In Singapore and Malaysia, you’ll most often find the fragrant rice dish nasi lemak in the sensory feast of an outdoor Hawker centers: amidst woks of cascading noodles, technicolor laminated menus, and the rapping of plastic plates and cutlery. In Berlin, however, one of your only opportunities to eat the dish is at pop-up Ma-Makan, served at a different location each time.
Ma-Makan was founded by Australian cook Kaylin Eu in early 2017 for a reason both practical and personal: There was only one Malaysian restaurant in Berlin, meaning only one place to get an approximate taste of the Singaporean dishes she grew up with. It became the impetus to learn and perfect her family recipes: “You know when you’re younger, you’re not really into your native food, I just wanted to eat things like pasta,” says Kaylin from her Kreuzberg apartment. “Of course I’d eat our food, but I wasn’t interested in cooking it. It’s only in the last few years that that’s changed,” she adds. Through the telephone tutelage of her aunt in Singapore Kaylin mastered her family recipes, decoding the home cook’s code of ‘a bit of this’ a ‘pinch of that’. “I was a bit nervous about people thinking it was boring – just rice and some side things, but actually the preparation that goes into it, mainly the sambal [fried chilli paste], is quite intense, and this was the hardest thing to master. I really try to make the food as authentically as I can,” she says. In a city like Berlin, where pan-Asian restaurants serving dishes as disparate as green curry, sushi and phở are the norm—authenticity can be hard to come by. So much so that Kaylin brings her ingredients directly from Singapore. “Last year I brought back a lot of chiles, ikan bilis (small dried anchovies), peanuts, belacan (shrimp paste) and candlenuts. My aunty came a few months ago and brought me a bunch of stuff and I’ll restock when I go again soon. You can’t find these things here and if you do, it’s not the same quality at all.”
The banana leaf is more than a practical plate. The fragrance of the leaves, drawn out by the warmth, permeates the dish.
“With street food, people from all over the world bring their flavors, techniques and visions and implement them into their businesses.”
Stefanie Rothenhöfer, founder of Food Entrepreneurs Club
Traditionally served on a banana leaf, the centrepiece of nasi lemak is a hemisphere of rib-sticking rice cooked in coconut milk and fragranced with pandanus leaves and ginger. Orbiting around it are a constellation of condiments and sides that vary from region to region: In Kaylin’s case it’s sambal (chilli paste made of shrimp paste, onions, soaked dried chilis, sugar and salt); fried peanuts; cooling slices of cucumber; crunchy ikan bilis, half a boiled egg and fish—fried whole or curried. On the menu to accompany it are curry puffs appetizers and for dessert, onde-onde, a pandan-flavored glutinous rice ball with a gooey brown sugar center, rolled in dessicated coconut.
The novelty of the dish in Berlin has meant steady crowds at each event—held periodically, and each time somewhere new: a craft beer bar, brunch spot, or the FvF Friends Space. It’s one of many pop-ups shared on social media, some to viral scale courtesy of the ‘interested’ button which colors the city’s calendar each week. Despite the impermanence, Stefanie Rothenhöfer, founder of the Berlin-based ‘Food Entrepreneurs Club’, a consultancy for this new generation of food businesses, says that the influence of pop-ups and street food has flavored the city for the better, “With street food, people from all over the world bring their flavors, techniques and visions and implement them into their businesses,” she explains. “I think what has made it so popular here is the fact that you can eat a culinary heritage on a plate. It’s the story that comes along with it and the fact that you can see who makes your food and watch how your food is prepared. You’re served up gourmet, restaurant-grade food as fast food. The dishes are unique, authentic and not available elsewhere, they’re fresh and usually of good quality,” she adds.
“Much like going to a flea market on a Sunday afternoon, you can find some true gems in the street-food scene. You have to know where to find them and then you seek them out again and again.”
Berlin’s love affair with the modern pop-up and street food format blossomed in 2013 with the launch of Street Food Thursday at Markthalle Neun, that to this day, remains packed to capacity every week. Berliner and food PR consultant Anna Küfner attributes the growth of the street-food and pop-up following to a combination of pricing and discovery. “I think that while the so-called street food that you get at the food markets isn’t that cheap, the price point seems more accessible to many people than going to a restaurant. There’s also the aspect that it’s less serious than going out for dinner and, much like going to a flea market on a Sunday afternoon, you can find some true gems in the street-food scene. You have to know where to find them and then you seek them out again and again.”
For those who can’t afford or commit to a weekly store, or who, like Kaylin, are taking the opportunity to get a feel for the food industry, the pop up is an enticing format—offering room for experimentation without the shackles of a bricks and mortar premises. Despite the rising rents, plateauing salaries, and a cementing reputation as Europe’s tech capital, Berlin’s image is still buoyed by its famed ‘poor but sexy’ label. Though many of us living here would rather file away the phrase (for perspective: it was first uttered in 2003), many arenas, like the pop-up industry, prove it still has currency. “That’s the great thing about Berlin,” Kaylin enthuses. “You can set up things with a very small amount of capital, I only had a couple of hundred euro to start with, but I knew I could buy ingredients with this—and in the end, it’s totally manageable. I can’t imagine trying to do this at home in Melbourne, Australia,” she goes on to explain, “firstly because I feel like it would be more expensive and also it’s just oversaturated with good Asian food, whereas it’s really lacking here. My bosses [from her day job at Companion Coffee] always encourage people to start businesses here because it’s really do-able.” But though it might not significantly dent the wallet, for proprietors, it’s not enough to gamble your rent on: “I don’t want the food to be expensive and I want to keep it casual. Still, a pop up is not especially profitable, but then it’s not about that, right?” she says, grinning.
Whereas in other global capitals like London, the street food and pop-up model moves into lucrative territory, attracting investors who fund permanent locations and sister restaurants, Berlin, in its idiosyncratic way, seems driven more by experimentation than profit. Pop ups appear to fill an untapped niche and capital is less in focus. “Even though there are just a few pop ups that are really successful it is a great way for people to try out their concept and create an awareness for their brand. But there are also people who don’t aim to make money or a future business and doing a pop up for them is more of a creative output. Berlin is also a very creative city. Starting a creative project for many people in this city is more important than starting a financially successful business. That’s great for us, because this keeps it very open, fun and diverse.” says Steffi, bringing to mind Kaylin’s set-up. “I think the pop-up is a perfect starting point to try out your concept. You can try out if this business is something for you. You can test your product and concept and if it doesn’t work out, you close without losing a lot of money. And if it does work out. Great! You already have fans and a following for your future restaurant.”
Despite the positive response, Kaylin admits that not knowing where she will be in the future (for Millennials that’s as much a question of place as it is profit). Ma-Makan will continue on in its periodical form and for now, she’s stoking an evolution of this Berlin dream: “I’d love to ride around in summer on the bike, delivering little packages of nasi lemak wrapped up in wax paper and banana leaf.”
It’s been great to discover more about the evolution of pop ups within the food scene in Berlin. For more information on Kaylin’s ongoing venture with Ma-Makan, click here. To find out more about Anna’s natural wine pop ups, see NATTY, and discover more of Stefanie’s work over on the Berlin-based Food Entrepreneurs Club.
Special thanks to Kaylin of Ma-Makan for taking the time to cook for us at the FvF Friends Space and invite us into her Kreuzberg home to discover some of her culinary secrets to Malaysian home-style cooking.