In Berlin, a Thai tradition good enough to eat

BERLIN -- In a sign of Germany's growing Thai population, a talented group of Asian women have grown a community gathering into a popular fresh-food market.
Written by Shannon Smith, Correspondent (Berlin) on

BERLIN -- On the heels of one of the longest, darkest winters on record in the German capital, a sunny spring afternoon is suddenly seized by dark cloud cover. Some picnickers in Preussenpark (Prussian Park) have already taken shelter under nearby trees in anticipation of rain.

But another group in the park isn't going anywhere: Clusters of middle-aged Asian women and their families continue grilling, frying, mixing -- and selling -- traditionally prepared food from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other parts of southeast Asia. Beneath the protective cover of their large colorful umbrellas, they sit with styrofoam trunks, coolers of drinks, bowls and bags of fresh ingredients ready to be thrown together at a moment's notice.

Smiling patrons mill about from one umbrella cluster to the next, sampling the different specialties on offer and inquiring about unfamiliar items. A 20-something man watches intently as one woman prepares his order of Pad Thai with rice noodles, cilantro and spices: The plate costs him 5 euros, and he returns gleefully with it to his friends a few feet away on a picnic blanket.

The atypical gathering, which has happened every Saturday and Sunday from May to September for the past 20 years, is known as Thai Park. Despite its status as a fixture in guidebooks and local blogs, the families here come together unofficially to socialize with each other, eat, drink and sell their favorite culinary specialities to anyone interested in something different -- and above all, authentic.

Laughter and the exotic sounds of Thai and Vietnamese interspersed with German and English fill the air, as children in bright rain coats chase each other with ice cream in hand. Ten-year-old Katarina is here with her younger sister and mom, who occasionally sells food in the park. Katarina already speaks fluent German, Thai -- the native language of her mother -- and Italian, her father's first language. The ambitious fourth grader is learning English in school and wants to take Spanish later. Katarina's mother came to Germany 17 years ago from Thailand, and prefers English to German, since she speaks it with her Italian husband. She asks not to be named, saying she worries about Thai Park becoming too high-profile:

"A few neighbors complained about noise and then trash," she says. "But we've always organized someone to clean up after each meet-up. To be honest, I think some people are just afraid of foreigners."

Berlin city officials acknowledge that there have been complaints, and that the setup is not entirely legal with regard to public grilling regulations and the sale of food. But they also say the tradition has been a welcome addition to the city's reputably ethnic-German western half.

"Foreign cultures and diversity have always been what made Berlin tick," press representative for Berlin's Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf Marc Schulter said. "It's incredible when you can walk into a park and feel like you're in a whole other land -- everyone there is welcome."

"Wilmersdorf is a district often painted as closed-minded and homogenous, but Thai Park proves this is simply not true: There's a thriving Thai community right at the center of the city."

Germany -- like the U.S. -- has a long history of positive diplomatic relations with Thailand that date back more than 150 years. That, along with a tropical climate and friendly culture, saw the beginnings of German tourism take root there in the 1960s and 70s. The trend continued until peaking in the 1990s -- at which point a growing number of German men would return home from vacation with Thai girlfriends or even wives. Today there are more than 60,000 Thai nationals in Germany, with some 15,000 of those residing in the German capital. Last year, the Thai Embassy organized a celebration in Preussenpark in co-operation with Thai Park to celebrate a century and a half of congenial Thai-German relations.

The Thai Embassy and city officials say another cross-cultural event is planned for later this summer -- but today, the Thai Park crowd is skeptical as to whether summer will ever get here. The temperature has dropped, and without warning, the sky finally unleashes its damp fury over winter-weary Berlin. Cradling their freshly prepared plates of food, visitors to the park race for cover under trees, some with picnic blankets hoisted high above other heads.

But today is Mother's Day, and there is no deterring the dedicated ladies of Thai Park. Hardly anyone flinches as the women and their families erect makeshift tents out of umbrella clusters, tarp, rope and pegs: In a matter of minutes they are once again poised to prepare food for anyone hungry enough to brave the downpour.

PHOTOS: Stilinberlin.de / Mary Scherpe

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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