Japanese fusion food for students: Freie Universität Berlin’s new cafeteria Shokudō

by Cornelia Reiher

This blog is mostly about Japanese restaurants in Berlin, but since a Japanese-style cafeteria opened at our own university in December 2022, this post will feature Shokudō Cafeteria (shokudō means cafeteria in Japanese), which is inspired by Japan and offers fusion cuisine. It is located very close to the Institute of Japanese Studies and is in the same building as the former vegetarian cafeteria. So it still offers vegetarian and vegan dishes, but in a Japanese way. Although most Japanese dishes include dashi, a Japanese fish broth, all dishes are actually vegetarian or even vegan, according to the staff.

Koi and Mount Fuji adorn the walls of the new Shokudō cafeteria
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

When I visited the new cafeteria for the first time with my colleagues, I was surprised at how much the place had changed. The interior design is heavily based on Japanese motifs, including a mural of Mount Fuji, koi, and pine trees. In one part of the cafeteria, there is a zashiki dining area, where customers sit on cushions on a platform with a tatami-like rug and eat from low tables. In Japan, this also means taking off your shoes before stepping onto the tatami mats, and most students do this, but not all are familiar with this custom. There are also regular tables, but the zashiki dining area is very popular, and we were lucky to find a seat. People seem to enjoy this different way of eating and also use it as a place to rest, chat with friends, or do their homework.

Dining under pine trees and eating noodle soup with chopsticks
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

The food includes existing Japanese dishes such as different types of maki sushi, gyōza, rice or noodles like rāmen and udon, but also their own inventions like edamame burger or pumpkin gratin with edamame. Sometimes regular dishes are simply renamed to seem more Japanese, or an ingredient typical of Japan is added, such as pumpkin soup with soy sauce. While the salad bar is mostly unchanged except for the addition of wasabi dressing and kimchi, desserts are also inspired by Japanese food culture and often include matcha or sesame seeds, such as chocolate mousse with matcha. Because the cafeteria serves a large number of people every day and must offer vegetarian or vegan dishes at a reasonable price, the ingredients are quite different from those used for the same dishes in Japan. However, compared to the average cafeteria experience, the food was nice.

Rāmen, edamame burger and maki sushi are examples of the food served at Shokudō
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

More than the food itself, the experience of eating with chopsticks, sitting on the tatami-like floor, and talking about the Japanese interior was a nice change from my usual lunch break. Still, many questions remain, such as: Why was Japanese food chosen as a theme for this cafeteria over all other popular Asian cuisines? Why was the interior designed this way and what do students think of this new cafeteria? How many different dishes can this cafeteria offer in the long run, or will it mainly offer noodle soup and sushi? I am looking forward to the course in the summer semester on Berlin’s Japanese foodscape and will definitely explore these and other questions with our students.