Ask any German what they consider the most typical German dish, and the answer will never be the same!
Germany is a country with a large variety of regional dishes strongly influenced by the fact it shares borders with 9 other European countries (clockwise: Denmark, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Luxemburg, France, Belgium, and The Netherlands) all having had some influence on what meals are served and how they are prepared. Roman Colonization of the South around 96 AD has also had a long lasting influence on German cuisine; even today.
Other factors such as wars (and the resulting hardship), the division of Germany with Russian influence on its eastern part, and the re-unification in the 1990 have / had influence on German cooking.
Typical dishes are often made up of a meat component, vegetables and a source of carbohydrates — making German cuisine not necessarily a light kitchen. Germans eat lots of potatoes — and potato variations can be found in abundance all over the country.
Different varieties of bread also play an important role and the one thing German expats probably miss the most is the diversity of bread available at home.
Finally, meat is a regular. There are hardly any main courses without meat, includinge beef, veal, pork, lamb, game, and poultry. At the coastal regions fresh fish and shellfish is consumed in larger quantities.
Traditional drinks served with meals include all varieties of Beer available in Germany. A popular summer drink is “Radler” or “Alsterwasser” which is a Pilsner or Lager Beer mixed with Lemonade such as Sprite at a 50/50 ratio.
Germany being a wine growing region makes wine a popular choice, particularly in the southwest.
White wines are more dominant than reds. The cliché that all German white wines are sweet is not true and makes the German winemaker flinch.
The following culinary map will take you through all 16 States briefly summarizing what their regional specialties are.
Schleswig-Holstein – Land between the Seas where the Winds blow strongly
Schleswig- Holstein is the most norther state between the calm Baltic Sea and the North Sea with its Wadden Sea Nature Reserve.
From a culinary standpoint, the most northern German state is strongly influenced by the fact that it is located between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea as well as by the presence of a minority Danish population. Fishing, agriculture, and tourism are main sources of income. Seafood is commonly prepared, as are different type of casseroles with vegetables and meats from the region. This is also where most of Germany’s cabbage is grown. One noteworthy tendency of the northern kitchen is to combine hearty and sweet components in a dish. A typical example being Pears, Green Beans, and Pork (Birnen, Bohnen und Speck).
North Sea Shrimps are a popular specialty. The best source is to buy them right of the fisher’s trawler where they are cooked during the fishermen’s return home. They are small and can only be shelled by hand. A curious fact is that if you buy this delicacy in any supermarket in Germany they will have had a very long journey. North Sea shrimps are sent on trucks all the way down to Morocco, where the shell is removed manually by cheap labor and then sent back (again via truck) to the various supermarkets in Germany. All this is done while maintaining highest hygiene standards and freshness using a sophisticated refrigeration cycle.
Hamburg – A City State with long standing Maritime Trade History.
Hamburg with its 1.7 million people is the second largest city in Germany. The river Elbe and the close proximity to the North and Baltic Sea have not only established flourishing maritime trade routes via one of the world’s largest harbors, it has also influenced Hamburg cooking. The “Gate to the World” as the Hamburgers (yes, a Hamburg citizen is called a “Hamburger”) call the harbor has always brought exotic merchantry (and merchants) to Hamburg resulting in a city with a large international diversity and attitude. Fish, Seafood, but also exotic spices from far away have added to the development of the Hamburg Kitchen. In the close-by Alte Land (Old Country) just south of the River Elbe large quantities of fruit (especially apples) is grown which again had its influence on cooking to the extent that some hearty meals are combined with fruits. One example could be the Panfried Fish Homemaker Style.
The Hamburger did indeed originate, (unlike some statements to the contrary and at least in its rudimentary form) in Hamburg. You can read more about this story plus in the recipe for Hamburger Steak.
Another interesting culinary fact is that trade made the city so wealthy, that at one point in time fresh salmon was so abundant, the servants in a merchants house by court ruling refused to be served it more than twice a week!!! Those were the days.
Bremen -Surrounded by Lower Saxony and yet strongly independent
Bremen is an independent City State in the northwest of Germany, about an hour from Hamburg (if it were not for the constant roadworks on the A1 between Hamburg and Bremen).
Bremen’s cusine is closely related to the other Hanseatic cities such as Hamburg, Lübeck, even Schwerin, and Rostock, yet it remains independently unique.
Traditonally speaking, Bremen is not as wealthy as the other Hanseatic city, leasding to a “save every penny” mentality. Yet, when it comes to food and entertaining guests; Bremers — just like Hambuergers and Lübeckers — like it solid and without compromise.
BERLIN AND EAST GERMANY
I was heading for Kurfürstendamm, one of the major Boulevards in Berlin. On my way, I passed what appeared to be a typical German restaurant: Wooden chairs with solid and heavy tables, subdued lights, and many beer glasses on the shelves.
The sign read: Original Berlin Cuisine!
Now… I am pretty tough when it comes to eating anything that does not move, but the lack of sophistication that unfolded in front of me on the menu placed outside and next to the door made me shiver and shake…
I could only imagine what it would do to my uninitiated American friend.
Berlin Cuisine is simple – and this qualifies as an understatement! It is down to earth and there are no thrills and frills. Traditionally speaking, in Berlin a cook focuses on a solid taste and filling you up, rather than a refined culinary experience. This is not surprising, considering that Berlin went through tough times during the Second World War, but also for the year after, when Nikita Khrushchev cut Berlin off supplies form the West and made it an island in the roaring sea of the Cold War while at the same time and together with John F. Kennedy both brought us all to the brink of a nuclear war.
Berlin is not a city to stay, but a point of transition. Thus, the influences on cooking resulted from migrating people from the surrounding German states, to Poland, and even all the way across to France. Key to Berlin cooking was to simplify everything, which might be part of its charm. Nothing fancy, nothing elaborate…
In a way similar to the refreshingly direct way a Berliner will communicate to and with you: simple, down to earth, and a bit rough around the edges.
Of course, when visiting Berlin, you can go out and do fine dining; lots of it, in fact. But the roots of Berlin cuisine are different, and that is what I am trying to capture here.
Before the 2nd World War, the Germanic Region had similar and cross regional food traditions. This dramatically changed after at the end of the 2nd world war. Germany was split amongst the winning forces.
While the USA, UK, and France supported the rebuilding of their territories, (later to be known as West Germany) Russia decided to incorporate their part into the Russian system. And by shutting it off from the Western world, East Germany was created. Soon after the erection of the Inner-German Border, it became clear that the times of hardship and famine in East Germany were to stay longer than in the West.
Food was rationalized and while people eventually where able to satisfy their caloric requirements, not everything was available at all times. Hence, creativity in the kitchen was required. Many dishes were also given new names, when these names were too closely related to the west. Finally, Russian and Hungarian ties had a clear influence on cooking in East Germany.
Housewife’s had to be inventive and improvise. Recipes where modified based on what was available in the shops at any given day. These and other factors led to East German Cuisine to begin to develop differently from that in the West, where there was access to food specialties from around the world.
There is no one typical East German cuisine, though. Just like in the west, regional influences played a role and created diversity.
After the fall of the Inner German Border and the Berlin Wall in 1989 many of these creative dishes disappeared, while some stayedand regained new popularity, now becoming part of a greater whole.
Not having grown up in East Germany, it will also be an experiment for me to recreate these dishes – and I just found the right literature for it.
The State Baden Württemberg in the Southwest of Germany affords the luxury of two distinctly different regional cuisines. There is for one Baden Cuisine and the Swabian Cuisine.
It is said that Baden is the cradle of German Novelle Cusine, with influences of France, Alsace, Switzerland, Rhineland and Swabia playing a significant role. It is this region where the most Michelin Star chefs can be found. The small town Baiersbronn, population 16’000, has probably the highest per capita density of Michelin star decorated chefs (a total of 3).
The climate and soil is very favorable to for a multitude of agricultural produce, which find its way into the Baden Kitchen and onto the Badener’s dinner table.
Baden Wines and fruit Schnaps are considered one of the best in Germany. It may not be so popular outside of Germany, because quantities are small and we Germans tend to keep the good stuff to ourselves.
There are numerous famous soups, vegetable and meat dishes, game dishes, fresh water fish even offal dishes as well as bakery products that are popular all over Germany and the world. Black Forest Cake is one many know, but also try the Riesling Chicken.
The German language in Baden is also slightly different from the rest of Germany. It is not unheard of that a visitors to Baden (let’s say from the North) may look at a restaurant’s menu and only think they know what they ordered.
The Swabia Region is the South of Baden Württemberg extending into Bavaria and down to Austria.
Regional cooking here is different, much more down to earth and simpler when compared to the French influenced Baden Cuisine. In traditional Swabian Cusine one still sees the influences of times of hardship much more than in other regional cooking in Germany.
Mean people say: The Swabian will eat anything as long as it comes with enough gravy. Well, there may be some truth to it, if one considers, that the signature dish of Swabia, the Speatzle really need lots of sauce.
Swabia was not as agriculturally rich as Baden, so cooking in this region is dominated by simplicity and creativity. An image that is associated with Swabians is that they regarded as crafty and hard working. In past days meat was a luxury so it is not unusual to find traditional dishes, that would process parts of an animal, that today are hard to get even at well-established butchers, due to a lack in demand. And the Swabian Houswife is crafty. With simple left overs they manage to create a tasty new dish.