While gastronomic movers and shakers have invigorated Berlin’s food scene in the past few years, the German capital is still lagging someway behind Europe’s bastions of culinary excellence. As per the Michelin Guide of 2019, Berlin has 23 Michelin-starred restaurants. London has 70, and Paris over 100. Culinary trends in the German capital have much humbler origins than some of its glitzier European counterparts. Historically, Berlin was a working class city, and it’s signature dishes incorporated staple foods that were affordable and accessible for all. The city’s local specialties are simple, hearty and honest – working class heroes, you might say. Here’s our list of the most iconic of them.
Post-WWII, resources were scarce for downtrodden Berliners, and the food people could get their hands on was often barely edible. Enter Herta Heuwer, a West Berliner who (according to Berlin’s now defunct ‘Currywurst Museum’) compensated for a ketchup shortage and inferior meat products by smothering her sausages in canned tomatoes and spicing them up with curry powder acquired from British occupation forces. Thus a legend was born. Best eaten with fries and mayo on a street corner with a beer in hand. Konnopke’s Imbiss, beneath the U-bahn tracks at Eberswalder Str. Station is considered one of the best.
East Germany’s answer to the mighty Currywurst, the Ketwurst was created at the GDR’s State Gastronomical Research Centre in the late 1970s. The clue is in the name here – ‘Ketchup’ + ‘Wurst’ = Ketwurst. It consists of a giant Bockwurst, dunked in ketchup, and then inserted into a long roll pierced with a hot metal cylinder to create the appropriate-sized hole (German engineering at its finest). An East German fast food legend, this one was rarely seen outside Berlin’s city centre until after reunification.
The Döner Kebab
Hardcore enthusiasts will argue that the döner was invented in Berlin. In 1972, so the mythology states, a Turkish street vendor named Kadir Nurman opened a stall in West Berlin serving traditional grilled meat in a flatbread so that busy Berliners could carry it with them and eat it on the go. Nurman died in 2013 but his legacy lives on. Döner is the fuel on which the city feeds. Berlin now has over 4,000 kebab shops (more than Istanbul), and its people consume a staggering 60 tonnes of döner meat a day. Check out Mustafa’s on Mehringdamm – widely considered to be the best kebab in the city.
Like the Döner, the Lahmacun, or ‘Turkish Pizza’, owes its origins in Berlin to West German immigration policy in the 1960s, when thousands of Turkish guest workers were bought into West Germany to fill gaps in an exponentially expanding economy. It consists of round, thin dough, topped with spiced minced vegetables or meat. It’s then baked, filled with salad and sauce, and rolled up into a wrap. Head to Güllü Lahmacun in Moabit to try one.
Frikadelle, pan-fried meatballs, have been eaten across the north of Germany and Denmark for centuries – so long, in fact, that their true origin in the region is unknown. Boulette is Berlin’s version. Minced pork is fleshed out with breadcrumbs and onions, seasoned with salt and pepper, shaped into flattened round patties and pan-fried. While popular served up with potatoes and cabbage as a main meal, most people get their Boulette straight off the grill in a bun with mustard, or take them on picnics to eat cold.
The lone sweet on our list, the Berliner now holds iconic status due to its connection with former US president John F. Kennedy who, according to grammar pedants, declared himself a donut in front of thousands of Berliners in 1963 during his infamous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. A type of ‘Pfannkuchen’ traditional in the city, a Berliner is, in layman’s terms, a jam/jelly donut. Pick one (or several) up in any bakery for a pittance.
Named after the former Prussian city of Königsberg (present day Kaliningrad), where Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg crowned himself the first king of Prussia in 1701, this dish is comprised of bite-sized veal meatballs seasoned heavily with white pepper and served in a white sauce with capers. Traditionally served with potatoes (obviously) and beetroot, it’s salty, creamy, and satisfying. For a trendified contemporary version of the classic, head to La Soupe Populaire in Prenzlauer Berg.
Germans love them some pig, and pork knuckle is the most loved of all. Known in Berlin as Eisbein, the name (literally translated as ‘ice leg’) derives from the fact that the bone from the joint was used to make the blades for ice skates here. As opposed to roasting the ham hock – as is common in the south of Germany – the Berliners pickle and cure it, and then boil it, serving it atop a mountain of sauerkraut. As tasty as it is monumental, you might need some help taking down one of these bad boys. Nobody does it better than the city’s oldest restaurant: Zur Letzten Instanz.