An expat survival guide to food in Germany
Germany has a rich food tradition which stretches back more than 1.500 years. Thanks to its geographical location, with the influence of multiple neighbouring countries and, of course, the sea, it also has great diversity – covering Scandinavian and maritime influences up north; Eastern European influences at the eastern border; French and Dutch influences in the west; and of course a whole pot of countries across the Alps to the south.
This explains the great diversity of cooking, depending on where in Germany you are. I could write a whole book on this topic alone – and wander into any bookshop in Germany and you will undoubtedly stumble across a large culinary section – but since space is limited, allow me to merely touch upon a few choice items that have been seared into my memory. They will probably have the same adverse effect upon newly-arrived, naive, unsuspecting expats. Here’s what awaits you.
Ein Currywurst mit Pommes, bitte!
I will never forget the sight, when I was living in Berlin between 2015 and 2018, of a French man (I know he was French, because he was in the queue ahead of me talking to his missus), having just ordered a Currywurst, look at it like he had just been handed a brick accompanied by the words “Enjoy your meal”.
He stared, bewildered, at a piece of sausage on his little white cardboard plate. It had some brownish sauce on it, with a little yellow powder sprinkled on top, and was accompanied by a slice of plain white bread. He was not amused. But since he was obviously a tourist – and tourists do what tourists do (i.e. try local cuisine, explore the local spots, submerge themselves into the local culture) – he decided to embrace the experience. With a shrug of “Ah, what the heck”, he tried it anyway.
The moment he bit into the sausage, however, his facial expression turned into a barely detectable grimace. Not the kind you see when someone bites into a lemon. Instead, it was more akin to somebody biting into a sour grape, or eating a nut that has gone off. The kind of shock your body gets when the expectations projected from the visuals are so mismatched with other sensations. I chuckled quietly to myself and thought the guy should probably have enquired about the brownish sauce and the yellowish powder before consuming it.
In fact, that brownish sauce is known as curry ketchup, and the yellowish powder is curry powder. There is a whole institution behind the preparation which the kiosk owner will be more than happy to explain to you. This is particularly the case for a Berliner. Each will have their own favourite kiosk and, if needs must, they would be prepared to defend their opinion – to the death.
This German delicacy is sold, without exception, at every train station, football match, concert, tourist attraction and museum in the country – basically, wherever large crowds gather (or did in pre-corona times).
There are even some restaurants that specialise in Currywurst, usually served with a healthy portion of Pommes (French fries) and, naturally, curry ketchup. Yes, you heard correctly – it is called that because ketchup in Germany is practically curry-flavoured by default. In order to get “normal” – AKA non-curry-flavoured – ketchup with your fries, you have to specify that to the waiter. “Guten Appetit!”
Every nation in the world has got a typical morning snack, something people grab on the way to work from a bakery. In the UK it could be a pasty or a sausage roll; in France it’s a croissant, in the Middle East, it might be baked flat bread with thyme paste.
In Germany, the equivalent of a morning snack is called a Franzbrötchen – a thinly sliced cinnamon-flavoured pastry, about the size of a croissant. It is hugely popular among Germans, and, aside from its original flavour, you can purchase it with Dinkelmehl - a healthier dark rye flour. It is also available with different toppings like caramel, nuts, sesame, cardamom, and a plethora of other permutations.
A little weird tasting at first, you’ll probably dismiss it as mundane, average, but as time goes by (song reference intended), you’ll notice how it grows on you. My personal favourite is the Dinkel-Sesam variety, which is actually quite hard to find. Perhaps I have an acquired taste - even by German standards.
Of all the weird food inventions I’ve encountered in Germany (and there are plenty) - including the emblematic Currywurst, the cheeky Bananenweizen (a wheat beer with banana juice); and the vomitous-looking Labskaus (a mixture of corned beef, fried egg, pickled herring, gherkin and beetroot); the non-alcoholic beer (speaks for itself) - the strangest one to date remains the so-called Spezi - basically a Fanta and a Coke put in one bottle.
I can’t for the life of me comprehend how somebody thought this would be a great idea. It was either a product invented purely by a mistake, perhaps when someone too drunk to know any better accidentally poured the remains of a Coke bottle into a glass of Fanta and decided to drink it anyway.
Otherwise, it must be a product of German waste efficiency – somebody who desperately wanted to cash in on the bottle by recycling it at the store (and so receive their 25-cent Pfand deposit back), but at the same time didn’t want to throw away half a bottle of coke.
Whatever its origins, and whichever way you look at it, it tastes revolting, and you can imagine what it does to your stomach, once it finds its way down there.