Cheap eats in Berlin

Do you VoKü?

by Hugh Ryan

Hugh Ryan discovers a handy way to fill up without splashing out at the People’s Kitchen in Berlin.

VoKü is short for Volks Kütchen, or People’s Kitchen. For €1 or €2, a visitor to a VoKü gets a full, home cooked hot meal. On any given night, a VoKü might be held in ten or fifteen different locations across Berlin. The majority of these locations are what are known in Berlin as ‘Project Houses’.

Berlin is an economy in severe depression, with unemployment rates up around 15%. For decades, the city has been a haven for punks and squatters. In a brilliant move, the city government offered the established squats the chance to turn themselves into legitimate communal living spaces, called Project Houses. These houses would be owned and run by the ex-squatters. Real estate is cheap in Berlin and the buildings the squats were in were among those in the worst repair. For the squatters, it gave them legitimacy, permanency and safety from police. For the government, it brought the squats under control and curtailed the further destruction that a transient populace with no regard for their buildings can often bring.

In keeping with their anarchist leanings, many of these Project Houses offer cheap places to live, free spaces to hold meetings, courtyard festivals, concerts, and, last but not least, VoKü. Every VoKü I have attended has been an adventure, part culinary, part social. For your €2 you get – well, whatever the people cooking that night decide to make. Anything from flavourless couscous mush and lettuce, to spicy soy nuggets, spinikopita and salad. The food might be served anywhere from the time advertised to two hours later. The crowd at a VoKü is always an interesting mixture of people who live in the Project House, other Berliners and travellers from every country. Some VoKü are clearly held in the kitchen of the House, some in nearby clubs, and many in a space that falls somewhere in between – usually the first floor of the Project House, which also doubles as a bar/club/lounge space. Wherever the food is being served, some things are inevitable – dogs, boots, beers, punks with dreadlocks, punks with mohawks, cigarette smoke and body odour. Optionals include: a foosball table, a passed out drunk, a free stuff box, a spirited political debate and a police raid.

I found out about the VoKü by accident; a friend of a friend who was staying at a Project House invited me to one. We biked across the city to Friedricshein, a part of East Berlin in which many of Project Houses are located. Nearly everyone bikes in Berlin, since the U-bahn and S-bahn are both expensive, and there are bike paths on nearly every good-sized road. After the first time, I went back every week, eager for good, cheap food and not realizing that similar meals were happening every night! For the first few weeks, I even thought VoKü was the name for that particular event. Eventually, I learned about – the website for the Project House scene in Berlin that provides information on all the VoKü that are held in the city.

Most of the VoKü are vegetarian, although some serve meat. There are weekly themed VoKü that are women only and ones that are vegan only. There are also themed VoKü held intermittently for other groups. For any traveller coming to Berlin, I recommend trying out a number of the different VoKü – each one has its own vibe, its own crowd, and its own types of food. If the first one doesn’t suit you, chances are one of the others will – and at the very least, you’ll come away with a full stomach for only €2!

Information provides lists of the various VoKü being held each night of the week (under the heading ‘Volxküchen’), and addresses for all the Project
Houses (under the heading ‘Adressen’). All the information is in German, but most people speak English so do ask around.

This article was published in Issue #32, October 2004 of Backpacker Magazine.