Text by Jennifer Fergesen
Photos by Pinoy and Jennifer Fergesen
Pinoy is located on a quiet street in Berlin’s Charlottenburg neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Pinoy)
Berlin wears monochrome in the winter. Crows roost in the leafless trees, gray post-war buildings cast long shadows, the people swath themselves in black — and indulge in the blunt, testy attitude known as “Berliner Schnauze” (Berlin snout). On brief December days, the door to Pinoy, a Filipino restaurant in the quiet Charlottenburg neighborhood, feels like a portal to a warmer, softer world.
Rosalinda Nolasco-Jecht considered opening a plant shop, but decided to open a restaurant filled with plants instead. (Photo by Jennifer Fergesen)
The plants arrested my attention first. They lined the entranceway and clustered on shelves and tables, thriving despite the dark and cold outside. In the background, echoing the variegated greens, a panorama of the rice terraces of Banaue wrapped along the back wall. Pops of pink appeared among the verdure: an orchid blossom, a knob of rose quartz, an ombre barong tagalog on the mannequin that stands watchfully in the corner. If it had a face, it would have faced the Filipino family singing karaoke at a long table decorated with balloons and streamers. “Tita, can we have more fried shrimp?” a young woman called in Tagalog.
Pinoy serves its cansi in a metal cookpot. (Photo by Jennifer Fergesen)
When the server, chef, owner, and sole employee Rosalinda Nolasco-Jecht had time for me, I ordered cansi. I hadn’t had it since a 2019 visit to the legendary Pat Pat’s Kansi in Manila — my last visit to the city, before the pandemic drew a curtain around the country. It arrived in a little metal cookpot, like something that might hang from a hook over an open fire, with rice in an antique soup tureen. The sabaw was bright as sunset — a warmer, later sunset than the colorless subsidence then sapping the light from the street outside.
It was my first time seeing cansi outside of the Philippines, and it’s far from the only regional specialty on the menu. Pinoy’s speisekarte stretches to a formidable 15 pages, with an introductory essay at the front to explain the disparate origins of Filipino cuisine. The illustrated pages include Ilonggo laswa (vegetable stew), Aklan-style binakol (chicken soup cooked in coconut water), and Chinese-Filipino dishes like humba and tausi dotted with fermented black soybeans, among dozens of others.
Rosalinda Nolasco-Jecht, left, here pictured with her daughter, is the chef and owner of Pinoy restaurant in Berlin. (Photo courtesy of Pinoy)
There are other Filipino restaurants in Germany, but most stick to standbys like pancit and lumpia that are easier to explain to a clientele familiar with Chinese and Thai food. When Rosalinda opened Pinoy in 2014, friends advised her to follow this model, “but I’m not contented with it,” she said. “There are so many islands in the Philippines, and so many cravings for food. Imagine traveling so far to come to my restaurant and you can only eat lechon kawali and adobo!”
Rosalinda’s own roots are in Bulacan, where, in the economically disastrous early 1980s, she met the man who would become her husband. He was a German expat, left a single father after a recent breakup, and initially hired her as a nanny. “After that, we liked each other,” she said, and she followed him to Germany on a fiancee visa. When she arrived in Munich in 1982, she was about 18; he was 32 years her senior.
From left: Chef Rosalinda Nolasco-Jecht says she can only make dishes like pusit kangkong when she can find the ingredients. (Photo courtesy of Pinoy); Bicol Express is one of Pinoy’s most popular dishes among German guests; Germany is as fond of fried pork knuckles (there called Schweinshaxe) as the Philippines, so crispy pata is a popular entree at Pinoy. (Photo courtesy of Pinoy)
Life in Munich was good at first. Rosalinda’s new husband had a successful real estate and construction business, so she didn’t need to find a job in her new country. They had two daughters and she legally adopted her stepson. In 1999, the family moved to Berlin, an ideal place to work in construction as the once-divided city rebuilt itself into a unified capital. But things changed when her husband began to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
He became forgetful and prone to outbursts, unable to manage the physical labor his business required. Money dried up. To keep the family afloat, Rosalinda began working as a house cleaner. “I cleaned houses everywhere here in Berlin,” she said. “I think I know everywhere in the city already.” While she worked, her children stayed at home with their rapidly declining father. Sometimes, he would make so much noise that neighbors would call the police, and Rosalinda had to stop her work to go home. “I would find my daughters crying. It broke my heart,” she said.
Before he succumbed to the disease, Rosalinda’s husband helped her sell an apartment she owned in Munich, which left her enough money to start her own business. She considered opening a plant shop — she has loved gardening since her girlhood — but decided that a Filipino restaurant would be the best way for her to “do something for my country,” she said. Pinoy opened about four years before her husband died.
Other than a brief stint working as a waitress in a Thai restaurant, Rosalinda had no prior food business experience and admits that she still isn’t sure about the best way to run things. With no employees and a home-cooking approach to prep, she can only manage three or four groups at a time; any more and her guests might end up waiting two hours for their food. During my second visit, I saw her turn away some guests despite plenty of open tables, explaining that she couldn’t take any more than the seven people already inside. “I feel like a turtle,” she said. “A turtle walks so slow and has to stop, because the turtle is old, and then walks again. I feel like that.”
When I remind her that it’s the turtle who wins the race against the hare, she laughs. “And now I really feel like that turtle in the story,” she said. “The Germans know my dishes and they're coming here, and the Filipinos are happy — they call me tita, ate — so I’m happy.”
She’s even had a moment of television fame: Last year, Rosalinda appeared on the German edition of “Kitchen Impossible,” which has a different structure than the harrowing English version: It involves chronically stressed celebrity chef Tim Mälzer learning to cook new dishes with restaurateurs from around the country. At Pinoy, Mälzer made pork humba with the traditional accouterments of dried lily flowers, pineapple, and fermented beans — though he called it “adobo” and claimed it came out too salty.
Rosalinda’s humba is fine-tuned to the equilibrium between sweet and savory, is worth the wait. It’s one of the most popular dishes among Rosalinda’s German customers, along with Filipino-style curry and extra-spicy Bicol Express. Her regulars kept ordering their favorites for takeaway when the dining room closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to keep the restaurant open during Germany’s strict lockdowns.
“And my family is proud of me,” Rosalinda continues. She said her daughters were embarrassed to admit that their mother was a “Putzfrau” during the decade she supported them that way. “Now, they can say I have a restaurant.”
Her children are all adults now, and she has a four-year-old granddaughter. When I visited the restaurant on a Monday, Rosalinda’s day off, her granddaughter had the run of the place. She ate pancakes cut into heart shapes and chattered to me in a mixture of English and German, her mouth ringed with Nutella. “She thinks she’s speaking English when she’s speaking German, and German when she’s speaking English,” Rosalinda said.
“Are you proud of your oma?” I asked her.
“Ja,” she said, and took another bite.
Pinoy is located at Danckelmannstraße 49, 14059 Berlin
+49 30 55461185