Both fairly and unfairly, “German cuisine” has often been considered an oxymoron. Schnitzel, sauerkraut, and various kinds of wurst don’t have to be resistant to innovation; it’s just that, like the centuries-old Bavarian culture that spawned so many of the country’s signature dishes, they often are.
Then there is kooky Berlin, which offers a different sort of fare. The capital of Germany is also one of the global capitals of veganism, losing its No. 1 status to London recently on Happycow, the TripAdvisor of vegetarianism. It’s not just in aspirational islands like Mitte, where burger chains and Vietnamese lounges trumpet their PETA-friendliness to the street. In scruffy Neukölln, Turkish kebab stands also offer vegan options to passersby dressed in collars a deeper shade of blue.
This doesn’t surprise Berliners, who know that, culturally, “Berlin is not Germany,” says Sophia Hoffmann, one of the city’s better-known vegan chefs and the author of the cookbooks Vegan Queens and Zero Waste Küche. “There are a lot of expats living here, generally a very leftish crowd,” she explains. “And vegan eating is a big part of tourism,” which, in Berlin, runs very young. As canny restaurateurs started to smell opportunity, the number of establishments went up and up. “Turkish and Arab places remember the dishes they had that were always vegan, so it’s like, Hey, cool!”
Hoffmann has been cooking privately, in supper clubs and at vegetarian restaurants like Isla Coffee, near the Tempelhofer park, since 2011. Last year, she joined five other chefs at the James Beard Foundation’s annual Women Chefs Rule dinner, where she prepared an entirely plant-based dish of kasnudel, a Slovene boiled-potato-and-mint dumpling whose traditional ricotta filler she swapped for nut pulp, cauliflower purée with cumin oil, and a rainbow fritter of beets and potatoes with purple-cashew “sour cream.” In October, she will be speaking at Food on the Edge, a conference in Galway, alongside the Brazilian star chef Alex Atala and Australian sustainable-food restaurateur Matt Stone, and she’s currently working up a business plan to open her own restaurant in Berlin.
Just a Simple Picnic
Hoffmann has packed a picnic of some of her most social-media-approved recipes, which we’ve spread out to eat over a fair-trade-organic-cotton picnic blanket she designed with the local company Folkdays in the pocket-size Wildenbruchplatz, in Neukölln, near her apartment of the last 11 years. Frisky off-leash dogs drop by to sniff our capered-bread-crumb “meatless meatballs”; parsley rémoulade, which you’d never know substituted soy milk for egg yolk; pickled fennel tops; slaws of cabbage and ginger, and beet and radish; and a foraged arugula-and-sorrel salad with strawberry-stem vinaigrette. “I have my secret spots where I know the dogs don’t go,” she mentions of the greens. Despite the lack of forcemeats, the acidity in the vegetables, the choice of aromatic herbs, and the prevalence of umami are all unmistakably German on the palate. Nothing is boring or especially wholesome-feeling. There are no lentils. “Some vegans are so happy to get any acceptable food at all that they don’t always pay attention to quality, but I’m really critical,” she says.
“I have my secret spots where I know the dogs don’t go.”
Hoffmann has a dab hand with her native country’s spicing spectrum, but she draws a wide distinction between the greater German diet of meat, potatoes, and more meat, and this very isolated trend. “In France or Italy, food has to be high quality. In Germany, it has to be cheap. And comforting. I remember reading a study a few years ago that said Germans spend more on motor oil than olive oil. It’s connected to right after the war, when there was a lot of suffering. Then when we started to have money again, we got the tendency to overdo it—people started buying a lot, very cheaply, and letting half go to waste. Meat every day, for little money, was seen as a right.”
Nothing is boring or especially wholesome-feeling. There are no lentils.
Hoffmann came around to veganism for political reasons, out of empathy for animals. Her second mission, to cut down on the incredible waste of the food business, was due to her upbringing. “My parents are older, both born at the end of the Second World War, so they grew up having very little. Nothing was thrown away. I realized that not everyone has this background, which is why I did Zero Waste Küche,” a technical book focused on gastronomic upcycling. In it, Hoffmann analyzes 40 ingredients—ones commonly discarded in Germany, like apples, beets, and cabbage—for their re-use potential. “We’ve lost so much knowledge around food. ‘Is this still edible? What else can I do with it?’” At Isla Coffee, leftover steamed milk becomes yogurt and ricotta. Strawberry tops infuse vinegar, like the one on our salad. Week-old pastries make phenomenal French toast. “When I do my own almond milk, I used to wonder what to do with the leftover pulp,” Hoffmann says. “I turned it into this almond feta that I bake with rosemary and garlic and olive oil. It’s fantastic on toast.”
“When I do my own almond milk, I used to wonder what to do with the leftover pulp.”
A commitment to upcycling requires ingenuity, which leads to innovation. It turns out that leftover coffee grounds can be compressed into a ceramic-like material that looks like Scandinavian stoneware. And the liquid in which canned white and garbanzo beans are often packed is an amazing substitute for egg whites, which means the world of properly textured macarons and mousses is no longer off-limits to vegans. It’s a different kind of thinking than what’s taught at hidebound and often French-influenced culinary schools, which is one reason Hoffmann never bothered. “I cook vegetarian, and there’s no proper education for that; these old-school educational systems don’t feel like they have to change. And every woman I know who has gone to cooking school has experienced verbal or physical sexist harassment. Do you really need that in your life?” Old hierarchies do not interest her, which is very Berlin. “I prefer to un-fuck these things,” she says.
Alexandra Marshall is a writer based in Paris