Man ist, was man isst- a guide to German Food

Vegetarians, look away now

Germany is the ideal country, its inhabitants model citizens. Renowned for their efficiency, punctuality and prudence with money, they can do no wrong. A bit uptight and too regimented sometimes, yes, but nonetheless flawless. If Germany were personified, he would be the favourite child in the family: the A student at the top of the class, athletically inclined, never late and always reliable. While the rest of us have just about gotten over the shock of the financial crash of 2008, Germany has been running on a budget surplus for a while. The Germans have nice cars, a good football team and their trains always run on time. You even get money back if you recycle your bottles there. Some might say Germany is perfect. Those who think so clearly haven’t tried German food.

Germany is where vegetarians die a slow death of starvation, where stomach ulcers are formed. The country in which Italians who can’t cook are exiled to, where they set up pizzerias that serve bland pizza and soggy pasta. The country where it’s perfectly acceptable to eat a preparation of raw minced pork or sausage made from pigs’ tongue, where cabbage is served in any dish possible, where nobody will raise their eyebrows if you buy a packet of chicken hearts as part of your weekly shop.

Mett: this preparation of raw minced pork was a fashionable table centre piece during the 1970s and was often served in the shape of a hedgehog. -I’ve suddenly lost my appetite for lunch, too 

It took me a while to get my bearings in German supermarkets. Even Aldi was no longer familiar territory, with its’ northern German branch Aldi Nord swapping oriental ingredients like soy sauce and hummus for frozen schnitzel and tins of cabbage. Netto was the worst supermarket of all but ironically the one I found myself shopping in the most. This was mainly due to its’ location beside my house. Going shopping there made me feel as if I were going back to East Germany itself- aside from the fact this supermarket sold Coca Cola and bananas. Upon entering, I would pass by the regular group of leather clad middle-aged punks loitering outside the door drinking Sternberg beer with scruffy dogs at their feet, smoking rollies and laughing hoarsely. As I walked through the door, my nose would automatically wrinkle up to shield myself from the miasma of puce liver sausage and slimy cuts of offal wafting from the meat counter, their jelly textures and bloody juices recalling memories of dreaded dissections in biology class. The shop’s interior was a gaudy palette of primary colours; nauseating yellows, garish greens and crimson reds which were brighter than the puckered bell peppers in the fruit section. The rye bread on sale was a deep brown colour so stiff it could be used as a form of weaponry. In typical East German tradition, none of their fruit and veg was to be trusted. Luckily, the produce in the Vietnamese greengrocers next door was, and sometimes the owner would even throw in a fruit salad on the house if I came at the right time of day.

While I got on well with my German housemates, their culinary knowledge left a lot to be desired. They often used ketchup as a sauce for their pasta- which they would usually overcook to the point where it became a starchy mush- and stored red wine in the fridge. If I were an Italian, I’d have moved out after a week.
A French person once jokingly asked me “why are vegetarians afraid of Germany?”  His response: “They fear the Wurst.” I’m far from being vegetarian but even I have a deep-seated aversion towards the sausage meat on sale here. Whether it’s a shrivelled Bockwurst, tinned white sausage or those limp looking Frankfurters stored in jars filled with grey, murky liquid which look like they’ve been there since the 1980s, I could never fully grasp the German’s obsession with them. They eat sausages made of offal, they mash them into pastes then slather them on bread slices and devour raw ones that scream salmonella. Various stalls sell sausages encrusted in grease and oil that would make Four Star Pizza look like a vegan salad bar in comparison. Maybe it’s wrong of me to criticise their cuisine without having tried most of their specialities. In my defence, I never had the time nor patience to be dealing with a dose of food poisoning though. That said, I did try their Bratwurst many times. This consisted of a grilled sausage with a crunchy outside shell and succulent juicy middle, served in a toasted bun with a slash of mustard on top. It never disappointed. Nor did Berlin’s cult Currywurst.

Berliner Currywurst

Something that always disappointed me however was the selection of pastries on offer in their bakeries. Far from their minimalist French neighbours, German bakeries never knew when to stop adding sugar. Local delicacies included cakes doused in icing sugar with a wobbling base of slimy eggy custard and deep-fried pastries with a sickly-sweet layer of tinned strawberries on top, which in the summer months attracted families of flies, the swarming presence of whom the workers blatantly ignored. I noticed that the primary consumers of these diabetes-inducing delicacies were usually older people. I used to meet my tandem partner every Thursday afternoon in the same bakery. The place was always full of wizened old couples who would stagger in leaning on their Zimmer frames to escape the hustle and bustle outside. They usually ordered a Bockwurst or a Berliner. My tandem partner informed me that both sugar and meat were rationed in East German times, and those who had lived through rationing often perceive these foodstuffs as luxury items, even now. According to him, that’s why the East German diet in particular is so rich more so than other parts of Germany.

There is an idiom in German which says “Man ist was man isst”- you are what you eat. If that’s true, then I must be the furthest thing from a German that you can get. A traitor, more loyal to South East Asia than my European roots. While not the biggest fan of traditional German food, Leipzig’s extensive selection of exotic restaurants meant I never went hungry.  However in a city where I could buy bottles of beer for 40c or a bottle of white wine for €2, I really had no grounds to complain about the food.



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