Before moving to Germany, my knowledge of German food consisted of popular items found on the menu of Sydney’s Löwenbräukeller (pronounced Low-en-brow in Australia, and Looe-ven-broi in German) – schnitzel, sausages, pork knuckle and sauerkraut. As a self-professed ‘foodie’ (as they say) I would often watch Maeve O’Mara’s Food Safari and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and was interested enough to listen to my mum’s tips to know that in general Germans love a good apple cake, a potato could accompany most meals and German bread was an art form.
As with most cultures, German cuisine offers a variety of specialties across the country – there are the North-Sea ‘prawns’ (Nord See Krabben) from the north, the filled donuts (Krapfen / Berliner Ball) from the east, the interesting combination of mash potato, apple puree and blood sausage that is ‘Himmel und Erde’ from the west and the white sausage (Weißwurst) of the south.
When describing the German cuisine overall, the adjectives hearty, comforting, starchy and meaty certainly dominate. Having a Greek background however, this isn’t too new to me – yes the Greeks are acclaimed for their Mediterranean diet but one cannot forget the heavy bechamels from the Moussaka, the oil-laden potatoes and sticky sweet Baklava (FYI this is my favourite).
In traditional Munich, the Bavarian cuisine dominates the local restaurant scene – and unless you opt for a Döner (which of course also includes sliced raw cabbage), you would most likely be faced with the option of pork and some type of dumpling.
When out at a restaurant – being able to read German generally makes it easier to discern the ‘lighter’ options of a restaurant’s menu. The menus translated into English really don’t make the dishes sound too appetising – which explains why many foreigners I have met haven’t had many positive impressions about German cuisine.
Since moving to Munich I have made a determined/consistent effort to eat my way through the regional ‘specialties’ – with visits to various Biergärten, Wirtshäuser and Brauerein – to now have a pretty fair idea of what I would sample again when a craving for hearty food strikes or after I’ve spent the day ploughing the potato field.
Let me begin with the savoury.
The German/Bavarian Brezel is my personal favourite over the many bastardised versions around the world (think the sweet, fried Pretzel variations with chocolate chips, cinnamon, cheese). The Brezel should be crunchy on the outside, with a soft, buttery dough on the inside and sprinkled with just the right amount of salt. As the perfect accompaniment to beer or a convenient snack, it welcomes a slathering of fresh butter but is often also eaten with cottage cheese, filled with salami or enjoyed plain.
Knödel – dumplings – Brezelknödel, Semmelknödel, Kartoffelknödel
A meal in itself, dumplings are popular in both savoury and sweet forms. The Brezelknödel uses the traditional Brezel as its base, and relies on eggs, milk and some herbs for binding. The Semmelknödel, is similar to the Brezelknödel but is best made with day-old bread rolls (Semmel). The Kartoffelknödel requires a little more effort with the potatoes first cooked, peeled, mashed and mixed with binders, shaped, often filled with buttered bread crumbs and boiled in the final step. Often served with an equally hearty protein (slow cooked meat, roast pork, etc), left overs will be expected.
Weißwurst – white sausage
A fresh sausage made with veal and pork, Bavarians traditionally eat Weißwurst before midday – accompanied by some sweet mustard and a Brezel. Its not your normal Wurst – and I, alongside many other foreigners, have made the mistake of eating the Wurst whole. The Bavarians don’t eat the skin, and have developed skillful techniques to best remove it – choosing either to bite off the top of the Wurst and suck out the contents (the zuzeln technique) or to slice the Wurst in half and roll back the skin (the civilised technique).
Easily recognisable by their length (8 – 10cm), these Rostbratwürstchen (translates to small grilled sausage) originate from Nürnberg and are often eaten in multiples – stuffed inside a Semmel with mustard or enjoyed with a side of potato salad and sauerkraut.
Belonging to one of Bavaria’s gastronomical classics, Leberkäse (which literally translates to Liver Cheese but in old- German translates to loaf mass) sees a mix of beef, pork speck and seasonings formed into a loaf tin and baked. A versatile ‘meat’ – it is eaten both cold at breakfast, or warm with a side of potatoes, or again stuffed inside a Semmel and enjoyed with hot mustard.
A slow cooked pot roast beef, usually made with beef silverside, is perfect for those long winter months not uncommon to Germany. I don’t think mum ever made a roast beef for us – and thankfully so – I would rather my meat in steak form, as the rubbery/cardboard form that results from this cooking technique is often only made bearable by the gravy it drowns in.
Haxe – schweinshaxe – Pork knuckle
The ultimate Biergarten and Oktoberfest specialty. While I am personally not the biggest fan, it is hard to resist the smell and taste of the roasted crackling as it wafts from the coal rotisserie. When made well, beneath the crunchy pillow of rendered fat should lie some delicate and juicy meat – washed down well with a locally brewed Weißbier.
Or – Fish-on-a-stick – a very popular Biergarten item, is my absolute favourite. Made using heart-healthy varieties of fish including trout, mackerel and herring, Steckerlfisch is either smoked or cooked over a coal grill, and traditionally eaten out of the paper used to wrap the fish once cooked. While I’ve scored an extra salty fish here or there (not particularly nice), most have been tender and juicy – so good that you forget about having to eat around the bones.
Of course, this discussion won’t be complete without discussing natures ‘Erdapfel’ – the alternative word to Potato, which translates to the apple of the earth. A popular side dish that could accompany almost anything, Bavaria’s Kartoffelsalat is a mix of boiled potatoes, either sliced in small disks or cut in small pieces, and dressed with onion, vinegar, oil, broth, mustard and dill. The salad is creamy and addictive – just as a potato dish should be.
The alternative side to potatoes, Spätzle, or in their cheesy form Käsespätzle, originally stem from Swabian cuisine – but have been equally adopted by the Bavarians. The little egg based ‘noodles’ are created either by quickly shaving the noodle dough over a chopping board, or pouring the dough into the modern Spätzle plane/grater (der Spätzlehobel) to produce squiggly, inconsistent noodles that like to be eaten with the sauce left swimming on your plate.
Bergkäse (from the Allgäu region)
Translated to mountain cheese, this typifies a style of cheese using ingredients milk from the mountains – and in this case, raw milk from the Allgäu mountain region of South West Bavaria. Left to ripen for a minimum of 4 months, the Bergkäse is mild when young and boasts a nutty,aromatic flavour. Eaten as an accompaniment to sliced bread, an addition to salads or melted over a cheese souffle – it is the only German cheese with the special ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ title (a fancy title to say that cheese sourced outside the region cannot be labelled as ‘Allgäuer Bergkäse’).
And onto the sweets…
Schmalzgebäck (Fried pastries) – ‘Auszognen’
Cousins of the donut, the Bavarians have contributed to the mix with their variations of fried dough, each boasting a different shape but with equally ‘healthy’ amounts of sugar. The ‘Auszognen’, a yeast dough stretched out to have a thick round edge and paper-thin centre, is fried in lard and covered in icing sugar and popular around Karneval season.
This variation of yeast pastry is baked in a square form to form a sweet bread roll, again coated with icing sugar or first filled with jam or compote and coated with icing sugar.
Continuing with the yeasted bread theme, this variety is left to rise before steaming in the oven – forming neat little buns and often served with a thick vanilla sauce.
Cousins of the Dampfnudel, this yeast bun is often filled with a jam or marmelade (often plum jam) and either cooked in salted boiling water or steamed over boiling water. Large enough for a meal, the Germknödel is often topped with a buttered poppy seed mixture and served with vanilla sauce.
Zwetschgen – or Angelina Plums in English, are easily the best of summer’s stone fruits. While eating them naturally is unbeatable, in cake form and the Zwetschgendatschi takes these sweet babies to another level. The cake is simple – either a shortcrust or a basic yeasted dough forms the base for the sliced plums that are laid neatly on top. With a dusting of icing sugar and cinnamon the cake is baked.
The mother of all desserts – Kaiserschmarrn – is a shredded, buttery pancake, usually dotted with raisins and finished with a splash of rum. Although perfect for a winter’s evening in an alpine cabin, it is hard to resist a fresh pan at any time. I am lucky enough to have a man that has a sweet spot for Kaiserschmarrn and in celebration of my birthday last year he woke extra early to make me a batch before work. And as we ate the delight while standing in the kitchen, the first snow fell.
One must not forget – while hearty food generally reflects the overall cuisine – the way of eating is definitely changing. In Munich alone there is an array of international influences,vegetarian and vegan restaurants have even entered strong on the market, and finding a seat in the latest burger joint is hard to come by. I would say that as one of the most conservative or traditional ‘big cities’, Munich, other than the excellent Italian and acclaimed Michelin starred French restaurants is still (sadly) dominated by Bavarian cuisine. While it is good-quality Bavarian, I often miss the variety of authentic cuisine available in Sydney. My only other option is to make a trip to Berlin – a multicultural metropolis, almost a mini-Sydney in terms of its food scene – with an array of authentic options (think amazing Chinese dumplings, Korean bibimbap and Russian pierogi).
Just to be honest here – I’ve only ordered a schnitzel three times in two years, have eaten more than my fair share of Brezeln and although it gives me a stomach ache, I would never turn down a bowl of lentil stew with a Wiener Frankfurt floating on top.