For much of my teens and twenties, I was a passionate vegetarian. What made me finally give it up wasn’t a hankering for bacon. It was because I was moving to the Czech Republic, a country where the food culture is so grounded in meat I knew I’d be missing something if I turned down those bowls of guláš, those plates of dumplings and meaty gravy, those greasy klobásy sausages, those slices of bread smeared thickly with lard.
For food is as much a part of a culture as the more obvious culprits of language and shared history. And when I live somewhere, I want to really live there–to experience its culture as fully as I can, for better or for worse; taste it, mull it over, swallow it. Culture is passed on in the foods we eat as young children or the kinds of treats we’re given on holidays and birthdays, for example. These become the familiar tastes we crave as adults, and, though we may or may not consciously realize it, the tastes we identify with home.
I think this is why I’m fascinated with Kantine, or cafeteria food, which may not always be good–in fact, it’s more often not good than it is good. But there’s something about these mass-produced meals that tickles my curiosity. Reading a cafeteria menu is a fascinating insight into the palates of a culture. These are the dishes deemed pleasing to the general population. These are the tastes children grow up eating in their school lunches, the meals fueling the workers that make economies hum.
There are many publicly accessible Kantinen in Berlin–just check this site for a comprehensive list. One of the most popular is the cafeteria on the top floor of Rathaus Kreuzberg (Kreuzberg city hall). I’ve been there a few times and find the whole thing utterly fascinating. “Preiswert und gut!” is the uninventive cafeteria slogan that greets you as you enter the cramped elevator. Up on the 10th floor, the doors open to the distinctive smells and sounds of a classic cafeteria as well as the much-ballyhooed almost-panoramic view of Kreuzberg. Two cafeteria ladies in yellow-checked uniform shirts are behind the counter. One silently dished up my Boulette platter (if you’re going to go for Berlin cuisine, go all the way, I say). The other cheerily wished me “Mahlzeit!”
What can I say? The mashed potatoes were most definitely made from powder, and tasted like artificial butter flavouring. The once-frozen green beans had been cooked for so long you could cut them with the side of a spoon. The peppercorn cream sauce poured over everything tasted more like Maggi seasoning than anything else. It also had bits of chewy Speck bacon floating in it. I can just imagine the scene: The cook stands back, gazes at his/her creation, and thinks to him-/herself, “Hmm, I know what this meat plate needs on top of it… MORE MEAT.”
Looking around, it seemed like the most popular dish of the day was the thing I had found the least appetizing: Three boiled eggs doused in sweet-and-sour onion-Speck sauce, a riff off the classic Senfeier (mmmm…mustard eggs…). Other German delicacies on the menu this week: Sauerbraten. Soljanka soup. Brussels sprout stew with ham. Wurst and cheese salad. The last time I was there, the vegetarian entree was the very classic Grießbrei (cream of wheat) topped with stewed fruit. I can’t imagine ever eating a bowl of sweet porridge and calling it lunch, but I’ve met plenty of Germans who wax nostalgic about this dish. Again, food and culture.
Take note! Wednesdays are Waffeltag. Sadly, I did not have room on this visit for one of the freshly made waffles topped with cherries and Sahne, though I was happy to see that many of my table neighbours did. And with each entree priced at just €3-5, on any given afternoon the tables are filled by as many low-income locals as Rathaus employees. Which leads to one final point: The Kantine perhaps provides some insight into why city bureaucrats are often so ill-humoured. If I had to eat food this heavy every day and then sit at a desk all afternoon, I’d be a grumpy ass too.
Kantine Kreuzberg: Yorckstr. 4-11, 10th Fl. | Open Mon.-Fri. 7.00-15.00 | Website, incl. menu of the week