The Traditional German Diet

Glass and bottle of beer on wooden planks
Beer is an artisanal enterprise in Germany, with distinctive varieties specific to each region. (Image: Jag_cz/iStock/Getty Images)

The traditional German diet is hearty and heavy, with potatoes, meats, breads and beer as its focal point. While every region of the country puts its own spin on the classic dishes, a focus on potatoes, serving meat with fruits instead of vegetables and drinking locally crafted beers are hallmarks of this diet.

History

Food has always played a defining cultural role in Germany. Because of its challenging topography, Germany is not a major agricultural center, so it must import most of its ingredients. However, King Frederick the Great (1712-1786) gave seed potatoes to the citizens and taught them growing techniques, introducing a staple into the traditional German diet. After World War II, Germany was divided into East and West Germany, with the eastern half developing a more Russian-influenced style of cooking, and the western half maintaining the classic techniques. Today, Germans enjoy foods from around the world; the melding of traditional dishes with international preparations and ingredients keeps this cuisine vibrant and experimental. However, well-prepared traditional German dishes remain popular, and in small towns they may be all that is available.

Main Dishes

Sauerbraten is a typical German meat stew made from roast of pork, beef or veal pickled in buttermilk then roasted in gravy. In the Rhine River area, sauerbraten is also flavored with raisins, savory spices and vinegar. Sauerbraten is commonly served with red cabbage. Wiener schnitzel is a common lunch or dinner dish. A filet is pounded to 1/8-inch thick, covered with flour, dipped in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and pan-fried. The filet is usually veal but can also be pork or chicken. Pickled fish are also typical, including dishes such as karpfen bleu featuring carp with vinegar, served with potatoes, and brathering mit bratkartoffeln, fried herring pickled and served with potatoes and onion.

Side Dishes and Casual Fare

Knödel, or dumplings, are served with many main dishes. Dumplings are made from potatoes or bread, then boiled or fried. In the south, spätzle, small, toothsome dumplings the size of a few clumped grains of rice, is more common.

Sausage carts sell street food all over most German cities. In Berlin, potatoes are often served with a sausage such as bratwurst, as well as bacon.

The most common German breads are made from rye and pumpernickel; many are sourdough. Soft pretzels are ubiquitous street food.

Beer

In Berlin, Berliner weisse is the local favorite beer. This sour brew is served in wide goblets, often with a shot of green syrup made from the aromatic forest herb woodruff, or a red raspberry syrup, to sweeten it. Cologne is the home of the light, fruity pale ale called Kölsch. In Leipzig, the famous orange-colored Gose is brewed with salt and coriander. Bamberg serves up pilseners as well as the smoked-malt Rauchbier. These classic beers, steeped in local culture and made in the same manner for hundreds of years, are a beloved aspect of the traditional German diet, and make good accompaniments to hearty meals.

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