Ask the average Berliner what Southeast Asian food is like, and they’ll probably speak in rapturous tones about green curries, peanut sauces and steaming bowls of nutritious, filling Pho from the countless Vietnamese and Thai restaurants scattered around the city. For many in Berlin, the menu of Southeast Asian food begins and ends with two countries, give or take a little incongruous sushi.
These dishes are delicious to be sure (you would certainly never catch me turning down a plate of Pad Thai), but there’s much more on offer from the region than just those two nations. Plenty of talented chefs are tucked away in quiet corners of the city, cooking up a storm of Singaporean, Malay, Cambodian and Filipino food. Cuisines filled with flavours and ingredients that many have never encountered before. You’ve just got to find them.
Melanie Kowalsch, co-owner of Pan, is one such chef. She has a wicked sense of humour and makes an immediate impression. Melanie was born in San Pablo in the Philippines, but immigrated to Berlin at the age of nine and has called the city home ever since. She grew up with a passion for food in her bloodline. Her sister works with her as co-owner and chef at Pan, and her brother is a professional cook at a luxury hotel. The three siblings started Pan together as a way of bringing their passion for Filipino cuisine to Germany. They loved the food of their childhood, and they wanted Berlin to love it as much as they did.
For tastebuds trained on the dishes of Thailand and Vietnam, Filipino food can come as a surprise. It’s a heartier cuisine, influenced by the Spanish colonists who occupied the islands for over three centuries, as well as the earlier Chinese settlers. Filipino dishes are all about the marinade. The sweet-sour of a carefully prepared adobo sealed in by slow roasting or stewing is the trademark of the country’s cooking. On paper, the shortlist of ingredients in a traditional Filipino dish may be surprising in comparison to the laundry list of spices in the average Thai curry paste, but don’t be fooled into thinking this makes the food bland. Filipino food takes its time with flavour, allowing the complexity of palm-vinegar, ginger and garlic to emerge over days of marinating. It’s a cuisine that trusts its own ingredients to speak for themselves.
For Melanie and her sister Anne, cooking is a way to introduce their culture to the world. It’s a way of showing the country they love to a Europe that may only know about the Philippines from the actions of their president and the political strife afflicting the country.
Melanie doesn’t just act as a culinary ambassador for the Philippines, she also works to improve conditions in her childhood home. With some of the profits from Pan, she supports her Aunt, who runs a school for underprivileged children. Her passion for food and helping people is what has driven Pan’s six year success story. A rarity for a niche cuisine in the increasingly competitive world of gastronomy. For Melanie, it’s what gives her the energy to juggle two kids and running her own business.
Her keen eye for business, culinary skill and seemingly endless energy aren’t the only factors behind Pan’s success. Melanie also credits her team, including her partner Jakub, who has been by her side for ten years. An architect by trade, Jakub helps out in the restaurant serving customers and placing orders with suppliers. Outside of her team, Melanie claims she owes her success to the residents of her neighbourhood and their willingness to be adventurous when it comes to new cuisine.
Adventurousness is rewarded when it comes to Melanie’s cuisine. When we sat down to interview her, we were treated to four of their most iconic and interesting dishes.
The Beef Tapa consists of strips of steak marinated for days and then stir fried. The beef was tender and complex, with savoury soy-sauce notes balanced out by subtle sweet and sour flavours. Melanie’s version of the dish breaks slightly from tradition by adding a bit of colour in the form of marinated roast vegetables, including zucchini and paprika. The crisp-tender crunch of the veggies works to add textural variation to the tender rice and beef. It’s no wonder this dish is eaten at almost every meal in the Philippines.
The Chicken Adobo is as iconic as it is simple, a cornerstone of Filipino cuisine. The traditional approach is to chop the chicken in cubes, brined overnight in vinegar, garlic and soy based marinade. At Pan, they go with a thigh of roast chicken, served with tofu and fragrant jasmine rice.
The Squid Adobo was by far the most unusual dish served to us and was also my favourite. It consisted of baby calamari curried in a sauce of its own ink mixed with coconut, ginger and mild spices. Cooking good calamari is a sign of a truly skilled chef, it’s an easy meat to overcook into rubbery, bland oblivion. Melanie’s version is tender, with just a little bit of bite and a whole lot of flavour. The curry was rich and creamy, with a slight note of savoury ocean flavours.
Dubbed the ‘Manila Flame’, the final dish was a burger made with Melanie’s sweet-salty beef Tapa marinade and topped with tomatoes, pickles, cheddar cheese, remoulade and a Filipino style barbecue sauce. The final flourish comes after you take your first bite, when you discover that the inside of the soft, nutty burger bun is bright purple. Melanie makes her own buns using Ube root, a vibrant purple yam native to the Philippines. It’s commonly used in desserts, but its addition to the Manila flame gives the bun a texture and flavour unrivalled by other burgers.
So what’s currently going on for Melanie, Anne and the crew at Pan? It seems that they’re not content to wait for Berlin to come to them to experience Filipino food, so they’re bringing Filipino food out to Berlin. Their food truck, Tapa Girl is a way of bringing delicious Filipino inspired street food to festivals, private events and venues like the Kulturbrauerei, where you can find them twice a month dishing out their Manila Flame burgers and other goodies. It seems the work of a culinary ambassador is never done, and we hope to see Pan around the city for years to come.
TookTook Stories covers the people behind the most exciting restaurants, bars and hotels from around the world. Running a restaurant or working in hospitality is incredibly hard. It takes more than a few visits to really be able to judge a quality of the experience. This is the reason why this is not a review. We only cover places we admire, with the focus to learn more about the background of the individuals, their work and what drives them.