German cuisine is a treasure trove for any food enthusiast. The country offers delectable treats in meat, dairy, baked goods, dessert, and of course beer. Germans enjoy eating, so much so that numerous holidays and social events allow German people to chow down year round. Good food and drink is the essence of German Gemütlichkeit, meaning comfort and coziness.
However, German cuisine is reputed as being fat and boring with little imagination or variety. Though if you take a hard look, authentic German food is as interesting as other European food. It’s anything but boring.
The food of Germany varies by region: from the Alps to the plains and to the seaside. This article will take a look at each region’s food specialties. But first let’s look at the history of German food and the commonalities in the cuisine.
Compared to Mediterranean Europe, German food of prehistoric times was bland. In the growing season, limited German people eat early forms of barley, wheat and pasture land for livestock. Cows, sheep, and goats were used for their milk, butter and cheese. Occasionally they would be slaughtered for meat, which is mainly served during feasts. Early German spices included parsley, celery, and dill, which are still in use.
The invading Romans introduced fruit cultivation. As agricultural methods became, more sophisticated, oats and rye were added. As time moved forward, German cuisine expanded past its limited palate and included various meats, dairy products, baked goods, and spices.
Like any nation, Germany has its commonalities. Meat is big in Germany, especially roast. Two common roast dishes are roasted pork hocks (Schweinshaxe) and braised pork roast with cabbage (Schweinebraten und Kohl). Another popular meal is Sauerbraten, a traditional German roast of heavily marinated meat. It is regarded as a national dish of Germany. Sausages are available throughout Germany, coming in different sizes, colors, and flavors. Lastly, schnitzel remains one of Germany’s most famous meat products. It’s basically a breaded pork cutlet.
As for starches, potatoes are on top. A common potato dish is Bratkartoffeln: fried potatoes. They can go along with pretty much any meal. Spätzle (German dumpling noodles) is a common side item.
Sauerkraut may be the most famous German dish. It’s usually the first food people name when talking about German cuisine. Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. It has a distinctive sour taste and a long shelf life. It is served either cold or cooked.
Now the time for dessert. Three common dessert items are Alsatian apple cake, German rice pudding (Milchreis), German streusel cake with cherries, and strawberry cake (Ertbeertorte). The cakes are usually topped with whipped cream.
Thirsty? Then treat yourself to a German beer. In Germany, beer is as common as water, with it being available in pubs, restaurants, and even train stations. It’s safe to say Germans love their beer.
Each region in Germany has its own take on these food commonalities. For example, one state may prepare Sauerkraut differently than other parts of the country. However, for the purposes of this article, specific food specialities will be featured. Let’s begin in the south of Germany.
Lying in southwestern Germany, Baden Württemberg is 3rd most populous German state with 10.7 million people. The region is renowned for gourmet cuisine. Baden Württemberg boasts the most Michelin rated restaurant in all of Germany, including the three-star rated Traube Tonbach. This restaurant has been in business since 1789.
There are two paths in Baden cuisine. The Badische Spargelstrasse (Baden asparagus route) and the Badische und Württembergische Weinstrasse (wine route). Needless to say, Baden specializes in asparagus and wine. White Asparagus is one of the state’s most famous dishes.
Another notable dish is Maultashcen, which is an emulation of the Polish pierogi. The state’s Black Forest region houses various world-famous foods: black forest ham, cherry brandy, and last but not least, Black Forest Cake.
Other Notable Dishes
Snail soup (Schnekensuppe) takes inspiration from the French escargot. In keeping with the pork tradition is Badische Schäufele: cured smoked pork shoulder. Finally, Badsiche Zwiebelsuppe (creamy onion soup) rounds off the Baden cuisine.
Located in southeastern Germany, Bavaria is culturally divided between North and South. This is evident in different language patterns and dialects, politics (liberal vs. conservative) and especially food.
A protected speciality of Bavaria is Lebkuchen (ginger bread). First baked in the City of Nurembuerg, Lebkuchen’s history dates to the year 1395. The oldest recipe dates to the 16th century and it is housed in the German National Museum in Munich. In 1996, Nuremburg gingerbread was named by a protected geographical institution.
Bavaria specialty is sausages. White sausage, or Weißwurst, is common throughout Bavaria. Another unique sausage is the Franconian sausage (a Fränkische Bratwurst). This is popular in North Bavaria. This wurst usually measure 6 feet in length. Bavarian commonly eat sausage with sides of Sauerkraut and potato salad.
Beer is Bavaria’s most well known and popular product. Almost half of Germany’s breweries operate in the region. Famous imported brands are Hacker Pschorr, Tuchen, and Paulaner, among many others. The town Aufseß has a unique characteristic of having the highest brewery density in the world. The town has four breweries with a population of 1,352. That means one brewery for every 338 people.
There are many Bavarian beers to choose from. Along with the common Pilsner is the Helles and Dunkles beers. Helles are lighter, paler beers, while dunkles are darker, heavier beers. These brews originate from Munich (Bavaria’s capital city) and the Rhine city Dortmund. Served in steins or large one liter or half liter glasses, they are consumed in beer halls or intimate pubs. Weißbier or wheat beer is the trademark Bavarian beer. Strakbier and Bockbeir are the stronger counterparts, higher in alcohol content.
In southern Bavaria lies the pastoral region of Allgäu. This area is known for its dairy farms and plentiful amounts of cheese and cheesemakers. Käserei Champignon is one of those cheesemakers. It is a family-owned business with almost 100 years in the cheese making industry. Common Bavarian cheeses are Cambozola, Limburger, and Champignon Mushroom.
This state is home to Germany’s capital city, Berlin. Three million people call Berlin home, and the city ranks third most visited in Europe. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, had the greatest influence on Berlin Cuisine. During the early 18th century, the King ordered his subjects to primarily eat cucumbers and potatoes. Frederick pushed these foods because their crops were cheap to produce and they fit the frugal Prussian lifestyle. To this day, these two plants are favorites.
Rustic and hearty are two traditions of Berlin food. Berlin bases its palate on pork, goose, fish, peas, beans, and potatoes. Just like Bavaria, Berlin has its own take on the sausage. Currywurst is a grilled pork sausage seasoned with ketchup or tomato paste and blended with curry sauce or curry powder. Pork knuckle with sauerkraut (Eisbein mit Sauerkraut) continues the Berlin pork tradition. It is a heavily marbled meat covered with a thick layer of fat called crackling. The meat should be tender and aromatic. Pork knuckles are cooked or braised for a long time to achieve that tender quality.
Ich bin ein…
The Berliner is a doughnut made from sweet yeast, which is fried in fat or oil. Some have jam or marmalade filing. Berliners usually are topped with icing or powdered/conventional sugar. Locals call this pastry Pfannkuchen. The name Berliner is generally used outside the region. Locals typically eat these doughnuts on New Years Eve or at carnival.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy immortalized the Berliner at a speech given on June 26, 1963, in West Berlin. This occurred when JFK exclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner!” To Germans, this was an amusing phase; the President technically said he was a doughnut.
Once the heart of the Prussian Empire, Brandenburg surrounds the city of Berlin. Brandenburg’s must see attractions include the Sanssouci castle in Potsdam, and the Brandenburg Gate.
It is called “Berlin’s vegetable garden”, food production and agriculture play important roles in Brandenburg’s economy. Teltow, a Berlin suburb, produces Teltower Rübchen (turinps), rich and distinct in flavour. Picking mushrooms in the forests around Berlin is a popular summertime activity for Brandenburgers. The Spreewald region of Brandenburg is famous for producing cucumbers and horseradishes. Brandenburg is home to Nowka, one of the oldest local companies producing gherkins and sauerkraut.
Brandenburg is known for wine. So much so that the state holds an annual festival celebrating the drink. The Tree Blossom Festival, held in Werder upon Havel, is the second biggest folk festival in Germany. The festival attracts over 500,000 visitors, who come to drink and celebrate fruit wine.
Bremen and Hamburg
Similar to Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg are considered city states. The two cities were members of the Hanseatic League, a group of trading guilds that existed during the 13th-17th centuries.
Hanseatic cuisine is infused with a multitude of foreign ingredients. This is due to the city’s extensive international trading network. The foreign flavour sets the Hanseatic cities apart from the other Northern German states.
Being close to the sea means fish is a stable part of the diet. Herring was and remains the most popular fish in Bremen and Hamburg. A popular herring dish is Bratheringe: fried and marinated herrings.
Arguably Bremen’s most famous dish is Braunkohl and Pinkel, cabbage and sausage. This meal is called Grünkohl und Pinkel (kale and sausage) in most of Northern Germany. However, the Bremer version uses a variety of kale more reddish in colour with a spicier taste.
Sailors in the 18th century ate Bremer Labskaus while out on the sea. The dish was popular because of its salted beef; the meat could be preserved without refrigeration. Today, variations of the dish uses cured salted, or corned beef, served with beets, potatoes and herrings.
The Hamburger Aalsuppe is popular because it’s a soup with everything in it. It’s made with meat bones (usually ham hock or chicken parts) to create a broth, then added with dried fruit, vegetables, vinegar, and an assortment of herbs.
Schleswig-Holsetin is the northern-most state in Germany. Like its Hanseatic neighbours, ship-building and fishing are the state’s two vital industries. Given this fact, fish are also a stable part of the regional diet,
Just north of Kiel, it Bay of Ekernförde is famous for sprats, members of the herring family. This silvery fish is refined through a special smoking process. Beech log fires, alder, and oak wood give the fish a golden shimmer. Smoked sprats can be eaten whole, from head to tail. For fewer adventures, sprat fillets can be purchased.
The Northern Frisian island of Sylt is home to oysters. Sylt Oysters are known as Sylt Royals, and have performed well in tasting events, even against the classic French version.
The city of Lübeck houses a famous sweet. Marzipan is a confectionary sweet that is commonly sold in chocolate covered. Various flavours are sold, such as dark chocolate, coconut, or milk chocolate. Lübeck houses two of the most well known marzipan producing companies: Niederegger and Carstens. Both companies’ shops are popular tourist destinations.
The state of Hessen (in English Hesse) lies in western-central Germany. Some of the major cities of the region include Frankfurt, Hanau, and Wiesbaden. Hesse’s cuisine varies according to the region. Northern Hessen takes inspiration from the neighbouring state of Thuringia. Southern Hessen draws inspiration by Rheinhessen and Franconia cuisine.
The Frankfurt Grüne Sauce and the Kassel Grüne Sauce are Hessen specialties. The sauce is made with seven herbs, namely borage, chervil, cress, parsley, burnet, sorrel, and chives. Sometimes dill spinach, or lovage is added. These herbs give the sauce its distinct green colour. Traditionally, Grüne Sauce accompanies fish and meat dishes, boiled eggs, or boiled potatoes (Pellkartoffel).
Handkäse mit Musik is a popular Hessen cheese. It is a sour milk quark cheese made and formed by hand. This makes the cheese small in size. The cheese is normally prepared by marinating it in oil, vinegar, caraway seeds, pepper, salt, and onions. So why does it have music in its name? Musik refers to the sound your stomach makes when you eat onions!
Frankfurter Kranz, or a Frankfurter Wreath, is wreath shaped cake made in Frankfurt. Essentially, it is a butter cake baked into a wreath shaped form. Then it is split into two to four layers and pressed together with butter cream filling and either red preserves or jam. For decoration, more butter, cream and a sprinkle of mixed nuts called Krokant top the cake.
The second largest German state, Lower Saxony, contains close to eight million people. The region stretches from the North Sea to the Harz Mountains. The’ seven inhabited East Frisian islands are the main tourist destinations. Lower Saxony is known for gourmet cuisine.
A Famous Cookie
The Leibinz Keks first debut at the 1893 World Exhibition in Chicago. This cookie will become one of Germany’s most well-known branded food products. A simple butter cookie, Leibinz Keks owe their popularity to the original recipe and the company’s expert marketing.
In the Lower Saxony region of East Frisia, tea has replaced coffee as the hot drink of choice. The people of the region consume a quarter of all German tea imports; they rival the tea consumption of England.
This region forms Germany’s Northeastern corner, sharing its Eastern border with Poland. It is also Germany’s least populated state with only 80 inhabitants per square kilometer.
Like the other Northern regions, Meklenburg-Western Pomerania is full of waterways. Consequently, a range of seafood makes up the state’s cuisine. Agriculture also remains an integral part of the region’s diet.
However, given the state’s small population, the state does not really have any specialty dish. The cuisine shares many similarities with other Northern state cuisines.
The Rhineland refers to the area of land on either side of the Rhine River. Its states include North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, and parts of the Saarland.
North Rhine Westphalia is a major industrial area. It’s also a prominent agricultural state. Chicken is the main meat in the region’s cuisine. However, if you order a Halve Hahn (Halber Hahn) in a restaurant, you won’t get the half chicken you were expecting. Instead, you’ll get a buttered roll, halved and topped with Gouda cheese and mustard served with pickles and onions.
Reibekuchen, also known as Kartoffelpuffer, is popular throughout Germany. However, they’re most famous in the North Rhine, where they’re known as Rievekooche. You can find them everywhere in Cologne. Lastly, the North Rhine has its own take on sauerkraut. It’s called Rheinisches Apfelkraut. The dish consists of fermented apples that then undergo a gentle boiling process.
Rhineland Palatine produce a dish called Pfälzer Saumagen, which translates to “sow’s stomach”. Basically, it’s the stomach lining of a pig. The lining serves as a casing to hold the contents. A mixture of minced veal, diced potatoes, diced vegetables, herbs, and various spices like nutmeg and pepper make up the filling.
The Saarland is the smallest German state, both in area and population. The state borders France, and that country’s culture certainly has an influence on Saarland cuisine.
Land of Potatoes
The Saarland is a potato-lover’s paradise. The people of the region love their various potato dishes. One such dish is Dibbelabbes, a hash-style one pot potato dish with cured meat. Grummbeekieschelscher are potato pancakes, and Kerschdscher are diced potatoes sautéed in hot fat.
Like other German regions, meat is prominent in Saarland cuisine. Grilling and barbecuing is so popular in Saarland that the people have created a special regional term to describe it: Schwenken. This term describes both the act and the social event of grilling.
A popular Saarland sausage is pork sausage called a Lyoner, after the French city of Lyon. A typical meal is a Lyoner Pfanne: a skillet dish with sausage, potatoes, and fried egg. Another dish is the Lyoner Gulasch: a rustic, hearty stew.
Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt
Saxony has a long and storied history spanning over 1000 years. Conversely, Saxony-Anhalt is the youngest of Germany’s federal states. The state was created in 1945 from the former duchy of Anhalt, with parts of the former kingdoms of Saxony and Prussia.
Dessert dishes is the specialty of both states. In Saxony, cake reigns supreme. During the Christmas season, Dresdener Stollen (sweetbread) is traditionally served. Coffee is the top beverage on Saxony. Coffee houses are everywhere in the region. Blümchenkaffe (little flower coffee), is a weak cup of coffee, extremely popular with locals.
Salzwedel Baumkuchen, or tree cake, is one of Saxony-Anhalt’s most famous recipes. This treat is known as the “King of Cakes”. Tree cake is a pound type pastry consisting of building up layers of cake batter on a rotating spit, creating a tall cake. When cut, the slice reveals rings similar to the marks of a tree, hence the name.
Thuringia is celebrated for its beautiful landscape. It’s why Germans refer to it as the “Green heart” of the country. The Thuringian Forest is a popular destination for hikers and winter sports enthusiasts.
Onions are Thuringia’s famous food. The state’s largest food festival is the Onion Fair, held in the city of Weimar each year on the second weekend in October., Venders at 500 booths offer delicious onion dishes and compete in selling the market’s signature trophy: decorative onion braids. The braids are made up of various onion bulbs, sorted by colour and size, that are carefully twisted around a straw core.
A Culinary Wonderland
Food is very important in German culture. Sitting down for a meal with family or friends is a special social event the bonds people together. And Germans certainly have a lot of food to choose from. Staples of the diet include potatoes, sausage, mustard, sauerkraut, and beer.
But each of Germany’s states has its own culinary specialties. Some states have their own sausage styles, while others invent new dishes. A region may be known as Germany’s Asparagus Capital. With such an array of food, German cuisine is any foodie’s dream.