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Germany Diary

Where you get the best Chinese food outside China

Print edition : Sep 03, 2022 T+T-

Where you get the best Chinese food outside China

Dim sum, a representational image

Dim sum, a representational image | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

A food odyssey by Indians homesick for Chinese food in Deutschland.

My wife and son stop in Hamburg, en route to the Baltic Sea. It is cool, they tell me triumphantly. I am marooned in the south, near Stuttgart, where we have lived these past three years. I am suffering through Europe’s latest heat wave of this scorching year. But their gloating doesn’t end with the weather.

“Real xiaolongbao!” My son smacks his lips, his eyes closed. “Actual soup inside!” The real deal, my wife assures me. The restaurant is called Yu Garden; it is set up like a tea house; there are koi in the pond! In other words, a kitsch paradise.

Like all such places, it is designed to cater to fantasies for those who’ve never been to the place it is meant to evoke, and the homesick. Who knew that my wife, son, and I would end up being homesick for China?

Bursts of flavour

This is how we measure cities now that we don’t live in the Middle Kingdom. Do they serve good Chinese meals, made by actual Chinese people? Extra points are awarded for jianbing, our favourite street food when we lived in Beijing: a savoury crepe made to order on a piping hot plate, best enjoyed on a bitingly cold winter’s day: and the aforementioned xiaolongbao; originally Shanghainese, these steamed bursts of flavour are a mainstay of dim sum menus globally. 

My son and I hankered after Indian food when first we moved to Beijing in 2016. But ghar ki murgi was soon replaced by other tastes, textures, sights, and smells. My well-travelled son already had an educated palate. But every corner of Beijing had its own secret. As for myself, having grown up in pre-liberalisation India, Chinese food had meant chop suey and hot sour soup. I’ve spent a lifetime since trying to cleanse the Sino-Ludhiana off my tongue.

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Being in China was a whole new world. My son led our visitors on triumphant tours of menus in Beijing. “The braised croaker!” “The beef in chilli oil!” “That pork was Chairman Mao’s favourite dish!” “The duck there is amazing! But it’s Cantonese-style, of course. If you want Beijing duck, we’ll have to go to this other place.”

Among other things we weren’t prepared for when we arrived in Germany in 2019: Chinese restaurants run by Vietnamese, serving lemon and mango chicken, and frequently sushi as well. “Asian restaurant,” my then pre-teen would say sagely. “Definite red flag.” He’d remember his favourite dishes before he went to bed. Often there would be a recitation of his favourite meals in Beijing, which friend he was with, a landmark that the place was close to. It was a cartography of the city, the life he had left behind. 

This new place that he was trying to come to terms with; where were the memorable meals? “It’s like Germans don’t care about food,” he said gravely.

When I was his age, Fujiya in Malcha Marg was the pinnacle of good Chinese in Delhi. We didn’t even know enough to query its Japanese name. How things change. 

New maps to eat by

Saarlouis is a smallish town down by the French border. It is pleasantly nondescript, memorable to us purely because it has a Chinese restaurant called East, run by a woman from Beijing.

The jianbing is on point; crisp, bursting with flavour, spiced just as we’d asked. No, she said regretfully; no xiaolongbao. She is Hui Muslim, and doesn’t do anything with pork. But she was delighted with my son’s shy efforts to speak to her in Chinese.

This too is a fixture in our culinary wanderings: I ask my son to order, waiting for the server’s eyes to light up in recognition. Small things, but important to us, just as they are to other wanderers seeking connections to places and worlds they have left behind. 

A Tianjin-style Jianbing guozi
A Tianjin-style Jianbing guozi

In Munich last year, I found what I consider the best jianbing in Germany. Little more than a kiosk, LeDu in Stachus Passagen serves them the way I remember; you specify toppings and heat, the cook makes it while you watch and wraps it in paper, and you eat it to the side.

Up in Frankfurt, the aptly named Jianbing Plus serves up a perfectly decent portion, albeit in a sit-down setting. Also in Frankfurt is Madame Mei, a cheery place with a fantastic menu. Much more upmarket, its xialongbao hit all the spots, our friends happy to be guided by us and our amiable Malaysian-Chinese waiter.

Friends in Berlin took us by Liu Chengduweidao, a no-frills Sichuan-style noodle restaurant that serves dishes hot enough to make Indians sweat, a cautionary tadka of chilli oil glistening on the surface of every bowl. The line was around the block. 

“These people actually get it,” my son whispered, happily tucking in. The meat, the light noodles, the red broth and bright green vegetables and garnish: the colours in our bowls captured what we’d been missing in the flat beige of Germany’s culinary landscape.

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Let me wrap up with a couple of our local mainstays. The first is CQ Flavour in Stuttgart. Also Sichuan-style, its culinary cues come from Chongqing. The comfort of its staples and its proximity has made regulars of us.

Speaking of comfort: we found actual jiaozi (dumplings) and other dim sum in San Bao in the nearby town of Tübingen, a medieval university town where we made our first hesitant forays after the first lockdown of 2020 had ended. We went back numerous times that first month. In a difficult time, while we were still new in Europe, San Bao was like a beacon.

Of such connections and landmarks are new maps made.