It may be more difficult than you think to find some of these authentic dishes.
Like many world capitals, Berlin is a melting pot (or perhaps we should say a goulash stew) of cultures, nationalities, and religions that left their mark on the city. Its food scene is also a collage, with dishes from all over Germany. What’s more, a growing international population has created a market for cuisines from outside Germany as well. That means it can be easier to rustle up a bowl of Vietnamese Pho, a plate of Chinese dumplings or a dish of Peruvian ceviche, than to find some of the authentic Berlin dishes on this list. Get ‘em while they’re hot…and while they’re still around.
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This perennial local favorite is nothing more than a sliced sausage doused in ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the sausage will come premade with curry flavoring in it as well. A holdover from the post-WWII years that somehow became a symbol of the resurgent city, the invention of currywurst has been claimed by quite a few Berliners. The consensus falls on Herta Heuwer, who now has a plaque on the Charlottenburg spot where she first invented and sold it. It’s best paired with French fries or “pommes” and eaten standing up at an outdoor high table.
Like currywurst, this beloved Berlin snack is also famous enough to have disputed origins. Its invention is often attributed to Kadir Nurman, though several Turkish immigrants, no doubt part of the group brought over as “guest workers” to rebuild postwar Germany, have laid claim to it. It’s easy to see why so many want to: it’s the perfect hand-held meal on-the-go. Made with sliced lamb or beef, chicken, or even tofu, and topped with salads and sauces (garlic or chili are the favorites), this simple flat bread sandwich (the name “döner” comes from the act of turning the meat on a spit) is endlessly customizable, and deliciously addictive.
Also referred to as frikadelle, this street snack is basically a hamburger without a bun. It’s quite possible the citizens of Hamburg were the first ones to make it, but this snack has migrated all over Germany and is now still served at street stalls next to all manner of sausages. Expect it to be dryer than the average burger (no chance of ordering yours “medium rare” here), but that only means it should be washed down with a tall glass of Pilsner.
When JFK made his famous proclamation “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he never could have guessed he would become the butt of so many jokes for so many decades. The problem is, these jokes really only exist in English, since his expression of solidarity with Berlin residents makes perfect sense in German. That’s because the jelly-filled donut everyone else in Germany calls a “Berliner” here is called a “Pfannkuchen”, which means “pancake” everywhere else in Germany. Perplexed yet? You’ll quickly drown your confusion in a dusting of powdered sugar, the crunch and chew of dough, and the ooze of jam. Just be careful if you’re offered any at a New Year’s party: one out of every batch is traditionally filled with mustard, giving its eater good luck for a year.
Never fear, this sweet treat’s name—“bee sting cake”—is only a reference to its honey and sugar content. It combines a bottom layer of crumbly dough and a top layer of crisp, caramelized almond slices, its deeply burnished gold color and perfect combination of textures quite tempting on a brisk fall day. Some Germans like to make two layers of the cake, sandwiched around a buttercream or vanilla custard middle, but you’ll find it without in most Berlin bakeries, and you may agree it’s unnecessary.
Named after a city in East Prussia that’s now part of Russia’s Kaliningrad, this was a classic Prussian dish that remained a staple in East Germany. Even today you can see why: the pillowy meatballs served in a creamy caper gravy with potatoes on the side is the perfect well-rounded meal (at least, if you lived in the GDR and had little access to fresh vegetables). Just like the people of the former East, this dish feels humble and unadorned; there’s something warming, comforting, and nostalgic about it that explains why it’s still on the menu at traditional German restaurants.
The one that everyone knows, the standard by which all others are measured, this street snack is the closest you’ll come to a Berlin version of a hotdog. Except instead of being served in a fluffy, elongated bun exactly its shape, the bratwurst will be handed to you in a tiny, crusty roll sliced nearly in half, which acts as an edible holder more than an important component of the meal. Get it with mustard or ketchup and then hightail it out of there: this lovingly browned, juicy grilled sausage is meant to be eaten on the go.
Sure, it’s most famous in Vienna (as the beloved wienerschnitzel), but Germans love their meat pounded, breaded, and fried just as much as Austrians do. You’re liable to find this veal cutlet (sometimes replaced with pork) at sit-down restaurants, served with potatoes and a lemon wedge, or tucked under a thick blanket of arugula. Sometimes, it’ll be as big as your plate, sometimes even bigger: at Neukölln classic restaurant Louis, it’s almost twice the size of whatever dish it’s served on. What’s more, if you happen to tell the waiter you want the rest to go, expect the entire restaurant to judge you for your small stomach. In Germany, finishing a schnitzel is a blood sport.
As American craft beer lovers have adopted a taste for sour and fermented ales, the Berliner Weisse has achieved a kind of cult status. In Berlin, however, it’s long been a classic warm weather drink, prized for its refreshing taste and low alcohol content. In the US, you may find it with all manner of fruit flavorings – Mango! Watermelon! Yuzu! – and cutesy names, but in the German capital there are only two: the one with the red syrup (raspberry) and the one with the green syrup (woodruff). No matter which one you choose, rest assured you’ll be taking part in a Berlin summer tradition.
Not quite a Berlin drink but as much a part of Berlin summers as grill parties, long bike rides, and all night raves, this fall beverage can only be found one month out of the year: it’s a young wine (literally translated as “feather white”) made from the pressed juice of just-picked grapes, bottled while still fermenting. That’s why Federweisser, while delicious, is famously dangerous: caps are not screwed tightly to allow the gases to escape, so be careful to keep it upright. What’s more, the longer you keep it around the drunker you’ll be: the fermentation process continues over days, until the sweet grape juice you bought a week ago is all alcohol and ready for a party.