I can recall a scene in the 80s movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” where nerdy Mark Ratner takes his crush Stacy out for their first date to a German restaurant. This, I suspect, is what most Americans think of when German food comes to mind: Served by a zaftig waitress wearing a dirndl, sitting in ginormous chairs and eating knockwurst.
Obviously, this is a caricature of a country’s culinary heritage. There’s more to German food than sausage, beer and black forest cake. Let’s start in the land of Hamburgers.
Hamburg & the North
Hamburg is a well-done city (first cliché) but you’ll find parts of this metropolis – only second in population to Berlin – that are a little raw (second cliché.) Perhaps because Hamburg has been burnt for much of its 1000+ year history (final one, promise.) But now, the city and its environs are back and better than before.
Hamburg’s Fish Market
Due to Hamburg’s close proximity to the North and Baltic Seas, the water influences much of the cuisine. You can see the daily catch at the open-air Altona fish market on Sundays, which dates back to 1703. Get there at the crack of dawn to bargain with vendors, or just see what the sea has brought in. The traditional pride of the days of the Hanseatic League still exists in these ports, and is reflected in the cuisine.
3 Traditional Dishes
There are three traditional dishes worth taking a closer look at. Birnen, Bohnen und Speck is made with fully ripened sweet pears, plus green beans and bacon. This triumvirate of ingredients makes a stew that’s both sweet and swine-y. Aalsuppe translates to “eel soup” but doesn’t necessarily have this ingredient in it. Travelers are usually compelled to try the dish just by name alone. The word aal is taken from the lower German dialect and means “all.” Thrown in are summer veggies, a ham bone and sweet prunes.
Finally, let’s talk about the Labskaus that on appearance is about as appealing as Scottish haggis. This used to be a dish solely for local seamen. In order to make the salt meat edible on long journeys, it was cooked in a broth together with potatoes and onions. Today, you’ll find this traditional meal in many northern German restaurants, paying homage to the great ships and sailors that once navigated these tempestuous seas.
From Hamburg, it’s off to Berlin – the cultural, culinary capital.
Hamburg to Berlin via ICE: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
Berlin & the East
Hip, influential and at the confluence of all things cool, Berlin is a modern cultural classic. One can’t come here without considering – and respecting – the past. Go through the Brandenburg Gate, touch remnants of the Wall, walk solemnly around the Holocaust memorial. With a clear conscience, set off to explore the rest of the city’s avant-garde art galleries, splashy nightclubs and innovative restaurants.
Berlin’s Emerging Michelin-Starred Restaurants
Berlin may not be the Michelin-starred powerhouse of France, but the city is certainly picking up steam in that area. Or, should we say, dry ice. Molecular gastromomy is making waves – think cheese in foam form and smoky puffs of parsnip.
At the Michelin-starred Reinstoff by renowned chef Daniel Achilles, you’ll find traditional German recipes re-imagined. Choose a tasting menu from three-to-eight courses, the latter with a price tag to match. This is heiß cuisine in an inspired setting with well-dressed waitstaff. No lederhosen in sight.
Currywurst – or curried sausage – is as much a part of Berlin as the Brandenburg Gate. Considered the culinary emblem of Germany’s capital, the dish is a celebrity complete with its own museum dedicated to this spicy, encased darling. Take an interactive tour that will envelop all your senses before settling in at the snack lounge for a taste.
The sausage is seasoned with ketchup or tomato paste, and blended with curry and generous amounts of curry powder, and usually served with Germany’s other ubiquitous food: potatoes.
Find the spuds in a few varieties all over Germany: boiled (Salzkartoffeln), mashed (Kartoffelpüree) and fried (Bratkartoffeln) or in noodle form (schupfnudel), which is similar to Italian gnocchi. Wash it all down with a stein of Weiße, a light, fizzy beer flavored with a dash of raspberry juice.
Time to travel west to the epicenter of encased meats. The top dog.
Berlin to Frankfurt via ICE: 4 hours, 6 minutes
Frankfurt & the West:
Frankfurt may be Germany’s central transportation hub (scores pass through the Hauptbahnhof) and financial epicenter, but there’s beauty, culture and fine cuisine here too. But none more famous than the top tog. In America, we top with relish, sauerkraut or simple ketchup and mustard. Competitive eaters in Coney Island attempt to chew and swallow ten fistfuls. Summer barbeques leave two buns sad and lonely, because franks are sold in packs of eight. (Why, Wonder®, why?)
Think this is the ultimate plebian food? Celebrated native son Goethe, whom may be the smartest German ever to live (we can debate this later), also loved his frankfurter, topped with green sauce (grie soβ) – an emulsion of eggs, local herbs and oil.
Now is the perfect time to come for a taste. The medieval Romer square is host to one of the largest and oldest Christmas markets in Germany.
The History of the Frankfurter
Frankfurt recently celebrated the 500th birthday of their eponymous edible. It was reported than in 1562, Emperor Maximilian II ordered a roast ox stuffed with these hearty sausages. From here, its empire expands. Johann Georg Lahner, a late 18th century butcher from the city of Coburg, is said to have brought the pork sausage to Vienna, where he added beef to the mix and named it a Frankfurter. Funny, in German speaking countries, except for Austria, hot dogs are called Wieners. The name has stuck around the world to describe other things too. But let’s not go there.
Frankfurt’s Apple Wine
In Frankfurt, you’ll find another specialty: Äbbelwoi, or apple wine. The legend goes that a poor grape harvest led to the region using apples instead. Locals loved the result so much they never looked back. You’ll find many Äbbelwoi bars around the city, with the drink served in a geripptes – a glass with a lozenge-cut that refracts light. Beware of a beschisserglas (rip-off glass) – which holds less than the .03 liter standard.
No need to twist your travel plans into a pretzel to get to our next destination: Bavaria.
Frankfurt to Munich via ICE: 3 hours, 10 minutes.