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Traditional German Food

Traditional German cuisine fell out of fashion several decades ago, and was replaced by Italian and Mediterranean food, Asian food, and Middle Eastern food. But there's a growing movement to go back to those roots, and even high-class German chefs are rediscovering old classics, from sauerkraut to Sauerbraten (traditional German pot roast). Traditional fruits and vegetables, from parsnips and pumpkins to black salsify, sunchoke, cabbage, yellow carrots, and little-known strawberry and apple varietals, are all making a comeback. That said, "German food" is a bit of a misnomer, as traditional cooking varies greatly from region to region. Look for the "typical" dish, wherever you are, to get the best sense of German cooking in that region.

Generally speaking, regions in the south, like Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, have held onto their culinary traditions more than regions in the North. But with a little effort, you can find good German food just about anywhere you go.

Bavaria: White Sausage and Beer (for Breakfast)

In Bavaria, a traditional farmer's Zweites Frühstück (second breakfast) found at any beer hall consists of fat white sausages, called Weisswurst made of veal and eaten with sweet mustard, pretzels, and, yes, a big glass of Helles or Weissbier (light or wheat beer). Other Bavarian specialties include Leberkäse (literally, "liver cheese"), a meat loaf of pork and beef that can be eaten sliced on bread and tastes a lot better than it sounds. Knödelgerichte, or noodle dishes are also popular.

Swabia: The Sausage Salad

Swabia (the area surrounding Stuttgart) is generally thought to have some of the best traditional food in Germany, having held on to its culinary heritage better than other areas. Schwäbische Wurstsalat (Swabian sausage salad), a salad of sliced sausage dressed with onions, vinegar, and oil, is a typical dish, as is Kässpätzle (Swabian pasta with cheese), a noodlelike dish made from flour, egg, and water topped with cheese. Linsen mit Spätzle (lentils and spätzle) could be considered the Swabian national dish: it consists of egg noodles topped with lentils and, often, a sausage.

Franconia: Nürnberger Bratwürste

Perhaps the most beloved of all bratwürste (sausages) in a country that loves sausages is the small, thin sausage from the city of Nürnberg. Grilled over a beech-wood fire, this sausage is served 6 or 12 at a time with horseradish and sauerkraut or potato salad. Fresh marjoram and ground caraway seeds give the pork-based sausage its distinctive flavor.

Hessen: Apfelwein in Frankfurt

Apfelwein (hard apple cider) is a specialty in and around Frankfurt. Look for an Apfelweinkneipe (cider bar), where you can spend a pleasant evening sipping this tasty alcoholic drink. Order Handkäse, traditional Hessian curdled milk cheese, to go with it. If you order Handkäse mit Musik (Handkäse with music), you'll get it with onions. Another winner is Frankfurter Rippchen, spareribs served with sauerkraut.

Rhineland: Horse Meat and Kölsch

In Köln, influenced by nearby Belgium and Holland, there's a traditional taste for horse meat, which they use in their local version of the pot roast, Rheinische Sauerbraten. Wash this down with the local beer, Kölsch. Or try the Kölsche Kaviar—blood sausage with onions.

Northwest Germany: Herring with That?

States on the north coast, like Bremen, Hamburg, Westphalia, and Schleswig-Holstein, all have cuisines that are oriented toward the sea. Cod, crab, herring, and flatfish are all common traditional foods. Labskaus, a meat stew, is also a traditional northern German dish that might be served with a fried egg, pickle, and red beets. Potatoes, cabbage, and rutabagas are all important vegetables, and are served stewed or pickled. Rote Grütze, a traditional dessert, is a berry pudding often served with whipped cream.

Northeast Germany: Currywurst and More

Berlin is known for its Eisbein (pork knuckle), Kasseler (smoked pork chop), Bockwurst (large sausage), and Boulette (a kind of hamburger made of beef and pork), though its most famous dish might be its Currywurst, a Berlin-born dish that consists of sausage cut in pieces and covered in ketchup with curry. Idyllic Spreewald is famous for its pickles.

The East: Da, Soljanka

In former GDR states like Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia, the Soviet influence can be felt in the popularity of traditionally Russian dishes like Soljanka (meat soup). Rotkäppchen sparkling wines come from Saxony-Anhalt, Germany's northernmost wine-making region (named for the company's bottles with red tops, Rotkäppchen is also the German name for Little Red Riding Hood). Another local treat is Baumkuchen, or tree cake, so named because it is formed by adding layer upon layer of batter on a spit and rotating this around a heat source, such that when you cut into it, it looks like the rings of a tree.

The Döner: It's for Dinner

Although not a traditional German dish, the Turkish döner kebab is ubiquitous in Germany and it would be hard to spend much time here without trying one. Made from some combination of lamb, chicken, pork, or beef roasted on a spit then sliced into pita pockets with cabbage, lettuce, and yogurt sauce, döners are one of the most popular fast foods around. A spicy, inexpensive alternative to German fare, they're good for a meal or a pick-me-up.

Seasonal Favorites

Germans are still very much attuned to seasonal fruits and vegetables. Traditional German produce like white asparagus, strawberries, plums, cherries, blueberries, and apples are available in supermarkets, farmers' markets, and sidewalk sellers in abundance, and are eagerly snapped up by locals. When in season, these are delicious items to add to your diet and a healthy way to keep your blood sugar up as you set off to explore Germany.

Updated: 2014-03-27

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