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Black in Berlin: Surviving Germany’s Food Culture

The holidays always reminds of all the great food I miss while living in Germany. Germany does have good food but a lot of it is surprisingly bland.

From a young age the German palate is adapted to enjoy the simple flavors of salt, wurst (sausage) and breadcrumbs, shunning anything too sweet, too spicy or too complex. Much of the food enjoyed in different regions of a Germany can be described as simple, heavy and savory. I am not criticizing too harshly because I have been seen more than once eating leberkäse (mystery meatloaf), with sweet mustard and a bretzel. Still, I do occasionally enjoy a bit of spice and this is the dilemma. I grew up in a West Indian household led by my grandfather who was a chef, to say I was spoiled in terms of flavorful food would be an understatement. The pepper, the curry, the jerk – all flavors that fueled my youth and make me feel at home. How I survive in Germany, the land of bland, is a mystery to most who know me.

There are many things specific to German cuisine that I had to get used to, here are a few:

1. There are about 1,500 different type of wurst (sausage). Every color, composed of almost any animal, from wild boar to unicorn. If it once had legs it will manage it’s way into a sausage. Nearly every eatery, regardless of cuisine, must cater to the German’s insatiable appetite for wurst. Bakeries filled with beautiful pastries and cakes will have boiled sausages that they serve with bread, ketchup or mustard just in case.

2. The arrival of white asparagus is anticipated every year, it’s almost like Santa Claus. There are signs announcing it’s addition the menu in windows of restaurants, “Asparagus will be here starting next week!” Once it’s on the scene it totally dominates the show. Special menus are created to integrate asparagus into every item — soup, salad, as a side, as a main, with butter, with Hollandaise sauce. I once saw a person in my local cafe eat white asparagus with boiled potatoes. That was it, he added tons of salt and then just tore it up. I couldn’t believe that was actually offered as a meal. No meat, no gravy, no flavor? I was offended, he was in heaven.

3. The level of spice is dumbed down to correct for the German’s inability to handle hot foods. Now I know not all Germans have this issue but spice seems to be German kryptonite. I witnessed a friend eat Thai food that her body rejected for being too spicy and it was as if her insides were melting. I totally sympathized with her as the sweat came down, her face got beet red and her nose started running. Curious about what she ordered I took a cautious bite, ready for the devastation … if that three pepper entree would have been one in any other country, namely Thailand, it would have been suitable for babies. German scharf (hot) ain’t scharf for the rest of us.

I have also noticed that Germans are very sensitive to smells, epsecially those associated with stronger spices like garlic. I sometimes questions if it’s just a matter of taste and palate adaption or an intrinsic xenophobic fear of something different.

Not long ago, my German language teacher told me a story about his first week in Berlin 25 years ago. He had planned a great day for himself, lunch at his local Italian restaurant and then a movie. After having a garlic intensive salad, he went to the theater in the middle of day and only a handful of people were there.

He must have been sitting in the theater for three minutes when people around him started coughing, fanning at their noses and whispering. Before the movie started he was asked by the manager to leave because his smell was disturbing the other customers.

Now in 2011, years and the changing demographic of Germany has increased a  tolerance to garlic but there is still room for improvement. On the rare occasions that I have had either Italian or Greek food for lunch I am bombarded with comments and jeers from my coworkers. After they acknowledge that someone smells unGerman, windows are opened, faces are covered with scarves, and I hear dramatic sighs and people grasping for fresh air all afternoon. It’s totally ridiculous. I have no idea how people with such sensitive olfactory nerves don’t react so harshly to cigarette smoke or smokers but that is topic for another post on another day.

Last 5 posts by Nicole is the new black

  • Anonymous

    Wow, what and interesting and surprising post. I have never been hugely impressed by German food, to be honest. The pig seems to be heavily involved, and not always in a good way. 

    But having said that, I’ve had some of the best steaks ever in Hanover and Berlin and in the UK, I’ve had Currywurst, which is lovely, but quite spicy with it – perhaps tailored to a spice-mad British population. 

  • Girl, why’d you make me believe unicorns were real when I read this? Don’t worry, I’m looking at myself sideways…on the inside. 

  • Not sure whether people realize this, but they say it takes at least 3 generations to culturally forget bad habits. WWII wasn’t that long ago, and if you visit the Jewish Museum, you’ll see a whole installation on garlic. I find it hard to believe that the olfactory offense is simply biological. This is a learned attitude, and one that must be acknowledged if they are going to forget it. If it bothers you too much, you can always move to North America where there’s a bit more tolerance for cultural differences. I’m a mixed race artist from the South (USA) who is living in Berlin temporarily, working on some pieces about this if you ever want to chat more on the topic. http://www.coralinameyer.net Good Luck here!

  • of course finding garlic offensive is a learned behavior. i heard a german woman in my building state that the building smells “poor”. she was referring to the smells of ethnic food in the halls. i just went to the jewish musuem, it was amazing. ive done the whole north america deal, i’ll pass on going back, lol. ill check out your site

  • I loled!

  • Whatever

    I don’t get it… why – for God’s sake – don’t you stay at home, in your great country, where everything is better? AMERICA! Land of the free and – unfortunately – very small minded….

  •  i dont stay in my home country because i dont HAVE to. i can make observations about the country i currently live in because i CAN. you mad?

  • Friedrich Fleischer

    Germany is rated 2ND in the world in cuisine, just behind France, in starred restaurants. Have you ever tried flammkuchen? It’s amazing. German cuisine is incredibly diverse, unlike most cuisines which chile powder or curry dominate everything on the menu.

  • beaker

    Omg the garlic complaints! If you wouldn’t complain if someone smells like curry, don’t complain if they smell like garlic. That movie theater description was just terrible.

  • Nick

    1.: Umpph! american uppercut…
    but sorry: this Berlin fast-food asparagous (or is it boiled unicorn horn?) is not serious “german food”, my good girl.
    1b.: Next time look for a experiened lokal guide to a real good restaurant, but not this poor made and poor arranged fast-food of cheapest quality. (Where the hell is the sauce hollandaise?)
    1c.: I can do it better! You are invited next season 2017!

    2.: I had, on the last party, the same adventure as your friend: a really torturing hot chili in my poor german mouth. Aaaaaahhhhchhh!!!! Aiaiaiaiahhh!
    But I’m not a masochist man, so after only 2 bites I realised my severe mistake and called the helicopter team to rescue me. They extracted my german untrained tounge before chili burned my whole weak german body and so they maybe rescued my poor german life.

    3. Scientist found out: hotness in food is mostly pain.
    Me I prefer fresh milled (best is a “peugot” steal mill) black pepper, with little hotnes but with a rich flavour.