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21 Oct 11:00

No Sneers for Schnitzel: A Beginner’s German Food Guide

by Luisa Weiss

Photo © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Luisa Weiss is a Berlin-born, American-Italian food writer who grew up eating warm Streuselschnecken on her way to school and believes dark winter days are best enjoyed whilst sharing Lebkuchen and Zimtsterne with family and friends. Luisa is the creator of the blog The Wednesday Chef and author of the lauded memoir, My Berlin Kitchen. Her work has been featured on Design*Sponge and National Public Radio and in Food&Wine, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Harper’s Bazaar Germany, among many others. Her latest book, Classic German Baking, is now available. She lives in Berlin with her husband and son.

Think of the archetypes of German food and you’ll probably come up with sausages and sauerkraut, potato salad and pretzels. And it’s true that all of those items, and their regional variations, are much beloved here in Germany. But classic German dishes also include things like potato pancakes with apple sauce (Kartoffelpuffer mit Apfelmus); veal Schnitzel (which is actually Austrian in origin); the original hamburger, namely pan-fried ground meat patties (depending on their geography, they’re known as Frikadellen, Fleischpflanzerl or Buletten); boiled eggs napped in a creamy mustard sauce and served with potatoes (Senfeier); and other iconic dishes like Sauerbraten (vinegar-marinated beef) and Spätzle, little Swabian noodles served sauced with melted butter and sautéed onions, or copious amounts of melted Alpine cheese, or a rich, brown gravy.

Traditional German home-cooked dishes are called Hausmannskost, which translates literally to “man of the house food,” but in the meantime has come to signify a certain kind of traditional comfort food. These dishes feature often in school and office canteens, but are made no less often at home. They are rib-sticking and hearty, perfectly suited to the long winters of northern and central Europe.

One of my favorite German dishes is Erbsensuppe, a thick and stewy soup made with dried green peas, diced potatoes, aromatic broth, and always served with Würstchen (little sausages). In fact, I adore the whole category of these thick, main-course soups, called Eintöpfe in German. German potato soup, green bean soup, and lentil soup, for example, all follow the same formula, producing thick soups that are warming to body and soul through the darkest winter months.

While Germany’s most famous food comes from the south of the country, each region has its own standard-bearers. Königsberger Klopse, small veal meatballs flavored with anchovies and napped in a creamy caper sauce, are a famous dish from what used to be East Prussia (Königsberg is now Kaliningrad) and is these days mostly served in Berlin and the surrounding areas. Königsberger Klopse are always accompanied by mashed or boiled potatoes and a small pile of pickled sliced beets. People tend to be of two minds about Königsberger Klopse largely due to the capers in the sauce (you either love ’em or hate ’em), but when they’re well made, they’re absolutely delicious.

School cafeteria food has a bad rap in the U.S., but my school lunches in Germany were so good that they still loom large in my mind. One of my favorite dishes from those years are stuffed cabbage rolls, known as Kohlrouladen. The filling is made with savory ground meat, which is then wrapped in blanched cabbage leaves (for a slightly fresher, greener variation, Savoy cabbage leaves can be used) and rolled up. The rolls are braised until soft and tender, and served with potatoes, all the better to soak up the rich, dark gravy.

A Swabian delicacy that has, in the meantime, won the hearts of many Germans are Maultaschen, which are large, square ravioli of sorts. They are most traditionally stuffed with a filling of ground meat and spinach that’s flavored lightly with nutmeg and, once cooked, served bobbing in a bowl of incredibly flavorful beef broth. But leftover Maultaschen can also be sliced and fried with caramelized onions until brown and crisp. Besides being served in broth, Maultaschen are also traditionally eaten alongside a big pile of vinegary Swabian potato salad.

Austria is Germany’s neighbor to the south and shares more than just a common language with Germany. Its cuisine, generally considered more refined than its German counterpart, shares many similarities in terms of ingredients and flavoring with traditional German cooking. And in the meantime, some of its most famous and beloved dishes, like Schnitzel or Tafelspitz, have been lovingly adopted as favorites by Germany, too. One of my personal favorites are Kaspressknödel, dumplings made of cubed bread and aromatic Alpine cheese, best served in clear beef broth dotted with snipped chives. (Alternatively, they can be pan-fried and served as a main course, often with a side of Sauerkraut.) They are gooey and toothsome and an absolute must in winter months, especially for lunch on the slopes.

Another Austrian favorite that is actually Hungarian in origin, but just as adored in Germany, is Gulasch, a thick meat stew flavored with long-cooked onions and ground paprika, and almost always served with buttered noodles. There are countless variations on Gulasch in Germany and Austria – potato Gulasch, sausage Gulasch, pepper Gulasch – but the traditional beef recipe, rich and saucy, is the clear favorite.

A little-known fact about German (and Austrian) food culture is that sweet dishes are sometimes served in place of savory ones, rather than as dessert. A big bowl of warm Milchreis (rice pudding) or Griessbrei (semolina pudding) is a typical sweet main course that will usually be served with a compote of preserved sour cherries (or a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar). In Austria, classic sweet dishes include Kaiserschmarrn, which is a puffy skillet pancake dotted with raisins and almonds, then torn into pieces, sautéed in butter and served dusted with confectioners’ sugar and a cooling spoonful of stewed plums. And then there are Germknödel, huge steamed dumplings stuffed with dark plum butter and served in a pool of vanilla crème anglaise and topped with poppy seeds.

But my very favorite German sweet dish is one that is only ever meant to be eaten for dessert, Rote Grütze mit Vanillesoße (the literal translation is “red grits with vanilla sauce”). Rote Grütze is a sweet-sour pudding made with fresh berries, sour cherries, and a base of plum juice thickened with the tiniest bit of cornstarch, and served with vanilla crème anglaise. It is refreshing, satisfying, never too sweet, and always a delight.

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