Welcome to Berlin! Our three days here have been dominated by three things: Oktoberfest, hearty German food and the Berlin Wall. Especially the latter; we couldn’t go anywhere in the city without feeling the wall’s legacy and current reality. Its former path is outlined in the ground, and sections/memorials still remain. Unlike WWI and WWII, the breaking down of the wall and its implications are something I actually remember from my lifetime. It felt very relevant to me, though still mind blowing at the same time, quite like visiting Sarajevo. The division the wall created is still an important part of Berlin culture, and I was a bit surprised to see how pervasive it is, and how upfront Berliners are with their past. But they don’t let it hold them back: Berlin is modern, edgy and seriously cool.
One of the implications of the wall was definitely that food culture, especially in East Berlin, was virtually nonexistent. Cuisine was more influenced by the Soviets and the lack of available food/produce/variety/internationalism. And while that has changed now to an extent–typical Bavarian food, hip Indian/Thai/Vietnamese restaurants and upscale coffee cafés all rule supreme in Mitte (the heart of East Berlin, where we stayed)–there’s a dearth of what we can call uniquely from Berlin. Though, there are a few exceptions, of course.
Enter: the curry wurst. In 1949, a woman named Herta Heuwer threw together some ketchup and curry she had obtained from some British soldiers, and put the mixture on top of a sausage. As a result, she invented currywurst, probably the most famous Berlin dish. It’s eaten here in abundance at so many of the takeaway storefronts and stalls all around Berlin, restaurants, cafeterias, supermarkets… Everywhere. Nearly 800 million currywursts are eaten in Germany each year. There’s now even a currywurst museum in Berlin. We didn’t go there, but we did choose to stand in line for a good 20 minutes at Curry 36 in Kreuzberg to get some currywurst and fries. I’m not a fan of ketchup (it’s so sweet), but I thoroughly enjoyed the sausage as a whole. The curry was a nice and spicy addition to the heaviness of the sausage, and the sweetness of the ketchup. Had I had more time in Berlin, I would have tried a version from East Berlin to compare notes–perhaps there would have been a slight difference, but regardless, the west-side sausage I had was well worth the wait.
The world is also indebted to Berlin for a tasty treat called the Berliner, or the jelly donut. At least everyone outside of Berlin calls them Berliners. In Berlin they are called pfannkuchen. [Which is really confusing, since pfannkuchen means pancake in German. To order pancakes in Berlin, you must ask for eierkuchen, or egg cakes.] It was delicious, and if Berlin could only have contributed one small thing to culinary history, it could have done worse than a pfannkuchen.
Dönerbuchen aren’t from Berlin, but now because of the influx and influence of the Turkish immigrants that have come to Berlin since the 1970s, döner is just as much a part of Berlin food culture as anything else, like currywurst. The Berliner version consists of a flatbread sandwich full of lamb meat sliced from a spit, cabbage, onion, cucumber and tomato, with of course some yogurt sauce coating all the contents. The best part is that it’s so good, available everywhere, and cheap. There are actually more döner stands in Berlin than in Istanbul… But perhaps that’s just the takeaway culture here in Berlin. We got ours in Kreuzberg, in west Berlin, which is a neighborhood with a large Turkish population (though less so now thanks to gentrification), and we actually paid a premium for the super fresh quality, at 3,50€ per döner that seriously was enough for two meals.
The rest of our stay in Berlin was filled with the better-known meals from Southern Germany, which by and large are what most people associate with German food. Krautspätzle is spätzle (soft egg noodles) with saurkraut, vegetables and cheese. I couldn’t resist this one after a day full of walking around Berlin. Mine must have been enriched with spinach, given the green color, and I’ll pretend the added vitamins offset all the cheese that welded the noodles together. Spätzle is laborious to make, since it’s wetter than its Italian counterparts. I certainly appreciated the effort that went into making mine, and I showed that appreciation by eating nearly every single noodle thread on my plate.
Ps, in German, spätzle means “little sparrows”!
Oktoberfest was in full swing during our trip to Berlin. We actually closed it out. Though Munich is the center of everything Oktoberfest, it’s obviously celebrated around the world. Berlin was no exception, and we together paid homage to Bavaria and German history. It might surprise you to know that we didn’t plan to be in Germany or Berlin during this time; it was a happy coincidence that we realized we’d be able to experience it in some fashion, closer to the Munich mothership. It was smaller, tamer here in Berlin (probably the one instance you can accurately say that when comparing Munich to Berlin), which I liked. Still, we made the most of it, and joined in the fun and merriment. Besides the beer, we enjoyed lebkucherherzen, the decorated gingerbread hearts sold in festivals all throughout Germany. They hang from stalls by ribbons, and carry all sorts of messages like, I love you or happy holidays. A sort of tastier candy hearts. Ours said: Greetings from Berlin! Some are even bears holding hearts, like pictured below.
We also had a few flammekuchen, which is a thin dough fired up to a crisp flatbread and topped with crème-fraîche, bacon lardons and onion. It’s actually from the Alsatian region of Alsace-Lorraine (France) fame, and also called tarte flambée in French. But since it’s a border region, there’s a lot of crossover between cuisine and of course Germany once held control of Alsace (and Lorraine). We first had tarte flambée in Paris a few years ago, and have enjoyed it back in Chicago by making it ourselves and elsewhere in Germany ever since… It’s great everywhere!