Traditional Table: A German Food Primer
When we think German food, we often envision the bratwurst and beer that is so ubiquitous in Oktoberfest celebrations. However, like the German language, German cuisine differs from region to region and reflects the influence of neighbors like Poland, Denmark, and France. In northern Germany, Hamburg is known for fresh fish dishes and hearty, warm stews while southern Germany embraces the sausage and schnitzel that is a cornerstone of Bavarian food.
German recipes have also been shaped by the devastation of war. The tradition of noodles or potatoes as a main feature of German food dates back to leaner days when meat and bread were difficult to obtain. Pickled and fermented vegetables and salads are also popular side dishes that draw their roots from the need to preserve vegetables through cold, harsh winters. Historical periods of wartime famine may be one of the reasons many traditional German dishes still harken back to soups and stews that helped stretch simple ingredients into a family feast.
Lunch in Germany is usually the main meal so dinner tends to be lighter and, like German breakfasts, may consist of cured meats and cheeses. Germans also tend to prefer plain dishes without a lot of spice. A notable exception is currywurst, a popular German street food that features bratwurst adorned with curry-flavored ketchup and a side of sauerkraut (fermented cabbage).
Here are just a few of the traditional foods you’ll find on tables throughout Germany:
- Spätzle or Käsespätzle (Noodles)
- Bratwurst or Currywurst (Sausages)
- Rouladen, Schnitzel or Sauerbraten (Meat dishes)
- Kartoffelpuffer and Klösse (Potato pancakes or dumplings)
- Beer (Weizenbier or “wheat” beer)
Germans also love their ice cream. While decadent desserts like Black Forest cake and apple strudel are considered traditional German fare, these are usually served as treats on special occasions and holidays. Instead, modern Germans can be found tumbling into ice cream shops in nearly every city in the country. In fact, Germans import more ice cream than any other European nation. And of course, beer is a major component of German cuisine and culture, with recipes handed down from the monks centuries ago and beer gardens dotting the landscape from Berlin to Munich.
While each region of Germany may enjoy its own adaptation of the classics, German food shares a common history and tradition that home cooks have continued to celebrate and hand down through the generations.
Feast, Famine, and German Cuisine
Christa Heuser knows a thing or two about German cooking. She grew up in Hamburg just as the Nazis came into power and World War II began. In 1941, Christa was evacuated from the city due to frequent bombings, and after the war, her family went to stay with her grandmother on a farm in the German countryside. Her memories of food and family during that time were complicated by the postwar famine that settled over Europe.
“However, when I grew up in the war there wasn’t that much meat. Meat was only for Sundays for having a good meal. So honestly, we had more soups and I never paid that much attention. I just ate. My mom would make potato dumplings, which is a very German food, with sauerbraten. But these were more for the holidays. The good days. And we had a cake only on a birthday or holidays. You see I was born into the war and in 1945 when it was over, our hunger period started and we were just surviving. The reason we survived is we had a grandma in the country and she supplied some meat but otherwise, I can’t remember we ever had meat. It was tough times.”
Christa’s family were LDS (Latter Day Saints), and while the Mormon church was allowed to stay open, the Nazis discouraged religion and had their SS officers attend church meetings. She remembers her mother trying to send food to Jews being held in camps on the outskirts of town, encouraging the children to sneak sandwiches made of whatever they could spare through the high-security fences under the eyes of vigilant Nazi guards. When the war ended, Christa’s family, like many others, struggled with starvation and hardship through the cold winter of 1945 and 1946, one of the harshest German winters in recorded history.
Because of the war and the scarcity of food in those years, Christa doesn’t remember learning much about how to cook. Their focus in times of famine was simply to survive. Because they lived with her grandmother on a farm, Christa acknowledges they may have fared better than others who were trapped in cities reduced to rubble, waiting for hours for rationed supplies. When they returned to Hamburg, she and her sisters planted a garden on a small patch of land leased from the city to supplement their diet.
Nearly two decades later, Christa was married, had two young children, and was a talented seamstress when she and her husband decided to immigrate to America. Her husband, Josef, arrived in America in 1961 and Christa and the children followed in 1962. They lived in New York when they first arrived, in an attic apartment in White Plains. Christa remembers her first grocery trip to fill up their fridge cost $25, and they were so delighted with the abundance of supplies that she took photos of their groceries.
“I didn’t know how to cook very well when I got married because when I grew up there wasn’t much to cook with. It was pretty devastating because it was during wartime. Before, when I was little, I can’t remember much of what we ate. But I did have a very good German cookbook and a good cookbook is pretty helpful.”
One of her favorite dishes, grünkohl, is featured below and was a staple on their table growing up in postwar Germany. Christa now makes it every holiday at the request of her family, who initially struggled to pronounce the name of the recipe, grünkohl, and eventually just called it “green kale.” She’s handed down the recipe to her daughters and granddaughters and taught them how to adapt the dish to suit their tastes.
“We had to stand in a line for a loaf of bread for three or four hours and then you never knew if you were going to get one. Because they only had so many loaves to feed a whole city… they would say you can only buy a pound of sugar, or a little bit of honey, or a pound of flour. Nobody can understand how I grew up. So I never learned most of these German dishes. But grünkohl (green kale) we used to have because there was a little garden and green kale was a vegetable you could let stay outside in the cold. Even when it froze, you could still take it and cook it. So that was why we always had green kale for Christmas Eve. It was our dish.”
Grünkohl or Green Kale with Sausage: A Traditional German Stew
One of the most appealing things about this stew from northern Germany is that it is simple, adaptable fare with ingredients you can find in any grocery store. After the war, grünkohl often graced tables in Germany because kale was a hearty plant that grew in abundance and potatoes and onions were inexpensive and readily available. Like quite a few German words, the pronunciation of grünkohl feels intuitive because it’s very similar to the way you’d say “green kale” in English.
LISTEN: Learn how pronounce Grünkohl.
Sausage and other meats like bacon were not as easy to obtain in post-war Germany, so this dish was often made without those ingredients, flavored primarily by broth. Mustard is also a relatively recent addition to the recipe, and typically, German cooks would have used powdered mustard which was easier to store and transport.
What Makes Grünkohl So Tasty?
The secret to grünkohl is time. Achieving the right texture for this dish, considered quintessential German comfort food, is about patient stirring as it sits on the stove and slowly cooks down. The gradual simmering takes much of the bitterness from the kale and allows the flavors of the onions, bacon, and mustard to seep into the stalks. While kielbasa is preferred for this version of the recipe, you can use other varieties of sausages and adapt the ratio of ingredients to your taste. No matter how you make it, serving up a hearty helping of grünkohl will bring the spirit of German food into your kitchen.