought was that not a single person would actually cook a single one of the recipes inside this little glossy throwaway pamphlet. I said thanks to the guy and retreated back to my waiting spot by the entrance to the Kaisers that was now a Rewe and started to flick through the recipes. The collection was introduced by Martin Müller, the mayor of the city, and had on first glance a wide selection of perfectly boring and varied dishes. It also included at the back a contribution by Martin Schulz, the party’s candidate for the Chancellorship and the only possible contender against ‘mutti’, aka Angela Merkel. But more about them later.
Then while continuing to wonder where my mate was, I noticed a face I recognised and in fact realised that one of the candidates that I had subconsciously grown familiar from the posters adorning every lamppost in my neighbourhood was in fact standing right in front of me. I could have been excited about seeing a celebrity if it wasn’t for the fact that she was but a politician, whose policies or background I knew nothing about other than her happy face beaming down from posters all over the hood… I leafed through the pamphlet and yes indeed, there she was: Cansel Kiziltepe, the candidate looking to get her second term in the Bundestag, having been elected for the constituency of Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg Ost four years previously.
But this is not about politics, it’s about food. So let’s cut to the chase here: sure Müller goes on in his introduction about how food brings people together and we all sit around the proverbial table and ‘stop and talk with one another’, and sure everyone should be able to eat in society and not go hungry – the SPD are basing their campaign on social justice after all, but really they probably just sat around a table themselves and thought, what can we give out that’s not a badge or a free pencil? What about a wooden spoon? It kind of evokes justice and discipline, so we could encroach on the traditional turf of the CDU, but then give out a recipe book and make our candidates seem human.
Does Angela Merkel know how much a litre of milk costs? Probably. But I doubt she could allow her party to ever give away a wooden spoon, that would look slightly hysterical, mutti gone mad.
I stood there in the sun and I watched as Kiziltepe chatted to one of Rewe’s bemused employees who was out catching a cigarette break and seemed happy enough to chat with the politician. Perhaps they knew each other. I was suddenly taken by the beautiful fragility of the world, of being a Kreuzberger myself albeit one who cannot vote in the national election, of being in a democracy whose representatives give out wooden spoons so that we can go forth and try out their favourite recipes, that politics are a boring game that most people can afford to think about only in passing and I resolved there and then to try out Frau Kiziltepe’s recipe.
Her recipe was Gefüllte Paprika mit Hackfleisch – stuffed peppers with minced meat. She mentions how this is a classic of German and Turkish cuisine, although it is certainly more Turkish than German, one could possibly say it is part of German cuisine only because so much Turkish cuisine is cooked in Germany, but this is to get lost in syllogism: she points out that it is cooked widely in her constituency and this is of course true, Kreuzberg and the neighbourhoods emanating out from Kottbusser Tor are indeed predominantly Turkish. She also recommends the vegetarian variant of this dish, providing the Turkish Zeytinyağli Biber Dolmasi, from which you can quickly see the word dolma, which is the generic term for the wider genealogical branch of stuffed peppers and vegetables in general which is one of those dishes that has colonised large swathes of land over time. Wrapped vine leaves are a cousin. As is the cabbage leaf variety. Hot or cold, usually with meat for the former, vegetarian filling for the latter. With a dollop of yoghurt or chopped parsley.
So this was the dish that I would inaugurate my new wooden spoon with by cooking it up for friends. I had no shortage of shops to get the ingredients and while it was a dish I was familiar with, it was not one I had ever cooked, or even had contemplated cooking.
The ingredients she listed were as follows:
- Around 8 mid size peppers (green are best)
- 300g of mince meat (beef and lamb mix)
- 2 midsize tomatoes
- 2 small onions
- 50g of rice (basmati)
- 1 table spoon of tomato puree
- Dry chilli
- 2 garlic cloves
- Salt, pepper, thyme, cumin and peppermint
- Chopped parsley
The cooking instructions can be roughly summarized as:
chop off and retain the head of each pepper and deseed them, then put all the other ingredients in a mixing bowl – remembering to wash your rice – and then stuff carefully the peppers with this mix. Put them in water in a pot, up to about half of their length. I put some tomato puree and some chili, salt and pepper also into this water, bring to boil and then let simmer, covered with a lid, for around half an hour.
I must say there was something pleasing about lifting the lid and seeing the mix transform into fat, white rice with a reddish hue, with the aroma being the distinct peppery piperaceaem rawness of the plant mingled with the spices. I explained to my guests the idea behind the main course and there was curiosity about this somewhat unexpected dish that I was preparing, certainly coming as it did after some courses that were perfectly boring and familiar. (If I was a SPD candidate and had to provide my one go-to recipe I can’t quite imagine what I would dare inflict upon people).
And while this isn’t a political article – rather improbably I have met both candidates personally and I will withhold my opinion of them, for that is another story – there is something to think about when you consider this Irish guy cooking Turkish-German food for dinner for his Swedish, Norwegian, Irish, German, Canadian and Brazilian guests. Angela Merkel gave a bizarre speech in 2010 in which she declared that the multi-kulti project had failed, which was a brazen piece of political chicanery playing to the rightwingers in her party, and trying to take back the centre right (and indeed general right) ground from the other xenophobes existing in the land. Of course history has a funny way of advancing and so it is that mutti is now on the other foot, famously letting almost a million refugees into the country in 2015, declaring that wir schaffen das, we will manage this huge migration and integration challenge, and indeed this election, no thanks to the likes of AfD and company, has largely been focused on integration, Islam and Turkey. Indeed I write this the day after the TV debate between the two candidates and almost the entire first half of the 90 minute ordeal was taken up by these exact topics. Brexit wasn’t mentioned once. And while Brexit is rightfully of no interest in the German national debate – from the POV of Germans, it’s a willfully strange decision by the British – one could argue that the very same fixation on what migration and the movement of people and goods does to a society and how politicians respond to the outcomes, good and bad, led to the dangerous lies by nationalist xenophobes like Farage and company. And that is why the UK is in danger of being just three days away from empty supermarket shelves. This modern day fact was demonstrated by Edeka recently when the supermarket emptied the shelves of one of its outlets in Hamburg of all foreign produced produce, or produce reliant on foreigners. It was a pretty empty shop.
And while it’s not enough for me to say here that food and the history of food is a history of borders being breached and culture being exchanged, because that would be lazy. But it’s pretty clear how we can see that stuffed peppers, so abundant along the shores of the Mediterranean, migrated into Anatolia from ancient Greece and were picked up by the Ottoman Empire and in turn spread further and slowly gained variance and divergence, taking on the tastes and characteristics of the people of the Balkans and the Caucasus into Russia, across the Middle East and as far as Kottbusser Tor.