Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

German Food

Milk is not a favorite beverage except for children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. Milk is used in custards, puddings, and cream fillings. In East Germany where the cuisine tends to retain its traditional tastes, there is a more prominent use of sour cream than in the rest of Germany. In Northern and Eastern Germany buttermilk is often used to marinate and tenderize game. Breakfast and afternoon kaffee (coffee) is taken preferably with canned milk. Sour cream called schmand is added to soups and gravies.

Many fine imported cheeses are available and these are enjoyed mostly as a dessert, especially after a cold meal. Sometimes sliced cheeses join platters of assorted cold meats and sausages for a light supper with rye bread to form open-face sandwiches, which are eaten with a knife and fork. Topfen, the farmer’s firm fresh cheese, is widely used in baking and cooking. Quark is a creamy form of fresh cottage cheese.

Apples, pears, cherries, and plums are produced in quantity in many areas of Germany. Increasingly, more varieties of fresh vegetables and exotic fruits are filling market displays. The Rhineland is famed for grapes and these are pressed into many varieties of fine wines. Fruits are enjoyed fresh as a snack but most often are cooked into compotes, that is, wedges of fresh fruits poached in sugar syrup sometimes scented with fresh lemon zest or lightly spiced.

Dating from olden times, dried fruits still play an important and interesting part in the German cuisine. They can be made into jams and spreads, fillings for tarts and yeast dough, and they can also add their natural sweetness and color to many meat and game dishes. Fruits such as crushed pineapple, orange wedges, or chopped apple are often also added to sauerkraut dishes. Cold fruit soups and soups made from fresh crushed berries, sweetened and slightly thickened with cornstarch, are popular especially in Northern and Eastern Germany. Dried fruits may also be cooked as a colorful compote and then served as a side dish with game or meat roasts. Raisins and apples are frequent tasty partners to quick suppers of liver or sausages. And of course fresh fruits and nuts are a special treat at holiday time.

In Germany, vegetables are treated with the respect due their special “status.” Cabbage, turnips, and potatoes can be mashed, sliced, grated, shredded and cooked, boiled, fried and braised into dozens of delicious dishes. But the highest praise is reserved for Germany’s flavorful wild mushrooms and exquisite white cultivated asparagus. Mushrooms and asparagus are considered company treats. Many varieties of cabbage, cauliflower, hop sprouts and cabbage sprouts, carrots, turnips, and peas find their way into the German vegetable pot.

If the vegetables are not intended to add their flavor to a soup or a stew then they are cooked in the special German way. First a thorough cleaning then shaping and cutting as desired, a quick tossing in hot bubbling butter, a little addition of moisture and the vegetables steam to a perfect tenderness, forming their own sauce. Old or fibrous vegetables may be cut up and boiled first then given the glorious butter and steam treatment. Sometimes a little flour, toasted bread crumbs or a dollop of sour cream adds the final flourish. Vegetables cooked this way are served separately as they deserve to be.


All over Germany pork reigns supreme. The Germans have found so many delicious ways to serve every morsel of pork that the variations are endless. Beef and veal find a smaller place on the menu, but Germany’s plump chicken, duck, and especially goose are famed. There is also some competition from wild game and fowl, which is plentiful in Germany’s mountains and forests, and which is marinated to tenderness and slowly cooked in covered dishes that bring out the best flavors. Every part of the animal is used: tongue, brains, ears, kidneys, heart, lungs, tripe, milt, sweetbreads, palates, heads, shanks, tails, hocks, trotters, and udders. The quality of Germany’s smoked bacon and cured hams is legendary.

The seemingly endless varieties of wurste (sausages) can, however, be placed in general categories: rohwurst is cured and smoked sausage ready to slice and eat; bruhwurst is sausage that is smoked then scalded and usually eaten heated; kochwurst is smoked sausage already well cooked and may be eaten as is or heated; bratwurst is the large category of sausages that are sold raw (but may be spiced, smoked, and cured for flavor) and usually pan-fried before eating. Animal intestines are often well cleaned and used as casings for sausages; animal blood too finds a place as fried blood (gerostetes blut) or more commonly in black or blood pudding (sausage).

Almost as important on the menu (but not quite) is herring. In Emden it is even possible to be served an entire meal with appetizer, main dish, and salad made with herring. Fresh caught herring is called “green” and is often served fried. Herring salad may be prepared by mixing diced herring with chopped cooked potatoes; herring may also be served jellied, grilled, cooked au bleu, grilled or fried in wax paper packets, chopped and spread on toast. Nor does the list end there. There are also rollmops or Bismarck herring, fillets of herring rolled around onions and pickles; brathering, fried sour-pickled herring, and matjeshering, a quality fat herring served simply with boiled potatoes.

Herring is not the only fish consumed here. German waters provide crayfish, lobster, eels, mussels, flounder, plaice, turbot, sole, and the noted salmon and trout especially from the Rhine River. Forelle blau or trout au bleu is a method of fish cookery reputedly devised in Germany: live fish (scales and all) are plunged into acidulated water to cook briefly and then are served immediately. Traditional German accompaniments to all fish dishes are potatoes in some form, usually simply boiled and garnished with minced parsley or chives and fresh butter. Other partners with most fish meals are cucumbers, asparagus, and green salad.

Eggs are widely used not only soft-cooked for breakfast but also at other times in many forms, most under the heading of eierspeisen. These include scrambled, fried (spiegeleier), poached, as plain or fluffy omelets, eggs with sauces, and kaiserschmarren – “torn” (pulled into irregular pieces with two forks) egg pancakes served with cinnamon sugar and buttered raisins. Eggs are also used generously in savory and dessert soufflés, blended into soups and sauces, and add their golden richness to the many fragrant baked goods.

Legumes are also important in the German cuisine. Yellow and green dried peas are used in thick soups or as side dishes of pureed peas. Lentils and white beans are also used both in soups and in many one-dish (eintopf) meals.

Bread is on the table at all meals whether in the home or at a public dining room and it is the undisputed “staff of life,” only slightly more important than the ubiquitous potato. While chewy dark breads made of rye flour come immediately to mind, German bakeries also turn out an incredible array of soft and hard, crisp and chewy, seeded or plain breads and rolls of every shape and size. Rye and wholewheat flour, barley and oats all have a place in German breads and rolls. Many are sprinkled with cracked wheat grains, coarse salt, and crunchy sesame or poppy seeds.

With such an array to choose from it is not surprising that dry breakfast cereals are not too popular, although children are sometimes served hot cooked oats or rice at breakfast, usually sweetened with sugar and raisins and sometimes flavored with cinnamon. Pastas are increasingly popular, especially as quick light meals – more so in cities than in rural regions.


Lard, bacon fat, and butter head the list of most used fats in Germany. Olive oil is used only infrequently for special salads or dishes. Vegetable shortenings and margarine are gaining popularity among health-conscious Germans. Many homes (especially in the country) still enjoy the taste of fats rendered from geese, ducks, and chickens and these are used as spreads on breads and in general cooking. Fats for deep-frying include lard, rendered fat from fowl, and even horse fat.

Sweet preserves with the breakfast bread, plenty of sugar in the kaffee, something sweet to finish the midday meal – and how depressing it would be to contemplate a day without afternoon kaffee that included at least a little kuchen, strudel, or torte! And what kind of a holiday would Christmas be without the warm aromas of weihnachtsgeback and konfekt?

It is all right to list beer, sausages, kraut, and potatoes as hardy old traditional German staples, but let no one forget the rich baked goods available if not from mother’s oven, then from any number of exquisite konditoreien, where one can relax, chat a while, and sip delicious kaffee while choosing from a bewildering display of sweet nibbles.

One is further reminded – in the nicest way – of the German sweet tooth with the serving of many meat and fish dishes gently afloat in sweet and sour sauces and sometimes including a mélange of dried fruits to heighten the tart-sweet tastes. Don’t forget, too, that not only are many popular German summer soups made with fresh fruits, but if none of these is available the canny hausfratt will use sugar and vinegar.

After Charlemagne encouraged the monasteries (in olden times very advanced in both the growing and preparation of food) to plant herb gardens, it did not take long for the people to use the fragrant herbs – lovage, woodruff, parsley, chives, garlic, and dill – in many dishes. Seeds quickly found a place in German cuisine too: caraway, dill, sesame and poppy seeds.

German cookery could generally be described as hearty but bland. Strong flavors and strong seasonings are not the rule; even garlic is used with a heavy hand only in certain sausages, while onions, chives, and leeks are preferred. Adding a distinctive touch to German cuisine is the prevalent use of sweet-sour, usually created by blending vinegar or lemon juice with brown sugar. The best of German cookery relies on the delicate natural taste of fresh ingredients: fresh eggs and butter, choice meats and fish, tender young vegetables, fragrant ripe fruits. Sweet and sour dishes are often further enhanced with the addition of raisins or currants and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and thickened with the dried crumbs from honey cake or gingerbread. Other frequent tastes include: anchovies, apples, capers, fresh dill weed, horseradish, juniper berries, and many varieties of mustards.

The tang of sour cream and dark rye bread and the smoky taste of bacon permeates many meals especially in Northern and Eastern Germany.


Beer is the favorite German beverage and if natural thirst and good fellowship are not enough, there are any number of salty, sour, tangy, or tart vorspeisen (appetizers) to lure the thirst. German thirst is not only first and foremost quenched by frothy mugs of beer, the containers come in different materials and sizes (from a small glass to a huge stein) and the beer itself comes in many tastes and brews from mild to strong. If that is not enough, there may be a schnapps to drink before the beer and even fruit syrups to add to them for variety Germany is considered to be “the greatest brewing country in the world and Munich the greatest brewing city” but every area and every town and, in many cases, most homes brew specialties of their own. Types of beer include among many others: Helles, light Munich beer; Dunkles, dark; Heller Bock, strong and light; Dunkler Bock, strong and dark.

Many fine German wines are also produced, both reds and whites, but the whites are more widely known than the reds. Rhine and Moselle wines offer many delicate flavors. The sweetest ones are for sipping while the drier fruity types are for special occasion meals. Generally, Germans have a preference for sweet rather than dry wines.

Kaffee begins the day as a warming, stimulating breakfast drink. The coffee served in the late afternoon usually has the connotation of a friendly hospitable gathering to which is added the sweet touch of fine pastries. Coffee and a sweet is a German tradition. Tea has a medicinal connotation and is usually taken to “cure” something. Of the many types of herbal teas, camomile and mint are among the favorites.

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