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Berlin Dispatch: A Painter’s Peanut Chicken

Yüko: painter, traveler, fishetarian, cook and part-time Berlin cabbie who winters in Brazil and loves Asian food. Check out his drawings, paintings and photos here:

If you have a hard time believing that truth is stranger (and more serendipitous) than fiction, I wish you’d been with me during today’s taxi adventure.

Yüko’s was the first cab in line at the Helsingforser Strasse taxi stand. He fingered the prayer beads around his neck when I introduced myself and asked him if he spoke English. Before long, we started to talk about food. I climbed into the front seat.

Yüko put on his black bowler hat, turned on the meter and headed west over the Oberbaum Brücke into Kreuzberg. I wasn’t totally sure where he was taking me, but I knew we’d figure it out. It was clear that he had some good eating possibilities running through his head.

And I had a feeling he might be the keeper of an interesting story, especially when I noticed the “City of God” snapshot perched above the taxi meter.

As a matter of fact, Yüko is a painter who’s exhibited his work in Germany, Italy, Turkey, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Brazil and New York. Though he’s had his taxi license “for a long time,” he only drives part time. I asked him if driving a cab was a good job for an artist.

“No. It’s good for students,” he said, “But it’s stressful. Although sometimes you get interesting passengers and good dialog.”

He told me that he sketches while he waits for fares. For the past four years, he’s spent his winters painting in a beach town 250km north of Rio de Janeiro. Before that, he escaped the cold months in Berlin by fleeing to Asia. He’s practiced hatha yoga in India (and still practices today). He developed a passion for the flavors he found in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand – and he learned to cook with them.

“Cooking is the same as painting,” he said, “You work with sensation. I’m a good cook.”

“I know a lot of artists who are great cooks,” I said, “You’re improvising. You’re using your creativity.”

He nodded in agreement. By then we’d made it to his neighborhood in Kreuzberg – and to one of his favorite Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin: Sen Viet.

Yuko's suggestion: Chicken with coconut milk, peanut sauce and lemongrass. How can you go wrong with that combination?
Yuko's suggestion: Chicken with coconut milk, peanuts and lemongrass. How can you go wrong with that combination?

When I asked Yüko which dishes he recommended, he told me he ordered something different every time. He said something about “good energy” in German, parked the cab and walked inside with me. From the way the host greeted him, I could see he was a regular customer.

He pointed to the first item on the list of specials written on a chalk board: chicken with coconut milk, peanuts, lemon grass, cabbage and cilantro. It sounded delicious to me, but I wondered if Yüko had ever tried it since he was supposedly a fishetarian. I didn’t want to push it – I knew he had to get back to his shift. We said goodbye with a kiss on each cheek.

A few minutes later I was face to face with a lovely 4.90 euro bowl of Vietnamese curry that packed a quadruple punch of sweet, sour, spicy and salty. Even though the cooks had reined in the chili peppers for the German palate, it was still a great collection of texture and flavor: lemongrass was everywhere, and the combination of fresh cabbage and cilantro with tender pieces of chicken in warm peanut and coconut milk sauce was as layered and vibrant as a lot of Yüko’s paintings.

Sen Viet
Zossener Strasse 24
10961 Berlin Kreuzberg (Bergmannstrasse)
Tel. 030 224 10 446
Open: 7 days, 12pm-midnight
Map it
Would I go back? Yes. Even though the peanut chicken was good, I’d like to try something else. The food is cheap, fresh and delicious. A reasonably priced option in what’s become kind of a posh area in Berlin.

Note: Yüko’s website has more samples of his paintings, drawings and photography:

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