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.
Generally speaking, regions in the south, like Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, have held onto their culinary traditions more than states 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 onto 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 Käsespätzle (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, it 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, spare ribs served with sauerkraut.
Rhineland: Horse Meat and Kölsch
In Köln (Cologne), 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. Or try the Kölsche Kaviar—blood sausage with onions. Wash these dishes down with the local beer, Kölsch.
Northwest Germany: Herring with That?
States near 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 traditional fisherman’s dish of choice, is made from corned beef, however. The salty meal comes with accompaniments such as fried egg, herring, pickle, and red beets. For your fix of vegetables, potatoes, cabbage, and rutabagas are all 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), but its most famous dish is Currywurst, a Berlin-born snack that consists of sausage cut in pieces and covered in ketchup and curry powder, often served with a side of fries. Brandenburg's idyllic Spreewald is famous for its pickled gherkins.
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, which is formed by adding layer upon layer of batter on a spit and rotating it over a heat source. When you cut into the cake, it looks like the rings of a tree—hence the name.
The Döner Kebab: It's Fine Anytime
It would be hard to visit Germany without trying this Turkish sandwich, whether for lunch, dinner, or a snack after a night out on the town. Made from some combination of lamb, chicken, pork, or beef roasted on a spit then sliced into pita pockets with lettuce, chopped tomato, yogurt, and spicy sauce, the döner kebab is the indisputable king of snack food. An inexpensive alternative to German fare, they're available on almost any city corner.
Germans are very much attuned to seasonal fruits and vegetables. Traditional German produce like white asparagus, strawberries, plums, cherries, blueberries, and apples are for sale in supermarkets, farmers' markets, and from sidewalk sellers. 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.
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