Now that bubble tea has swept the city, it’s worth asking: Just where do all those bubbles come from? As it turns out, it’s the same industrial zone in Lichtenberg where you can buy those cutesy manicure tables with the built-in nail dryers, the very same place where the more adventurous Lichtenbergers go to get their heads shaved in faux gangsta patterns.
The Dong Xuan Center, also somewhat misleadingly known as Berlin’s ‘Vietnamese mall’, is in fact nothing like a shopping mall. It is ground zero for a fascinating development turning this run-down part of Lichtenberg into ‘Asia-Town‘ replete with a library, a center for East-Asian medicine, and even pagodas, if the website is to be believed, Passing through a gate between some dilapidated structures scheduled to be repurposed as an Asian Kulturhaus, a Markthalle, and more, you’ll find a vast compound of hangars and parking lots catering to a thin but steady trickle of not just Berliners of Asian descent.
Hangar upon hangar, each with an endless central corridor off which are equally endless numbers of shops, each smelling more like capitalism than the perhaps expected fresh herbs and fragrant beef broth aromas one would expect.
Now, don’t get me wrong, capitalism here does not mean Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, or Prada, but fresh, crisp polyethylene (and not just at the few stores just selling plastic bags). The smell of synthetics is all-pervasive, whether you’re in the colorful toilet seats, Kanye glasses, or ‘silk’ flowers section; your nostrils be flaring like at a launch for one of Comme des Garçons more deliciously outré perfumes.
Each hangar looks the same, but hypnotically so: gaudy market-stand fashions, neon nail tips, flimsy bike locks, flimsier tea towels, canned Indian food past its sell-by date, more towels (ones with naked 80s ladies on them), hand bags, hand bags with cats on them, fake guns, and so on and so plastic. Unlike the cheap chinoiseries at your local Asia Markt, or the more exotic teen-girl presents at Nanu Nana, the toys and, for lack of a better word, objets for sale here are mostly meant for wholesale purchase; to populate the unpopular corners of Polish gas stations and struggling Brandenburg minimarts with crap nobody wants and less people need.
Yet I don’t come here just for cheap giggles at Eastern European styles, I come for the boxes of artichoke tea (also in a pungent ginseng version) or corn silk tea (yes, made from that fluff between the cob and the husk); all of which carry a pleasant and addictively earthy flavor. I come to buy handfuls of fresh thai basil or cilantro, bundles of fresh greens that I never know the names of (just that a brief twirl around my wok, a splash of rice vinegar, and liberal doses of salt and sesame seeds make them super and delicious). I buy bottles of Sriracha sauce, and chillies in oil with peanuts, and of course phở paste to make my own Vietnamese-style noodle soup. Phở paste!
There are plenty of places to buy fresh phở too, but don’t worry about the infuriatingly vague menu translations (mostly in the key of “noodles with vegetables”), just go with some adventurous friends and order something off every menu section. Also make sure to try out the condiments and toppings on your table. Sure, pile on the sliced garlic and various hot sauces; they might make you breathe fire, but where else in berlin can you shop on a budget and dine like a dragon?
Text: Florian Duijsens
Photo: Mary Scherpe