In the melee of tattoos and bumbags, headscarves and hi-tops, biker boots and lamé boob tubes, dungarees and jorts, few things unite modern Berlin like half a roast chicken. It is the cultural and culinary touchstone. It is a meeting point between religions, backgrounds, and bank balances.Known as the jungmasthähnchen, the half roast chicken is also one of the best ways to paint your face with grease until you shine like a bowling ball and have to all but roll home.
Which is how I come to find myself sitting exactly halfway between two of Berlin's best chicken stops: the Turkish Huhnerhaus 36 on Skalitzer Strasse and the traditional beer-hall-come-chicken-restaurant Henne on Leuschnerdamm. Both are in Kreutzberg, both are packed to the haystacks most evenings, and I have decided, as a service to us all, to eat at both in one day. I mean, sure. I hardly ever used most of those arteries anyway.
Huhnerhaus 36 has been serving up half roast chickens, rice, salad, chips, bulgur wheat, chickpeas, and soft drinks since 1995. As I walk through the brightly lit red doors, beside a fibreglass chicken roughly the size of Robbie Coltrane, the first thing I notice is the pickle jars. I say "jars"—the vessels that actually rest on each wooden table are basically fishbowls, filled to the very top by giant pickled peppers, carrots, tomatoes, and cabbage. You could bathe a baby in a Huhnerhaus pickle bowl and still have room for the rubber duck.I order, of course, the half roast chicken with bulgur wheat and salad. The woman serving me cuts through my terrible German to reply in English. Would I like garlic sauce or chili?
Now, this isn't my first whirl around the chicken rodeo, so I know quite how good the Huhnerhaus chili sauce is. Imagine the greatest combination of cemen, chili paste, herbs, and oil and then double your expectations. Garlic sauce can, for this lunch at least, go whistle.
Sitting outside Huhnerhaus, the air threads with the thick swirls of full-tar cigarettes. I'm surrounded by groups of teenagers, students, European tourists, older Turkish families, and Arabic-speaking men in white vests (and slightly less-white shirts.) I eat with my fingers and fork, scooping halal chicken and bulgur into my mouth at a rate of knots, fighting off the odd wasp.According to recent statistics, this area of Berlin is now 12 percent Turkish. Many of these Turkish expats are the only people you'll find actually speaking German in a sea of British, American, Canadian, Italian, and Australian tourists.
Of course, if you want well-roasted, spicy chicken, a kebab shop may seem the obvious choice. But Huhnerhaus is a step above the rotating, conical legs of sweating meat so familiar to kebab fans in London.This kebab shop is, dare I say it, good. The sides—the chips, the rice, the salad, the pickles—are enough to make up a meal on their own. And, glory be, you can get as much thick Turkish tea as you like, as long as you're happy to carry it to your table in a burning plastic cup, tottering over the chip-chewing children and dreadful men in tie-dye shorts sitting on the restaurant's long wooden benches.As I get up to leave Huhnerhaus, I notice that there is a man in the corner, ploughing through a plate of chicken in black t-shirt and combat trousers, who I last saw swilling out of an open bottle of rosé in the equestrian aisle of Decathlon in Alexanderplatz. I am, indeed, in good company.
It's but a short stroll down the canals and cobbles of Kreutzberg to Henne, which has sat in this fairly middle class area of Berlin since 1908. The Berlin Wall once ran right past the bench where I now find myself staring at a menu with, quite literally, three items.Three. There is the half roast chicken, kartoffelsalat (potato salad), and krautsalad (pickled gherkins and cabbage). Of course, there's also a shit-tonne of booze on the menu but food-wise? That's your three: these guys are not dicking about with choice.Across Henne's garden, an older woman in white Capri flares takes sips of a vodka and Coke, quickly replacing the beer mat over the top of her glass between mouthfuls to keep away Berlin's army of over-enthusiastic wasps. A young mum sits rocking on a bench surrounded by old work colleagues, and man in cycling shorts strolls up to take the place beside me, his dick, balls, and searing sunburn clearly visible from about 20 metres. He orders a krautsalat and, you've guessed it, a half jungmasthähnchen.
Not one to be outdone by a man in erotic lycra, I order everything on the menu (all three of them) and a beer. My boyfriend does the same and we lean back to study the place's interior. Henne, if anything, reminds me of one of those old Edinburgh pubs near Calton Hill, with shiny tiles, a large mirror behind the bar, tartan tablecloths, and a massive set of antlers hanging above the dining hall.
Old camo-dick beside me is soon joined by a man who could probably be best described as a middle aged Garth from Wayne's World who'd been allowed to go wild in the boy's clothing department of C&A in around 1994. If I could have reached him, I would have toasted his good health but instead, I eat about 4 square-feet of chicken skin that's so salty, so delicious, that I can only assume the whole joint was deep fried.
I don't know if it was the beer, the chicken, the bulgur, the thick tranche of hot brown bread, the potatoes, the cabbage, the pickled carrot, the mango juice, the chili sauce, the mayonnaise, or the salt but, suddenly, I'm full. Not just "That's enough now, I'm done" full but the "Does anyone know how to say 'hospital' in German?' full. I all but slide home, my saliva glands working overtime, my colon preparing itself for the apocalypse.It is wonderful, in a city as diverse as Berlin, with such a changing, complicated, cosmopolitan community, that so many can unite over something so simple as half a chicken. It may just be grease and protein but then again, what are we? What is a person but meat and bones?After today's meals, I know I am.