A Culinary Journey Through Germany in 32 Recipes
From sauerbraten to sauerkraut, learn how to cook German classics
‘Fake Rabbit’? ’Dead Grandma’? Are these classic German dishes making you hungry? In our video series ‘Weird German Food,’ our international Kitchen Stories team guess what lies behind the names of some of Germany’s strangest dishes. Check out all episodes and videos on Instagram via IGTV.
When I think of typical German dishes, there are three that immediately come to my mind: thick-cut salted and smoked pork with sauerkraut and potatoes, roulades with red cabbage and potato dumplings, and currywurst with fries. Obviously, this is highly subjective, as an individual’s perception on German cuisine is influenced by where they’re from, where they’re living, and which dishes accompanied you from childhood through to today.
I think we can agree that German cuisine has a soft spot for all kinds of meat and carbs, but still, taking two example dishes that contain both show that they come from two different culinary worlds: a weisswurst with a pretzel from Bavaria compared with kale, smoked bacon, and “Pinkel”—a special sausage with bacon and groats of oat or barley—from northern Germany.
There is actually no such thing as THE German cuisine as it’s in fact more diverse than most people give it credit for. There are numerous reasons for this diversity. : Geographically ranging from the Baltic and North Sea to the Alps, there are diverse agricultural areas that determine the vegetables, fruits, meats, and seafood that can be harvested and used. On top of that, there are 9 (yes, nine!) neighboring countries from all cardinal points that each influence certain areas with their specific cuisines: from fine French dining in the west to hearty Polish cuisine in the east, for example. So it’s no wonder why people in the different federal states of Germany grow up and cook a variety of distinct traditional dishes.
Today, we’ll go on a culinary journey through Germany and visit all 16 federal states. Of course we’ve got some regional specialties up our sleeves and have plenty of recipes to share so you can start exploring German cuisine in your own kitchen! We’ll start in Berlin where our Kitchen Stories office is located and work our way clockwise around the country. Ready?
Unfortunately it’s impossible to represent each regional cuisine in the full depth that it deserves, so this article rather functions as an overview. If you want to share your own personal favorite German dish and the story behind, we’re excited to read about it in the comments below!
Typical Berliner cuisine is generally described as hearty but simple. Cooking here is about getting full, not about winning beauty contests. Being the former capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and populated by immigrants from e.g. Silesia, Pomerania, Mecklenburg, and Bohemia, the city’s cuisine was able develop from various influences. Regional vegetables such as potatoes, beans, turnips, cucumbers, peans, and cabbage all find their way on the plates—often accompanied by meats like pork and goose, but also seafood such as carp, eel, or pike.
Typical Berlin dishes are:
- Kassler – thick-cut salted and smoked pork, often served with sauerkraut
- Eisbein – pickled, cured, and boiled ham hock
- Buletten – flattened pan-fried meatballs, often served with potato salad
- Bismarckhering – pickled herring
- Schnitzel Holstein – veal schnitzel served with fried eggs, capers, and fish
- Soleier – pickled cooked eggs
- Strammer Max – a slice of bread topped with ham and a fried egg
- Hackepeter – raw minced pork, often served on a bread bun (known as “Schrippe” or “Brötchen”) with raw onions
Still, probably the best known original Berlin dish is currywurst, a steamed, then fried sausage served with curry spiced ketchup. It was first made in the city in 1949.
If you have a sweet tooth, you can find sweet baked goods with quite interesting names in Berlin, such as:
- Schweineohren – literally “pig’s ears,” which are palmiers
- Amerikaner– literally “Americans,” which are black and white cookies
- Windbeutel– literally “wind bags,” which are ice cream-filled profiteroles
Want to try Berlin cuisine at home? Here are more typical Berliner dishes for you to start with:
The cuisine of Brandenburg
Berlin is surrounded by a federal state called Brandenburg, where a down-to-earth kitchen is waiting for us. Benefiting from several lakes, you’ll find lots of fish dishes served here—from eel to carp to pike perch. Since it’s one of the most heavily wooded parts of Germany, there’s also a big variety of mushroom and venison dishes.
The flagship of Brandenburg’s cuisine, however, is the juicy, crunchy Spreewald gherkin. For dessert, you’ll get small and fluffy yeast pancakes called Plinsen, which are made with buttermilk in this area. If you’re traveling in this region, a dish you cannot miss is Kartoffeln and Quark (literally “potatoes and quark”) that are served with a drizzle of regional, cold-pressed linseed oil.
The German love for potatoes can even be historically explained: In the mid-18th century, people suffered from several famines. Frederick the Great ordered so called “potato orders” during this time that were meant to enforce the cultivation of potatoes throughout Prussian provinces. They contained information on the best soil for growing potatoes, tips for planting, and ideas for making the most of the harvest for both humans and animals alike. Also thanks to this, potatoes spread all through the country and are now an essential part of German cuisine wherever you go.
The cuisines of Saxony, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt
The so-called “new federal states of Germany” are states that belonged to the former GDR and were acceded into the Federal Republic of Germany during reunification in 1990. Saxony, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt are three of these new federal states and their cuisines are strongly influenced by the culinary culture of the former GDR.
Some areas that used to be quite poor and didn’t have access to a lot of ingredients needed to find dishes that were cheap but filling, using ingredients that could be harvested nearby.
In Saxony, you’ll find:
- Reibekuchen – potato pancakes which resemble hash browns
- Quarkkeulchen – small and fluffy pancakes made of mashed potatoes, quark, eggs, and flour
- Arme Ritter – a variant of French toast using egg- and milk-soaked slices of white bread
- Kalter Hund – literally “cold dog,” which is a no-bake chocolate and biscuit cake
In contrast to some poor areas in these states, big cities such as Dresden and Leipzig could develop a more “refined” cuisine. The best known baked good from this region is probably the fruit bread called Stollen that is made in Dresden and is one of the most popular sweet breads eaten during the Christmas season. There’s even a Stollen festival taking place every year!
Thuringian gastronomic specialties can be recognized pretty quickly as they often contain their origin in their name. The state is famous for Thuringian Rostbratwursts, red sausage, or Thuringian classic potato dumplings and Wickelklöße—which are potato dumplings made from flour, eggs, water, and baking powder, then rolled with butter-fried white bread crumbs.
There’s also a somewhat particular dish that was popular in the former GDR. It’s called Tote Oma (literally “dead grandma”) that is supposed to be originating in Thuringia. Also known as “traffic accident” this dish contains minced fried blood sausage and is served with boiled or mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. You might be put off by the name, but if you ever get a chance to try this dish: Do it! We served it to some Kitchen Stories team members and they were all surprised in more or less positive ways.
If you’re still suspicious though, then here’s a sweet and sour stew that is called soljanka. While it didn’t originate in Thuringia directly, it’s popular throughout East Germany.
Here are some recipes that are often connected with the cuisine of Saxony-Anhalt:
- Hühnerfrikasse – chicken fricassee
- Bienenstich – literally “bee sting,” which is a cake with sweet yeast dough, vanilla custard, and caramelized almonds
- Eier in Senfsauce – eggs with potatoes in a white mustard sauce
- Altmärkische Hochzeitssuppe – a clear chicken broth with meatballs, egg custard, and asparagus
- Harzer Käse – a tangy sour milk cheese with an intense smell
- Salzwedeler Baumkuchen – literally “tree cake,” consisting of numerous layers of batter that, when sliced, resemble the rings of a tree
Most people who are not living in Germany will unknowingly think of Bavarian cuisine when they think of German foods—think weisswurst, sauerkraut, and soft pretzels—thanks to the somewhat globally known Oktoberfest. While these dishes are more or less eaten all over Germany, they are actually Bavarian specialties.
Bavarian cuisine is hearty, meaty and strongly connected to traditions and life on the countryside. Potatoes are most often eaten in the form of dumplings here. One of the most iconic dishes of Bavaria is known as Brotzeit (literally “bread time”) and it’s kind of a snack slash meal that is enjoyed at a picnic, after hiking in the mountains, or in a beer garden. Its tradition originates in Bavarians working culture—physically demanding professions required easy, filling, and quick snacks.
Here’s what to serve on a Brotzeit: sausages, bread, cheese, meats, radishes, a cheese spread called‚obatzda’ and maybe even a Bavarian sausage salad.
Looking for more than just a snack? Here are three other Bavarian recipes to try at home!
Although the Franconia region is partly located in Bavaria, it has developed some iconic dishes of its own. Some well-known delicacies are:
- Schäufele – braised pork shoulder
- Blaue Zipfel – raw bratwursts simmered in a spiced vinegar broth then served with bread or soft pretzels
- Karpfen blau – carp gets a bath of hot vinegar making it turn blue
But the heart of Franconian cuisine are definitely Nuremberg’s special gingerbread and bratwursts.
Baden and Swabian cuisines of Baden-Wuerttemberg
We’ve arrived in the south west of Germany and already discovered that boiled potatoes turn into round potato dumplings the further south you travel. In Baden-Württemberg, they take a new shape and transform into spätzle and finger-shaped dumplings.
Due to its geographic location, the regional cooking here is a very interesting combination of several cuisines. Here’s how to distinguish between the Baden and Swabian cuisines: Baden is the part of this state that has a direct border to France and Switzerland and is therefore influenced by these two cuisines. It’s also known for wine, as their climate is the warmest in Germany. On the other hand, Swabian cuisine is more about down-to-earth German cooking with some refined elements throughout. Let’s take a closer look.
The French-inspired Baden cuisine serves snail soup, tarte flambée, Apfelküchle (apple slices dipped in batter and fried until golden brown), and, of course, the impressive and well-known Black Forest cake.
Some dishes such as potato dumplings, sweet rolls, or Flädlesuppe (a pancake soup, which is a clear broth served with sliced pancakes) are popular throughout the state. The Swabian cuisine is especially appreciated for its Maultaschen (filled ravioli-like pasta usually served in broth) and cheese spätzle.
The cuisines of Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Hessia
Ever heard of Leberknödel (liver dumplings) or Saumagen (stuffed pig’s stomach)? Along with bratwurst, they form a regional specialty called Pfälzer Dreifaltigkeit (Palatinate Trinity) that is served with potatoes and sauerkraut. Stuffed pig’s stomach is probably the best known regional dish of Rhineland-Palatinate – it’s prepared by stuffing a clean pig’s stomach with a mixture or pork, potatoes, onions, and spices. Locals love their Saumagen so much,they even host a yearly contest dedicated to: Last year, more than 200 variations of a ‘Saumagen’ competed against each other.
Besides this classic, you’ll find Griebenwurst (blood sausage), Leberknödel (liver dumplings), and Flääschknepp – (meatballs) as meat components on your plate, while] are served as a common side dish. For dessert, you’ll get sweet rolls with a salty bottom crust. Or try an onion tart, which is just as popular here, often combined with bacon!
The small federal state of Saarland is located right on the border to France and Luxembourg, and enclosed by Rhineland-Palatinate from the German side. Their cuisine is dominated by potato dishes that have quite interesting names:
- Hoorische– potato dumplings
- Gefillde – stuffed potato dumplings
- Geheirade – potato and flour dumplings in a creamy bacon sauce
- Grommbierkischeljer – potato fritters
- Dibbelabbes – a pot pie with grated potatoes
- Schneebällchen – literally snowballs, which are fluffy, small potato dumplings
If you’re wondering why the potato is especially popular in this area, here’s the reason: the majority of the people who lived here, worked physically demanding jobs in mining or agriculture. Due to low incomes, they made use of their more affordable, regional products. . As well as potatoes, to this day they still cultivate onions, cabbage, leeks, or apples here and turn them into filling hearty stews, sauerkraut, or apple sauce.
Try out the pairing of sauerkraut and apples in this quiche recipe:
Hessian cuisine is mainly influenced by its neighboring federal states, e.g. Thuringia, Rhineland-Palatinate, and the Franconian region. Even though it’s not the state capital, Frankfurt developed into a culinary centre of the area. It’s long been known as a city of trade fairs, meaning their food has always needed to satisfy their wealthy guests.
The two best-known specialties from Frankfurt are Frankfurter Kranz (crown cake) and Frankfurter Grüne Soße (green herb sauce). You can easily try them at home with our recipes:
Other Hessian specialties are:
- Kirschenmichel – a sweet bread pudding with cherries
- Weckewerk – a traditional comfort food made with several cuts of pork meat
- Handkäse mit Musik – literally ‘hand cheese with music’, which is a sour cheese that used to be shaped by hand. The ‘music‘ is a marinade of onions, vinegar, and oil.
The cuisine of North Rhine-Westphalia
Simple and hearty Rhenish cuisine looks back on a long history and stands out with some very special and sometimes eye-brow-raising dishes.
Let’s start with a dish called Himmel un Ääd which means ‚ "heaven and earth" and is made of mashed potatoes with apple sauce, served with blood sausage, liverwurst, fried onions, and bacon. The potatoes symbolize the earth and the apples growing high in trees symbolize heaven. Another dish with a rather confusing name is Halver Hahn, literally "half a rooster" that actually doesn’t contain any meat at all but is made up of a rye bread roll with butter, gherkins, mustard, and raw onion.
Two well-known dishes popular across the borders of North Rhine-Westphalia are a slightly sweet rye bread called Pumpernickel and a pot roast called Sauerbraten. In fact, there are several federal states fighting over the original and best version of this dish: The most popular ones are the pot roasts from Baden (The Baden sauerbraten tastes a bit more sour and is made from beef only) and Rhenish cuisine. In the end, it’s of course a matter of taste!
The cuisines of Lower Saxony, Bremen and Hamburg
We’ve traveled so far clockwise that we’ve already swung back to the North where the down-to-earth and hearty cuisine of Lower Saxony waits for us. This federal state expands from the woodland Lüneburg Heath to the North Sea coast, giving it a rather wide-reaching cuisine, too.
As an agricultural centre the Lüneburg Heath is one of the main areas of potato, asparagus, and kale farming. All of them are staples in the cuisine of this area. One of the well-known dishes is called Grünkohl mit Pinkel which is eaten all around North Germany. It’s a smoked sausage that’s served with kale and potatoes. Some variations also serve Kassler (smoked pork chop) instead of the sausage.
The further you travel towards the North Sea coast, the more fish you’ll get served–from herring, plaice and mackerel to brown and sand shrimp, eel, and trout.
As a city state completely surrounded by Lower Saxony, the regional cuisine of Bremen has a lot of dishes in common. Kale and smoked sausage is called ‘Braunkohl und Pinkel’ here (meaning brown cabbage and smoked sausage) as the regional kale from Bremen turns brownish during cooking.
Some more specialities from Bremen are:
- Bremer Knipp – a sausage similar to the above-mentioned Pinkel
- Hochzeitssuppe – literally ‘edding soup’, which is a clear chicken broth with meatballs, custardy eggs, cauliflower, and asparagus
- Birnen, Bohnen und Speck – literally ‚pears, beans, and bacon’ which is a stew of just these ingredients
- Labskaus – a mixture of mashed potatoes, cured beef, beetroot, and gherkins served with fried egg, and (pickled) herring. This dish is eaten throughout northern Germany.
Hamburg’s cuisine has a lot in common with Bremen’s cuisine, but has a stronger focus on fish dishes thanks to the river Elbe that runs right through the city. This geographical fact didn’t only offer direct access to seafood, but also to international and exotic ingredients that could be shipped here and found their way into Hamburg’s cuisine.
Some of the best known dishes of Hamburg are:
- Fischbrötchen – fish sandwiches
- Pannfisch – pan-fried fish served with potatoes and mustard sauce
- Hamburger Aalsuppe – eel soup that can sometimes also be vegetable stew without any eel
- Rote Grütze – red berry compote
- Franzbrötchen – sweet cinnamon-flavoured pastries
The cuisine of Schleswig-Holstein
We’ve arrived in the far North of Germany. Schleswig-Holstein is surrounded by the North Sea and the Baltic Sea which is why fish plays the leading role in the regional cuisine.
In addition to some of the already mentioned Northern dishes such as Labskaus and Birnen, Bohnen und Speck, some regional specialties are Holsteiner Sauerfleisch (soured meat in jelly) and mashed turnips. The people of Schleswig-Holstein love the pairing of sweet and sour or salty food. You can taste this in some of the mentioned dishes: the sweet pear paired with salty bacon, or hearty meat paired with kale and almost caramelized potatoes.
The cuisine of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania
We’ve arrived at the last stop of our culinary journey. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has the highest fish consumption per head, which is no surprise since the federal state has not only a large coastline on the Baltic Sea but also numerous lakes.
Still, the best known dishes of this region are meaty ones:
- Gestowte Wruken – pork belly with turnips
- Rippenbraten – pork belly stuffed with plums and apple that is usually served with red cabbage and potato dumplings
- Tüften un Plum – potato soup with bacon and plums
But there’s one seasonal ingredient that Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is especially known for: sea buckthorn! The bright orange colored berries grown on the dunes and are full of vitamin C, provitamin A, vitamin E, plenty of B12, minerals, and more—a true regional superfood!
Published on May 7, 2019