Having never travelled to Thailand myself, what little experience I have had with Thai cuisine has been stir-fry dishes from your average, “westerned-down” restaurant. No doubt there are some excellent ones out there: one of my favorites from my New York years is Sripraphai, a renowned Thai eatery hidden away in Woodside, Queens. But in Germany my usual experience is that even among decent quality Asian restaurants, there is a frustrating lack of spice and surprising flavors, a dumbing-down to palates that are accustomed to blander foods. Though there are a couple of great Vietnamese restaurants and one or two Korean places that are passable, authentic Thai restaurants in Berlin remain elusive.
This is precisely why I had been trying to find an excuse to visit the Thai Food Market in Wilmersdorf ever since I heard whispers of it through various food-loving friends. Admittedly it’s no big secret, having appeared on countless ‘insider guides’ and blogs to Berlin food and culture. That said, it always felt a bit off my own worn and beaten weekend path of Mitte-Kreuzberg-Prenzlauer Berg’s ternion. The excuse came the last two weekends in a row: the unmistakable dread of winter setting in, what feels like just a few weeks too early. There’s something special about the fleeting days of autumn, when the only really pleasant times to be outside are the sunny hours of high noon. It becomes that impetus that pushes you out of laziness or routine, in an effort to gulp down a few last outdoor adventures before winter conquers indefinitely.
I was surprised by how low-key the Thai Food Market was. I knew it was outdoors, but had expected something a bit more established, similar to how food trucks operate in Los Angeles, perhaps. When I arrived in the small, but quite green Preußenpark, however, if I hadn’t known to look out for the group of Thai vendors, I might have mistaken the ‘market’ for a series of private picnics. Because basically it is just that: the Thai ladies actually began selling their savory and sweet dishes as a result of interest in homespun picnics that would take place with their friends and family every weekend in Preußenpark. Each ‘stand’ is merely a series of colorful tarps, umbrellas, tupperware, hot plates and pots spread out to a varying degree, with two or three seated ladies gently hawking their wares to passer-bys. Which brings me to my nagging question of how these vendors actually slip by the health regulators!? Don’t get me wrong, I found the operations all to be exceedingly sanitary and overall clean-looking. Kind of like being in your grandmother’s house. If your grandmother had a habit of schlepping her entire kitchen to the park every weekend and cooking for you cross-legged on the ground. Regardless, I would guess that half of the restaurant kitchens or cafes in Berlin are not nearly up to snuff with the cleanliness standards of these women cooking on tarps spread out over the grass.
My favorite stand was that of an older Thai lady, tiny and weather-worn, with a sizable line in front of her impressive spread. Sitting on her tarp with socked feet, surrounded by tubs and containers of fresh ingredients and bottles of sauces, it became apparent that she was making something to order. This was in contrast to most of the vendors who tend to have large pots of stir-fry already made or fried dumplings churning consistently out of a magical cast iron cooker powered by god-knows-what. The Little Thai Lady didn’t need to hawk. She was queen of her kingdom, taking in orders, single pan in hand, calm and focused, despite the ever-growing line in front of her. She was making Pad Thai, with either chicken or tofu, fresh per single order.
I had the opportunity to watch her in action during the course of a few rounds, as I waited to order my own dish. It was astonishing to observe how easily the Pad Thai came together when all the ingredients were ready and prepared, sitting in tubs waiting to be tossed in. A good dose of oil into the frying pan, and crack! a whole large egg straight on top. Let it sit, no need to be fussy. Pivot over to the enormous vat of cooked rice noodles, grab a handful or two on a plastic plate, reserve for later. Pivot back to hot plate. Break up the egg slightly, not quite a scramble. Grab handful of bean sprouts, another of green onions. Throw ‘em in. Noodles, yes, toss those in now too. Squirt, squirt: lots of lime juice. Now some tofu or chicken, pieces pre-cooked. To the left is a large vat of thick, brown sauce- pour two ladles over the noodles. Stir again, more furiously this time. Maybe another squirt of lime. Stir stir stir. Scrape out onto plastic plate. Top with more green onions, plus a slice of fresh lime and some cilantro leaves. Finally a couple good spoonfuls of finely ground peanut. Done. Repeat. And, mind you, all while never leaving a seated position.
Since Pad Thai is a classic street food in Thailand, I think the unfussy way Little Thai Lady cooks her version is probably pretty close to authentic. It was certainly delicious, with the perfect ratio of savor to sweet, plus a good dose of sour from the plentiful lime juice. And at five euros for a heaping plate, you can’t really go wrong. As we happily ate on the grass behind her ‘kitchen’, we continued to watch her frying away, guessing at how much profit she makes in a day. Probably not much, we gathered. Even with a steady stream of patrons, her preparation time must be significant. Although she had two able-bodied young grandsons on the side, to whom she would occasionally beckon for reserve green onions, they for the most part just lounged on a blanket, playing with their space phones.
Little Thai Lady was a true force. She was out there cooking in the elements – sure, to make a living – but also, I think, out of passion for her food and her culture. She does what she does well, and with care. What I saw was not a woman at work but an act of generosity, of bringing real Thai spice to some unsuspecting Berliners.
After observation, I attempted to re-create Little Thai Lady’s tofu Pad Thai. It is my own humble recipe, but do give it a try. Feedback welcome!
Pad Thai with Tofu
For two large servings
-Pad thai rice noodles (Banh Pho)
-3 Tbsp. neutral oil
-1 package firm tofu
-1 cup roasted peanuts, crushed
-2 small shallots
-2 big handfuls of bean sprouts
-1 bunch of Chinese chives, cut into 2-inch lengths
-Juice from 1-2 limes, plus extra wedges for garnish
-Fresh cilantro leaves
-1 Tbsp tamarind paste
-1 1/2 tsp. fish sauce
-1 Tbsp. soy sauce
-3 tsp. brown sugar
-1 tsp. rice vinegar
-1-2 Tbsp Sriracha sauce (to taste)
-2 Tbsp. water
-1/2 tsp. chili powder (to taste)
1. Prepare tofu: I like to slice the block into three pieces, widthwise, and squeeze out water by leaving for 20 minutes or so between layers of paper towels, a plate on top to weigh it down. Remove paper towels and dice into bite-size pieces. Heat non-stick pan or wok to medium. Thinly slice one shallot and fry in a Tbsp. of neutral oil. When soft, add another Tbsp of oil and the tofu pieces and fry until golden. When about half-way cooked, you can sprinkle in some soy sauce if you want an extra flavor kick. Set aside over paper towels to drain oil.
2. Prepare sauce: in a small saucepan on very low heat, combine all ingredients and whisk together. Taste and adjust spice as desired. Remove from heat and let cool- it will become thicker as it cools.
3. Cook noodles according to package directions, immediately rinsing with cold water. Drain and cool in a colander.
4. Chop Chinese chives and slice the thicker white part in half lengthwise. Separate the very green ends from the lighter green/white parts. You will use these as garnish later. Wash bean sprouts and set aside. Squeeze the juice from 1-2 limes and set aside in a small bowl.
5. Now you are ready to put together the stir-fry. Depending on the size of your frying pan, you will need to decide whether to cook one serving at a time or two at once. While Little Thai Lady first cracked the egg into the oiled pan, I chose to pre-cook first a sliced shallot in the remaining 1 Tbsp of oil, and then the Chinese chives and sprouts.
6. After a minute or two, push vegetables to one side of the pan and crack the egg(s) into the other. Let sit for about 30 seconds and then break up with a spatula or wooden fork, incorporating into the vegetables. Add tofu, one spoonful of the Pad Thai sauce, and stir again. Grab rice noodles, by the handful, and toss into the pan. Add lime juice and stir together a little bit. Pour in Pad Thai sauce and stir well with spatula and wooden fork, until everything is incorporated.
7. Turn Pad Thai out onto plate(s). Top with reserved green parts of Chinese chives, a few cilantro leaves and a wedge of lime. Spoon two heaping tablespoons of crushed peanuts over top. Serve with fork and spoon.