I arrived at the airport in Germany, starving because I hadn’t eaten since my layover 10 hours before. I’d made the mistake of ordering vegetarian for my flight. “At least I won’t have to endure some sort of processed mystery meat… it’ll probably be a salad or pasta.” This was my first time taking a trans-oceanic flight, and I hadn’t considered all the variables. The fact that my dinner would be served several hours after boarding, or that the airline was feeding several hundred people at once – many with food allergies/sensitivities – never crossed my mind. I’d heard of Air France’s “La Première” menu, and the First Class menu on Emirates featuring a lobster tail, wild Iranian caviar, and glazed duck breast. I figured any flight you paid over $1,200 for would serve decent food. BIG mistake!
Eating German TIP #1: Always carry snacks
I went several days eating snacks alone because I couldn’t get to an ATM, had no car, and was in class during the regular business hours. My University and host family offered plenty of beer, milk, cheese, pork, and bread but I could only eat so much of that before feeling like crap. Seriously people, carry snacks.
I received a plate of styrofoam textured enchiladas, a salad coated with what smelled like PineSol, and a piece of bread resembling a very thick callus. Let’s just say I couldn’t stomach the smell enough to take a bite. When I got to the airport, I was excited to find a fresh market where you could pay for food by the ounce. I picked up some strawberries as well as this thinking it was some sort of yogurt, as they recommended adding it to fruit salad:
…turns out it was a local favorite: ham and mayonnaise…lucky me. Similar to the US, I found the airport market at to be extremely overpriced and much more convenient than fresh. I still had 6 hours of traveling by train so I scarfed it down and continued on to my destination. I took 3 or 4 different trains to get to a town called Schmalkalden, passing countless family owned bread stands and snack stands along the way. I grabbed these for pure sustenance, but they were arguably the best chips I’ve ever had! The Chakalaka chips had a spicy, woody flavor similar to smoked alligator, and the Paprika chips reminded me of jambalaya!
TIP #2: Spontaneity is key
Sometimes its comfortable to say “I eat chicken at home, so I’ll try the chicken here,” but often in other cultures the specialty is something you don’t usually like. I don’t typically like Indian curry, and have avoided pork for years, however during my stay in the German state of Thuringia, it was a Cardinal sin to deny the Thuringian Currywurst.
At first I was actually repulsed by the thought of eating a bratwurst drenched in Indian curry sauce. However, to understand the culture, I had to understand how they ate. The spicy, sweet, savory, and greasy pork sausage was, in its own way, a German delicacy.
Pork & Hops
It’s no secret that the bratwurst and beer are Germany’s national pride. In Germany, I found beer to be more flavorful, plentiful, and cost effective than any other beverage…including tap water. Here we have a doppel caramel, caramel flavored beer that tastes like a mixture of a Starbucks Flan Frappuccino and Stella Artois.
The lighter colored beer is a Frankenheimer Weissbier blended with a ripe banana. In Germany it’s really common for restaurants to blend strawberries, bananas, and other fresh fruits in beer. The tall, dark ale is a local beer with A LOT of hops – not my style. The beer in Germany was good but I was constantly dehydrated. The bratwurst and schnitzel were palatable, but definitely not something I would want to eat everyday.
Small Town Melting Pot
I was surprised at how much diversity there was in Germany. I was able to eat authentic cuisine from several countries via local restaurants. I found there to be more diversity in the cuisine of Schmalkalden (population of 20,000) than in my hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri (population of 300,000). Here are photos of a tender breaded peking duck dish from a Chinese restaurant, seasonal white asparagus with Hollandaise and gold potatoes, a Turkish Döner with a mysterious purple sauce that tasted like grape flavored ketchup, and Indian curry with vegetable soup. I even had Thai coconut & bamboo soup (not pictured).
Germany’s restaurant industry is not dominated by chain restaurants like the US, so there are countless mom and pop restaurants. I ate at the world famous Hofbräuhaus in Munich and several popular restaurants in Berlin. I even had McDonalds, which was catered to German tastebuds. They all paled in comparison to the small town food of Schmalkalden, Weimar, Erfurt, Cologne, Dachau, Pasing, and Rothenburg. Overall the local food was SO much better than the more traditionally sought-after foods. However, it seems like no matter where you travel, the best gems are hidden.
TIP #3: Eat local
It’s kind of like getting an Applebee’s burger versus a burger from a mom and pop restaurant – choose local. It is very rare you’ll have a bad experience at a popular local spot. My favorite little hole-in-the-wall was a place called Oma’s Kuche (Grandma’s Kitchen). You could smell the fresh baked apple strudel from the street, and cats roamed freely, snuggling up beside you as you ate. I stumbled upon it one night when everything else was closed (everything, even super markets closed before 4pm). I could see “Oma’s” candles burning in the distance and I had to pay her a visit. Oma’s served hearty, traditional German food – the most authentic I had throughout my entire trip. I ordered sauerkraut, lumps (…something like crouton stuffed tapioca potato balls with cream sauce), potato pancakes, and strudel. It was like visiting my Fairy Godmother for the first time, just magical.
Another local spot served a delicious flatbread salmon pizza with pommes frites. Pommes frites are basically french fries with German seasoned salt, and they’re DAMN good! They also come with Mayo/Ketchup. Combining mayonnaise and ketchup is something I’ll never understand, however this wasn’t the first country I’d seen it in.
Mama Knows Best
My host mother, Barbara, also had an interesting take on German cuisine. She had a garden she’d get fresh fruits & vegetables from (most locals seemed to). She’d make fresh marmalade every morning and get bread from the bake shop a few doors down. Each morning we had a spread of meats, cheeses, breads, yogurt, tomatoes, peppers, & berries from the garden. Barbara would also prepare marmalades and mystery meats once or twice a week. Communicating with her was interesting because she spoke just about as much English as I spoke, German – very little. Before I left for class she’d give me packets of Nutella to take in case I got hungry before lunch, kind of like old ladies give little kids candy. She was really sweet and a genuinely good person.
TIP #4: Brush up on your German!
Many young people speak English, but its easier to do business with German language skills! Germany is so diverse with a lot of tourism, but if you’re traveling into the countryside, learn some German! Because I spoke English, Spanish, and very little German, it was interesting attempting to communicate. I met people from places like Serbia, Mexico, Brazil, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Thailand. Though English is now the standard language of the United Nations, I encountered SO many people that had absolutely no English knowledge. I found myself using Spanish to communicate with people that spoke Portugese (because they are similar) and German. Trust me, learning a little German will spare you a lot of confusion.
I Got Around
I traveled to 15 cities during my stay in Germany, mostly via train. I did get a chance to ride the terrifying Autobahn – Germany’s cross-country highway with no speed limit. I saw Dachau concentration camp, the Berlin wall, the Brandenburg Gate, Martin Luther’s home, a few castles, a soccer game in Munich, and camped overnight in the Thuringian Forest. At a fair in Weimar, I sampled candied hazelnuts (Germans are big on Hazelnuts & Almonds). Unlike your typical sugar and cinnamon roasted nuts, these had hard candy shells. They were coated in a mixture of sticky toffee bits and caramel brittle, hands down the best nuts I’ve ever had. I also had mushrooms & onions that tasted like they belonged on a Philly Cheesesteak – salty, creamy, greasy. They were served in a waffle bowl…which was strange.
TIP #5: Try the alcohol, coffee, & chocolate
Even if you don’t like alcohol, coffee, or chocolate, try them …everywhere, because they taste different all over the world. Sometimes they’re fruity, sometimes they’re nutty, sometimes they even taste burnt. German alcohol, beer specifically, is very mild, yet flavorful. American beer tastes watered down in comparison. They are a very “green” country without a lot of processed foods/beverages in general. It really shows in the quality of the alcohol.
German coffee is VERY strong in my opinion, with an almost over-brewed flavor. Even the convenience store cappuccinos are more like large, sugary cups of espresso.
German chocolate however, is far more delicious than the chocolate I grew up eating. Things like hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, macadamia nuts, and various marmalades/jams create a unique flavor. Germans also love to use nougat – something I was reluctant to try until I visited a chocolate factory where I saw how it was made. I found it to be a lot less like that chewy, spongy bland texture I was used to, and more like a thin layer of organic peanut butter.
Fresh as hell cause the feds watchin’
The typical chains like Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC are very popular with the younger generations and tourists. They taste much less processed than their American counterparts, and as a result, pretty bland. Local grocers sell canned soup, instant noodles, pre-made salads, and imported fruit. However, the German FDA requires that GMO and in-organic foods are clearly labeled, so for once my food wasn’t packed with chemicals! These instant Soba noodles tasted less like ramen noodles, and more like fresh lo mein!
Overall, Germany’s food culture is a lot like the US but fresher, heartier, less flavorful, with less variety. I’d give this eat-cation 3 stars overall. I had a lot of good food, as well as some not-so-good food. Surprisingly I was able to eat bread everyday without gaining weight, makes me really think about the toll chemicals take on our bodies. If you get a chance, pay a visit to Oma, ride the autobahn, and try a currywurst or two in beautiful Germany!