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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.

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