Under the last of the summer sun, Thai hawkers dish up noodle soups flavoured with garlic and coriander, and prepare spicy papaya salads to order by hand. The sea of women in floppy brimmed hats, cooking street food under multi-coloured umbrellas, looks straight out of Bangkok, but this is western Berlin.
Thai Park, an open-air food market and popular tourist attraction usually wraps up at the end of October. But this year it is ending on a troubled note – the illegal market might not be allowed to resume in 2018.
“The fight over Thai Park is as old as Thai Park itself,” said one seller on condition of anonymity, fearing trouble from city authorities. “But this time it looks serious.”
Since August, Berlin officials have been discussing the market’s fate. For more than 20 years, Thais have congregated on the same stretch of green turf called Preussenpark, catching up and sharing traditional feasts. Passersby caught whiffs of the authentic fare, from frying catfish and honey-dribbled banana fritters to sizzling pork and chicken satay, and began asking if they could buy some. Today, dozens of vendors peddle off picnic blankets and handwoven mats, cooking with portable and disposable grills – in blatant disregard of regulations on health, safety and the use of public parks.
Until now district officials have done little more than conduct stony-faced visits – after all, Thai Park enjoys cult status after being featured in Berlin travel guides and foodie blogs over recent years.
But what started out as a small community get-together might finally have become too popular for its own good. This year, vendors flocked to the park on Fridays in addition to the usual Saturdays and Sundays due to the high demand. Mathias Heinrich, the publisher of Farang, a German magazine about Thailand, estimates that about 60,000 visitors descend upon the market every weekend – perhaps twice as many as last year.
“It was too much attention,” he said. “You can’t see the grass anymore, at some point it got trampled down … it’s a shame because apart from the food sales, (Thai Park) is a very important social gathering. It is a place for Thais, their German partners and children to meet.”
The authorities say they don’t want to shut down the market, but would like to find a solution that meets food, hygiene and business standards.
“We want to steer an unacceptable legal situation into long-term permission, giving all participants the essential security,” said Matthias Schmidt, a spokesman for the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district office.
However, supporters of the market are sceptical over whether it can continue under German bureaucracy.
“You can’t legalise selling off the ground and using certain kinds of Asian cooking equipment. But if it’s done differently it’ll lose its flair,” said Heinrich. “And to do it all with business licences, hygiene (laws), tax numbers … That’s not so easy to do.”
The district office won’t say how long it will take them to reach a decision, only that the process involves many different parties. Meanwhile, vendors are still keeping up hope that they’ll be able to set up next year.
“I don’t know what I will do if Thai Park closes,” said another vendor, a woman who has been serving her pad Thai for the past five years. “I don’t want to be without a job. I really enjoy cooking and working here.”