If you are looking for a hip report on new, exciting and mostly over-priced restaurants in Berlin, please stop reading now. There are countless amateur food bloggers out there that can, or most likely can, satisfy your hunger in that regard. No, this is a short story about the (mis)conception of German cuisine.
I was born into an English family living in Germany, a point of entry that automatically allows you to assess your home country from a more detached point of view. I moved abroad when I was 13, lived back in England until I was 24, and then have been back here in Germany for the last 11 years. During that time I have moved from Cologne to Berlin to Hamburg, which is my current residence.
When I first moved abroad, I attended an American School, and for the following 10 years I spent more time in the U.S. than any place else. During this time and through to today, I have steadily been confronted with German stereotypes — the food, beer and lederhosen.
Yet I've found, oddly enough, that the parallels and stereotypes between American and German Cuisine are uncanny, which is something I have happily gotten into over many a dinner and will also touch upon here.
So let's get one fact out of the way first. There is no “German” cuisine. Chances are, you, the reader, are not from here, so let me briefly explain. Germany is a Federal Republic of 16 states, similar to what you have in America. These 16 states have historically been individual countries with different cultures, religions, customs and food. Granted, you could take that further and break it down to the several hundred original earldoms, but no one wants to take it there when all we want to do is to debunk the beer, meat and lederhosen stigma.
Let’s be honest: when you think of German cuisine, the first thought that comes to mind will most likely involved mugs of beer, plates of meats and potatoes, and people wearing funny outfits slapping their thighs in beer tents.
This absolutely exists, but much like Deliverance takes part in the backwaters of Georgia, there is more to the country than that. No offense to Georgian cuisine; I actually find it pretty damn good.
To bring it closer to home for you, as a foreigner coming to the U.S., it’s pretty shocking to find out that not everyone likes pastrami sandwiches from Katz’s Delicatessen.
Roughly speaking, and specifically in terms of food, Germany can be divided into four different regions, the North, West, South and East. Within those areas, the cuisines vary greatly, from the northern shores that border Denmark, Holland and the North Sea; to the Western areas that have more in common with France and Belgium; to the Eastern states that reflect their history as potato and wheat farm country; to the South, which is a world in its own.
These differences involve geographical differences as much as cultural ones. The north borders onto the North Sea and the Baltic, hence fish plays a large role in our cuisine here. Hamburg, where I live, is Europe’s second largest port city, and has been so for over 1,200 years. Due to this, not only is seafood a big deal here, but there are also a growing variety of other cuisines, due to the influx of sailors. Germany’s first Italian restaurant still stands here, Cuino, and is owned and operated by the family that opened the place well over 100 years ago. Portuguese, Danish, Flemish and Spanish cuisines also thrive in Hamburg. For some unknown reason to me at least, the Japanese community in Hamburg is exceptionally strong, and we therefore have a great selection of Japanese restaurants in town. Again, thanks to the port, the Chinese community here is growing steadily and, with that, their take on food.
The west of the country is dominated by their geographical neighbors, France, Holland and Belgium, and their influence on the food stocks available are significant. The beers are sweeter and not as bitter as in the north and their cuisine is a lot more playful, especially in the wealthier areas of the west. Important to note is the fact that large parts of the west are working class mining areas, or at least have been, so don’t go looking for fancy French cuisine in towns such as Bochum. You will, however, find exceptionally good and filling foods as you would in Pittsburgh, for example.
The East is a different beast all together, and one, unfortunately, that's plagued by the downside of history. Traditionally, the East as we know it today was the center of the country, when it extended all the way to western Russia 300-400 years ago. This is Germany's equivalent of America's Farm Belt. The main food stocks were wheat and potatoes, and while the northern part of Eastern Germany borders on the Baltic and has more to do culturally with the North, the southern part of Eastern Germany is closer to Czech and Bavarian cuisine than anything else.
Now the South is a different world completely. Let’s focus on Bavaria for a minute. The reason for German stereotypes are many, but mostly because they are true. Bavarians hold on to their great and old traditions like a trusted pair of shoes, and you have to commend them for it. Especially when it comes to their food and beer. I spent a long weekend down in Munich over Easter and was once again reminded of their spectacular ability to make beer — and to make you feel at ease about drinking beer in 1-litre glass mugs. If I were to do that here in Hamburg, I would certainly be looked at funny, if you could even find a place that serves beer in such vast quantities. Additionally, Bavaria's obsession with slow roasting, marinating and serving all types of different meats leads to offerings that I can only compare to eating real Texas barbecue. You know you can only pull it off physically a few times a year but when you do, well, if you have ever had real Texas barbecue you’ll know exactly what I mean. Except that, and instead of cowboy hats and chaps, you’ll find lederhosen and even funnier hats in Bavaria.
The point of this essay is to simply debunk the one-lined version of the German cultural cuisine. Yes, there is a part of this country in which you, as a visitor, will think yourself to be in The Sound of Music, despite that story actually being set in Austria. It's worth noting that this area of Germany is well worth a visit if food, castles, mountains, lakes and lederhosen are your thing. Even if they are not, Bavaria should be at the top of your list if you are going to visit Germany. Granted, I am biased, but Hamburg and the North should also be on your list of places to visit if you are into food. To further make the point, we'll even wear funny hats.