To say Markthalle Neun was one the highlights of our trip would be a gross understatement.
We first planned to go the international street food market on the Wednesday, so when the day finally came, we made sure to build up a hefty appetite before venturing down to eastern edge of Kreutzberg on Eisenbahnstraße, to avail of the celebrated fare on display midst a deluge of hipster foodies.
Unfortunately, much to our dismay, when we entered the market hall it was almost completely empty with only a few stalls either finishing up for the day or setting up for the next. There was life in that place though, I could feel it, residual energy left behind from the last time it was full of people and its stands full of food.
After asking around, I soon realised that not all hope was lost, and that I had only come a day early. Thank goodness.
We sat down on a wooden bench by what looked like a desolate butcher shop next to the Markthalle Neun entrance and reorganised our schedule for the next day. One of the museums we were to visit was not going to be visited. Tough. To make Maddy feel better about my insistent desire to come back, I managed to find a video online that demonstrated what the place looked like when busy. Bear in mind I hadn’t seen what it did look like before, so my reaching out to YouTube was a sort of hail Mary, a leap of faith and I was definitely rewarded.
Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ystiaVHUSYc
There is something about warm lighting that both excites and comforts me. There must be something scientific about it but I think it’s to do with the calming effects of fireplaces and reddish light of bedside lamps. Only recently, when viewing houses in London, we entered a decrepit box room near Great Portland Street where there were cracks on the wall, mould laying siege to the window sills and a sign on the staircase door advising people not to feed rice to mice. I’m not even kidding. But despite all these things, a part of me actively considered taking a room there simply because of a solitary paper lamp that made a room feel even more homely than some of the nicer places we’d seen. With this in mind, consider my entering Markthalle Neun, hungry once again albeit intentionally so, and being bathed in the sombre glow of low hanging light bulbs, fairy lights and lanterns accentuating the welcoming effulgence of the stalls now surrounded by happy, happy people. Even with food on my mind, for a few moments I couldn’t help but bask in the pure positive juju of the place, charged by good vibes and strangely harmonious amalgamations of aromatics and hipster incense.
I didn’t know where to start.
Glistening oysters on ice, inch-thick steaks hard searing on grills, fresh bread rising in ovens, noodle masters kneading and weaving strings of dough, molten gold being scraped of gigantic cheese wheels, fajitas sizzling in cast iron skillets, cold meats and different kinds of more sophisticated cheeses having conversations with vintage glasses of wine, cheers, people singing, others in deep conversation and more in ecstasy mid chew, all came together to form the victual wonderland that was Markthalle Neun.
While Maddy refreshed herself in the restroom, I engaged in thorough Markthalle Neun reconnaissance, scrutinising every stall that seemed even vaguely interesting. The fact of the matter was that we could not afford to have more than four or five plates between us. Berlin was only the beginning and we had weeks of eating, I mean travelling, ahead of us. But none of these things came to mind. When she eventually got out I just pointed at stand with the longest line and said, ‘we must have what they want’ and went from there. The simplest strategy in the book of safe food experimentation: find the longest line and wait in it, there are usually only good things waiting for you at the end of them.
The first of these ended with the most amazing Bao buns I had ever had and the first Maddy had ever tasted. Our first bites forced us to find a seat.
The bun demanded respect. Steam breathed out of pillowy white dough as I squeezed in preparation for my second mouthful, unctuous juices of braised beef cheeks oozed from the top and onto the edges. Unlike the bao buns that I’ve tried before, ones with meat accompanied by pickled carrots and cucumber, this one had crushed peanuts, cilantro and two slices of red chilli.. The meat was so tender that the soft buns seemed to give more chew. The sweet aromatics of the meat liquor balanced by the spice of the chillies, the saltiness and crunch of the peanuts, alongside the fresh herby tang of the cilantro and the relish, all in one bite, was nothing short of glorious. Maddy who does not usually eat meat said that it was one of the best things she had ever eaten in her life, and I had no choice but to concur. The Bao Kitchen stall at Markthalle Neun was the only one in which we decided to get two plates instead of one and we regret nothing.
The question then became, ‘where do we go from here?’.
We made the rounds a few more times before settling on a vegan hotspot. Not the worst decision, we made in Berlin, but still not a very good one. We were deceived by the line at the place which was there not because the food was good, but because it was the only vegan stand in the market. The wait was unreasonably long. Probably because as vegans stereotypically do, they were running down their list of dietary specifications before settling on raw veg in a corn tortilla with vegany vegan sauce. I don’t mean to be horrendous, but just thinking about what I could have spent my money on instead of that messianic cattle fodder made me cringe a little. But it was only fair that we try something that Maddy was interested in.
When our turn finally arrived, Maddy ordered a titillating portion Tofu balls on zucchini noodles.
Okay, it wasn’t horrible, but if I had known what it would taste like beforehand I definitely would have begged to spend our money elsewhere. I can’t remember but they cost between €4.50-6, the going rate for most of the plates in Markthalle Neun. While the tofu balls were dry as bread, the zucchini noodle salad was refreshingly cool component and the vegan BBQ sauce tasted like the regular variety, which, I suppose, is often the best compliment one can give to a vegan alternative. This may seem like I am biased against veganism but I’m really not. It’s just that whenever we’ve tried eating vegan, it’s never been very good.
It is safe to say that all was great from there on out. We tried some freshly baked focaccia bread pizza, a gnarly Jamaican ginger ale, some tasters from the Japanese and Mexican stalls, and finally wound up following a trail of wonderfully cheesy plates back to a quaint tent selling raclette plates. If one is looking for something specific and is too shy or considerate to ask someone, what Maddy attributes to her Englishness, simply walk in the opposite direction of the person that walks past you with the food you want and more often than not you find what you are looking for.
For a long time, we were haunted by those viral videos going around Facebook of waiters coming to diners with wheels of cheese, and scraping a sumptuous layer of bubbling gooeyness over a plate of potatoes and bacon. When we first laid eyes on one such a plate in the hands of a man nonchalantly walking by, Maddy and I both looked at each other in the way people on the same wavelength cheesily do in films, and like a pair of bloodhounds, tracked down the scent.
It’s a simple dish really. Sautéed potatoes with onions, garlic and bacon, generously coated in melted cheese, seasoned with cracked black pepper and paprika, and garnished with chopped spring onions – drool. But what really balanced the plate and allowed us not to pass out with the overwhelming decadence of it all, were the welcome additions of gherkins and pickled onions. Their acidity cut right through the fat, keeping us light enough to both sing the praises of cheezus and still feel motivated enough to walk around some more. Maddy and I did share a plate, so maybe I would have felt differently if I’d had one to myself. Though saying that…if I did only have the Raclette and found that I didn’t have the gumption or the capacity to try more things, I think I’d still be leaving a happy man.
On our way out of Markthalle Neun, with the day’s budget near spent, we decided to get some ice-cream from a place that were doing their own waffle cones. Decent ice-cream, better cones. Which, I might add, is not an indictment of the ice-cream but more so an appreciation for its usually ignored compatriot. Maddy had some variety of vanilla, as she stubbornly does no matter what is on offer, and I decided to go with milk chocolate, which, I suppose, isn’t very adventurous of me either. I went safe, taking the coward’s way out because I didn’t want to risk ruining the evening with the lasting taste of badly flavoured dessert.
Our way back to the Airbnb was a beautiful walk by the train line, making our way past old and new buildings, people heading home from work and kids walking back in groups after time spent playing outdoors. We also saw some evidently skilled graffiti and, umm, some of the more innovative variety that can be found in most parts of the city. When one is full and has eaten well, the world seems such a wonderful place. Berlin, in those moments, was the most stunning city in the world.