Living in Berlin

Condoms or Kiddie Crack?

For a long time I thought they were condom wrappers. Little blue foil packages torn open and scattered over the sidewalks of Berlin. What confused me was that they seemed more prevalent where large numbers of children,  especially from immigrant families, congregate. Must not be very effective condoms!

I’m not in the habit of picking up used condom wrappers from the street, but one day I stooped close enough to read the expected name of the dodgy contraceptive manufacturer operating without a CE mark.   To my surprise, the package read instead: ‘seasoning’.  I quickly realized I had been mistaken, but was still dealing with something spicy.

A little research––talking with concerned parents mostly––led me to discover that it’s a fad in Berlin for children to buy packages of Yum Yum Instant Noodles (pre-cooked, dry, ramen noodles that come with the tell-tale package of blue seasoning), to eat them raw, as if they were chips or some other snack food, and then to dispose of the blue package on the sidewalk.

I admit I did this with Sapporo Ichiban noodles as a child when I was really hungry. But to see raw-instant-noodle-eating on such a grand scale–– that one finds the packages all over certain Berlin streets––astonishes me. There’s a socio-economic dimension here in that, on reflection, you see them most often around the immigrant housing estates, or Siedlungen, which are statistically poorer and house larger families than their neighbours. The city has already expressed official worries about the nutrition of these children.  Perhaps, if they are hungry, kids have developed a strategy to fill themselves up for just 50 euro cents.

Now, time to investigate!

I nipped into the Spätkauf (24 hour shop) that serves the neighbouring Siedlung,  to take a photo of the noodles and was immediately treated to a bout of hostility by the old man working there. ‘What are you doing?’ his voice boomed with suspicion. I was perfectly honest: ‘I’m a journalist. Are these the noodles that all the kids in this neighbourhood eat raw?’

‘I don’t know what you mean’, he said flatly, in a voice that you might expect from someone who sells narcotics, but suspects you’re from the Feds.

‘But all the kids in this neighbourhood are eating them’.

He shrugged, ‘Kids eat them, adults eat them, lots of people eat them’.

‘But the kids eat them raw’.

He glared at me, ‘No, you add hot water to them. It’s soup’.

‘That’s not how the kids are eating them’.

‘I don’t know what you mean’, he said, with an edge of threat now.

I stared back at the rack of Yum Yum noodles that takes up a large portion of his inventory stock. He’s probably doing pretty well by lacing these kids with the monosodium glutamate contained in these Thai packages. Maybe it really is a form of kiddie crack?

‘Thanks a lot, you’ve helped me more than you could have expected’, I told him, and he stared at me as I exited the shop. I hope the noodle mafia aren’t going to be after me now.

Outside the Späti are two kids sitting on wooden chairs. They look about 10 years old. I wonder how all that seasoning is affecting their health.  One is playing inadeptly with a model plane that came from a Happy Meal. I stop and ask them a question.

‘You know those noodles all the kids are eating?’

One replies, with a strong Turkish accent in German, ‘You mean Yum Yum?’

‘Yeah, Yum Yum’, I reply.

The other kid preempts me, ‘You want to know which colour is the yummiest?’

I hesitate, then say,  ‘Sure, I do’.

This spurs a debate between the two children between Red and Silver. Red––Kimchi flavour––wins out, ‘because it’s so spicy!’. I’m not surprised neither choose the artificial [?] duck powder.

‘What’s the best way to eat Yum Yum?’ I ask.

The kids then recount, with a certain excitement, and breathlessness, what it’s like to first open the package, and to find the blue seasoning, and to open that, and to pour the contents into the package, and to hold it shut, and to shake it, so the powder is everywhere, and finally to devour it! ‘Yum Yum is so yummy!’

How about eating the noodles first and then opening the seasoning second, putting the seasoning directly on your tongue, all at once, so it burns. This is the method described to me by a mother who caught children in the act.

The two kids stare at me with horror, and they reply, ‘But that would be disgusting!’

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

2 thoughts on “Condoms or Kiddie Crack?

  • Yes, disgusting (I must admit I really like Ramen as a soup, and I am not a broke 20-year old student anymore).

    However, not more disgusting than many other things kids eat and adults would shudder. Few examples:

    – “Pokimon” ( = blue coloured) ice-cream

    – Energy drinks (this was a real shocker: I actually saw a mother in Kotti giving her children one of those blue things; more than anything I pittied her – as a mother of two energetic creatures myself, I couldn’t see how it would be sensible to add more energy to children…)

    – Pringles et al. As a teen, coming from a home where my mother insisted on bringing in only what she considered healthy (oh, what a mean mother and horrible childhood I had!), once I had some money at my disposal, I spent it all on fast food, crisps, and other things my elderly body cannot understand now.

    And by the way, regarding the last point: I was raised in the 1970s by a mother who as you can understand pretty terrorised us food-wise. And I totally backlashed, to the point that I sometimes allow my young children McD, despite how revolting I find it. This could also happen to those yuppie PBerg children eating only Quinoa. The difference is that the poorer mothers are less educated about nutrition and/or so tired that all they want is peace and quiet.

  • When I was a kid, in the 80s, we used to eat a kind of drink mix powder straight out of the packet or the tiny plastic bottle it came in. Drove our parents crazy.

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