Drop a search for “vegan restaurants” on Google Maps for Berlin and the knife-and-fork icons pop up across the city like a garden full of blooming flowers. Even a casual observer walking around the streets of neighborhoods like punk-turned-posh Prenzlauer Berg, the melting pot of Neukölln, or ritzy Charlottenburg will notice no shortage of signs promising vegan and vegetarian dishes. You can get a West African jollof bowl at Ataya, freshly-made doughnuts for the sweet tooth at Brammibal’s, bimbimbap bowls at Feel Seoul Good –– and that just scratches the surface.
There’s good reason the German capital has long been declared the vegan capital of Europe and one of the top cities for vegans in the world. According to local food site veganfreundlich.org, there are more than 80 vegan-friendly restaurants and businesses in the city. Berlin’s Tagesspiegel reported last year on a survey that estimated that the number of people in the city who identify as vegetarian or vegan doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveys estimate Germany is home to somewhere between 1 to 2.5 million vegans.
What’s behind this passion for plant-based eating? I asked Luisa Weiss, a Berlin-based food writer and the author of My Berlin Kitchen, Classic German Baking, and her forthcoming follow-up, Classic German Cooking. Weiss was born and raised in West Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Weiss paints a bleak restaurant scene in Berlin prior to the wall coming down. There were some Italian pizza places, a couple of Greek restaurants, and a Thai restaurant she went to for her graduation.
“Berlin was always traditionally working class and relatively poor. The poorest city in Germany,” she said. “People did not have a lot of money. Food was fuel.”
Weiss left Berlin in 1995 and returned in 2010 to a very different city. She has observed first-hand the evolution into something of a paradise for vegetarians and vegans, a transformation she ultimately credits to a confluence of factors.
Anthroposophy’s controversial history and legacy
Almost every immigrant to Germany has a story about coming down with some illness or infection and being given an herbal tea by their local pharmacist instead of, say, actual medicine to obliterate the disease. This cultural phenomenon is linked back to a man by the name of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the anthroposophy movement. Anthroposophy has been described as a philosophy, a religious system, or simply a system of beliefs asserting that the spiritual world can be reached through a prescribed method of self-discipline. Adherents call it a “spiritual science.”
Depending on your point of view, Steiner was either a trailblazer in homeopathic, alternative medicine or a pseudoscience quack. He has been called the L. Ron Hubbard of Germany.
He promoted eating a predominantly-vegetarian diet of fresh and healthy foods from organic farms, and was against fattening livestock and using pesticides on farms. Not very controversial by today’s standards. But some of his other beliefs about food might raise eyebrows. Potatoes, for instance, are controversial among anthroposophists. Steiner cautioned against the over-consumption of potatoes because he believed they hampered intellectual development of the brain.
Historians have also noted Steiner expressed antisemitic and racist opinions; though he spoke out against the Nazis before his death. Some in Nazi leadership were anthroposophists, though Hitler himself was not.
Despite that association, Steiner’s philosophies continue to have a significant impact on German culture. Weiss says that you don’t need to be a conscious acolyte of Steiner to absorb certain elements of his thoughts and philosophy. “In Germany, it’s kind of the bathwater,” she says.
The impact of Chernobyl on buying organic
According to Weiss, organic farming began to take root in West Germany in the 1970s, with the first organic grocery stores popping up shortly thereafter. But it was the nuclear fallout of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and concern over how much radiation was found in dairy and produce that led to an increase in shoppers seeking out organic options.
“I fully remember going to the farmer’s market with my mother when I was a little kid and her buying milk from Denmark because the milk from Denmark was known to have lower radiation than the milk at the grocery store,” says Weiss. “People who had young children at that time I think were scarred in terms of the way they saw food consumption, and they started to pay attention to where their food came from.”
After Chernobyl, and amid growing concerns about factory farming, buying organic (known as Bio-Lebensmittel or “bio”) became widespread for West German shoppers. That carried on through German reunification.
An influx of artists
Prior to reunification, young artists were already moving to West Berlin from all over Europe, especially other parts of West Germany, and that trend increased after the Berlin Wall fell in November, 1989.
“When the wall fell and the city opened up, the population started changing,” Weiss says. “There were a lot of new people, alternative artists from all over Europe and the world coming to take advantage of the cheap rents and the sort of expansive lifestyle. Those people were more likely to also bring food trends with them, like vegetarianism.”
The fact that many West Germans were already on board with organic farming and vegetarianism matched perfectly with these new arrivals. Besides, many were poor students and artists who couldn’t afford an abundance of meat even if they had wanted it.
“Young, creative, forward-thinking people move to Berlin,” says Jasmin Suchy of vegan restaurant FREA. “Many of them are vegan because they understand that among other things it’s the answer to growing population density.”
Berlin’s vegan scene blossoms as concern about the climate grows
While vegan and vegetarian eating became mainstream, Weiss feels the restaurant scene in Berlin lagged behind, changing relatively little from her departure from the city in 1995 to her return in 2010.
“But in the last eight, seven, or six years, there’s just been this incredible blossoming,” she says. “And I think some of that is influenced by vegetarian fine dining and vegetarianism becoming a thing in other capitals, like Paris and New York City.”
Suchy runs her zero-waste restaurant with her chef husband, David Suchy, in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood. She explains that the city’s veganism is a natural extension of the “bio” or organic movement latching, as well as a worldwide trend for eating with sustainability in mind.
Concern about environmental sustainability is particularly prevalent among younger generations, Weiss observes. For these young people, their whole worldview is informed by climate change. The way they eat, travel, and think about their future are all connected to the growing prospect of an inhabitable planet.
“They don’t fly anymore. They’re vegans,” she says. “Climate change is [more urgent for today’s youth] than it is to us or the people of the generation above me, and I think that’s where veganism is getting a lot of its engine power from in Berlin and in Germany in general.”
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