It’s the birth of Berlin-Indian food. It’s called Tiffin.
Note: I’m pretty late to the table about this one. Already featured by every other half-baked journal and ‘grammer in the city. Some fucking blog we are.
So, since Tiffin opened its delivery service, the people of Berlin have a new tradition: lock-down curry nights.
It’s huge with expats. Those who’ve lived here long enough to want to sell their own souls for a taste of the Indian food they’re used to. One avid fan even consistently (religiously, even) places their order at 7am on Monday morning – right as Tiffin’s new weekly menu is released. And Tiffin are totally sold out by Wednesday.
So, what’s driving this word-of-mouth revolution in Indian food in Berlin? I went to meet the guys behind Tiffin.
Subcontinental Cuisine. Like mummy used to make.
I went to meet Sachin Obaid and Suleman Aslam in the prep kitchen of Zed’s wonderful Moksa. All the time I was there, I was thinking: why the fuck’s Zed letting these guys work here when they’re clearly direct competition to his own business? It’s just testament to Zed’s appreciation of good Indian food, I guess.
A quick introduction: these chaps aren’t Berlin food newbies. Sachin’s a long-established Berlin foodie and pop-up scene veteran and Suleman helms both Khwan and Mitte’s Messer.
But, for them, Tiffin is something personal. A journey into the memories of their mothers, family dinners and the flavours of home.
At this point, I have to make a politically-correct statement. Sachin’s from Kerela, India and Suleman is Pakistani. “Indian is a buzzword”, Sachin tells me. “It’s something people understand”. But, Tiffin serves regional dishes from all over the subcontinent – from as many Pakistani regions as Indian. I guess ‘subcontinental cuisine’ is as clumsy a phrase as ‘Indian’ to use to describe Tiffin’s food, but Indian IS quicker to type. So I’ll stick with that.
“We just wanted better Indian food in town.”
Sachin and Suleman met as newcomers to the city, looking out for new friendships.
They found common ground over food, especially the food they missed. This soon led to them hosting dinner parties for each other, comparing and contrasting their cooking styles, quickly realising that the food they each grew up with was very different from the other.
Mothers cook by eye. They don’t write things down, they just feel when it’s right. This posed a huge problem for Suleman and Sachin as they tried to replicate their mothers’ recipes. When interrogation failed, they resorted to filming their mothers cooking, trying to unearth their secrets.
They then expanded throughout the subcontinent, taking on new recipes from far off regions, always testing, combining, perfecting. It was a social, bonding exercise – learning their shared heritage.
“Indian food isn’t cheap.”
This is a Berlin misconception that Tiffin tries to dispel. “It’s complicated. It takes time to prep. It takes time to make.”, Sachin tells me. “There’s often a lot of ingredients and quality is important.”
The Indian food we get in Berlin is cheap food. It’s cheap ingredients, produced cheaply and is somehow overpriced for what you get. The result is that Indian food is often seen as cheap food, “and that’s a disservice”.
Whilst I wouldn’t say Tiffin is expensive (and you could easily spend the same amount of money at Amrit’s), they are championing excellent ingredients and a slow-food ethos in everything they serve.
Even their drink selection follows this motif – offering natural wines by the bottle and craft beers, all of which have been specifically selected to go with the spice and flavours of Indian food.
They’re trying to create a celebration. Curry night is no coincidence – Tiffin has always had dinner parties in mind.
Food for sharing – direct to your door.
Each week, Tiffin offers a changing menu of four-five main courses and a handful of side dishes. The dishes are designed ‘home style’, for sharing, and take influences from all over the subcontinent.
They often swap out the heavier aspects of Indian food for lighter alternatives – using minimal oil and fat. In our case, they traded dairy ghee for vegetable ghee and, whilst I’m a massive fan of dairy ghee, it was a perfect substitute – as acrid and pungent as the ghee I love.
They also use top-quality, whole and hand-ground spices. “We aren’t trying to kill people with heat,” Sachin told me as the inevitable subject of spice came up, “but some of our dishes are chilli-hot, but they’re the dishes that benefit from the spice”.
100 dishes a night, three nights a week.
As previously stated, there’s a mad dash on Monday mornings when Tiffin’s booking service opens. This is because Tiffin limits the number of dishes they offer each night to around 100 dishes in total. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
“We’re a small operation and this allows us to maintain a high level of quality and authenticity.”
When booking, you choose your order and the day on which you’d like to receive it (Friday, Saturday or Sunday). In a two-hour window between 17:00 and 19:00, all 100 orders are despatched in a fleet of vans around the city, direct to the doors of their hungry owners.
Suleman often joins the delivery run – riding along to get to know the people who are ordering his food. Their opinions are important to him – because he wants to make food that pleases others, as it does himself.
Enough of this, how’s the food?
Watching Suleman cook is meditative. Simple ingredients prepared with care and attention. He throws something into the pan and a rich, sour aroma erupts throughout the room. “It’s ginger,” he tells me, sensing my confusion. I know what fucking ginger is, I thought. At least I thought I did. “Not ginger this fresh,” he quips.
I’m prepared three different dishes from three different regions, served with Naan bread (the only cutlery you need, they say).
Keema (mutton) and peas – A northern, Persian-inspired dish. Sule’s mum’s recipe, and something he’s been eating since he was born.
Malabar Chicken – A rich, coconut-based dish from Kerela – Sachin’s home region.
Aubergine in yogurt – A west-Indian dish prepared with a special yogurt made by a friend of theirs.
The thing that hits me: these dishes are all very homely… and that’s certainly no criticism. Whilst the keema dish might once have been the favourite of some Mughal emperor, it’s now the thing Sule grew up eating. And you can taste that.
It’s not flashy or extravagant – quite the opposite, in fact. It was robust yet subtle, savoury and moreish. Something you could literally eat every day and not get bored with. The mutton was rich, the peas sweet and the spice mix warming. It was Suleman’s equivalent to an Italian family’s ragu or a decent Shepherd’s pie (no offence, Sule). It was comfort food – damn good comfort food – but comfort food.
The chicken dish invoked a similar reaction, even though its flavour profile was completely different. Chicken drumsticks slow-cooked in a lightly-spiced coconut sauce and curry leaves. The sauce never felt too heavy, too indulgent. Instead, its elegance was in its simplicity.
The flavours that Tiffin use are never lost under overly-complicated spice mixes or canned tomatoes and cream. Instead, individual spices and ingredients are given space to stand out and shine.
What I like most about Tiffin’s food is that, at its heart, Tiffin is just two boys chasing the memories of the foods they miss. They rediscover, develop, refine – and they’re really just cooking for themselves. The fact we also get to enjoy it is just a bonus, I guess.
Spoiler alert: Tiffin will soon be upgrading to their own kitchen/restaurant and out of Zed’s metaphorical hair (once all this Corona bollocks is over).
Their big idea is that, instead of chasing exotic ingredients they simply won’t be able to find here, they increasingly integrate local and regional, high-quality products that they can easily source here – effectively incorporating Germany into their Indian recipes and creating the first Berlin-Indian cuisine.