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Dashi Diner: The borders of good taste

The owners of the stylish fusion spot Dashi are reinventing the classic diner – in the face of racist stereotypes.

Dashi, Invalidenstraße. Photo: Bettina Grabl

A chic new spot on Invalidenstraße with lots of wood, lots of beige and lots of casual elegance. So far, so Mitte. Its name: Dashi Diner, a reference on the one hand to the traditional Japanese broth, and on the other to the uncomplicated kind of US eatery that serves up coffee, food, milkshakes and smiles any time of day or night.

On the menu are lots of foods made for dipping and dunking: soft, crispy potato croquettes submerged in thick, creamy Japanese curry sauce, deep-fried Chinese breadsticks (youtiao) alongside the comforting rice porridge congee, spicy Sichuan-style fries with coriander mayo. There are Japanese-American katsu sandos, made with fried aubergine or chicken cutlets, that rank among Berlin’s best, and an extraterrestrial green melon granita garnished with a knowingly kitschy maraschino cherry.

You could call it “borderless” cuisine, a natural answer to the globalisation of our tastebuds and a Berlin eating public as familiar with the namesake broth as it is with French fries. When they opened their diner, founders Thuy Thu Pham and Phuong Thao Westphal published a “mission statement” in which they made their intentions clear: Dashi takes influence from “Yōshoku” cuisine, Western-style dishes in East Asian interpretations. They also referenced their common background as second-generation Vietnamese Germans whose parents spent years working in fast food restaurants, adapting pan-Asian classics to Western palates.

It’d all be pretty straightforward, were it not for the social media discourse. Just days after opening, a post by one of Berlin’s most popular Instagrammers referred to Dashi as a “Japanese fusion eatery”, with commenters bemoaning the “unfortunate” fact that its owners, like so many Asian restaurant proprietors across Berlin and Germany, were Vietnamese.

The racist implications were fully obvious, as Thuy Thu Pham and Phuong Thao Westphal pointed out in a widely shared post of their own. 

The Instagrammer in question, Berlin Food Stories, soon apologised for the disrespectful statements, removing the post and its comments from his channel. But for Dashi Diner, that didn’t shut the door on the debate. There are bigger structures and resentments at play here, not just mere misunderstandings.

Sichuan-style fries with coriander mayo. Photo: Bettina Grabl

After all, while some chefs – mostly white, mostly male, often Tim Raue – are lauded as innovative for fusing influences from East and Southeast Asia with Western food culture, other, mostly marginalised chefs find themselves pigeonholed, forced to satisfy customers’ clichéd expectations. And it’s the white guest – or blogger – who suddenly knows exactly what’s “authentic” or even right, and where to draw the borders of good taste.

Food is always political. Above all else, it’s tied to emotion and identity. And the devaluation of the work of these young restaurateurs affects not only their menu, but their existence as Vietnamese German women and as businesswomen trying to further the Berlin food scene. It’s a stroke of luck for Berlin that Thuy Thu Pham and Phuong Thao Westphal haven’t allowed that to distract them. On the contrary: with their refusal to accept disrespectful, racist comments and misinformation, they’ve helped initiate an important debate. Moreover, they’ve given our city a great – and indeed, borderless – place to eat.

Dashi Diner Invalidenstr. 112, Mitte, Tue-Sat 11.30-15.30, Tel. 030/33 90 30 90, www.dashi.de