Berlin, Part I: Food

Schnitzel

Hallo, readers. I’m back from a week in Berlin, where the weather was cold, and the sky was often gray, except for the occasional lucky days of bright sun. It even snowed. This was the atmosphere I expected from Berlin–moody, to match the character of the city’s history. Berlin is now known as a party town for gritty artists, but my idea of Berlin is classical: an Old European city marred by the history of the Nazis and the communist era. It seemed fitting that it was bitterly cold at times and the skies were cloudy.

Perhaps that type of weather has influenced the culinary traditions of Germany. It’s heavy on comfort food, particularly meat and potatoes, and the portion sizes are large. Lord knows I love large portions, so I had no problem with that.

Schnitzel (above) is a classic dish, and I ordered it many a time. I happily ate the pork and veal versions. The meat is pounded thin and cooked in a crispy breading.

Potatoes are typically served simply. They are often cut up and boiled or mashed, maybe with some vinegar.

Das Meisterstück

Sausages are ubiquitous on menus. I tried blood sausage for the first time and took an instant liking to it. The kind I tried has a soft texture, like rice heavily saturated with water. I went a little nuts at Das Meisterstueck, a foodie restaurant serving craft beer, and ordered a dish of blood sausage and a dish of lamb sausages. This restaurant has a relaxed vibe and an open kitchen that serves creative, upscale fare. The blood sausage was laid on a bed of sauerkraut, and the lamb sausages were served with roasted celery root. I had never known before what celery root looked like, or that you could cook it, so I learned something new.

Augustiner

Another dish I tried for the first time was spaetzle. Our friend recommended I order the cheese version, likening it to mac and cheese. Spaetzle with cheese is indeed delicious. Spaetzle is a type of German pasta, or, others would say, dumpling, and the texture has a nice balance of soft and chew. It’s a heavy dish, and I went overboard in ordering an extra entree of sausages with it. The sausages had their own side dishes of potatoes and sauerkraut. Oof. The waitress couldn’t believe I ate everything.

A quirk to watch out for in German restaurants: Water at the table is not common. You have to ask for it. If you don’t want to pay extra for bottled/sparkling, be sure to ask for tap water. Some places might force you to order bottled or upsell you instantly, so pay attention.

Beer, on the other hand, they will gladly give you. If you think jug glasses are a joke, I’m here to tell you that they are a real thing in Germany. You can order half a liter of beer, and no one would bat an eyelash. It’s socially acceptable to drink a lot. You can even order a drink in the morning. They love their beer.

Rogacki market

We only went to one market in Berlin: Rogacki, in Charlottenburg. We took the U-Bahn there. The U-Bahn reminded us of the New York City subway: The stations are decorated in white subway tile, and there’s a grittiness to the surroundings. Even the subway cars look like NYC trains. But back to Rogacki. We found that most Germans speak English in Berlin–they have menus in English–but the first vendor we spoke with at Rogacki either didn’t speak English or pretended not to. She was curt and unhelpful, so we just stuck to pointing at what we wanted–smoked mackerel. The next vendor was more amenable; he spoke English. We bought pickled fish from him.

Rogacki has stand-up tables for dining, so if you’re tired, you might want to postpone this for a day when you have more energy. I was quite tired the day we visited and was longing for a place to sit down, but no dice. We had to stand, which lessened the enjoyment factor for me.

As for the food, I liked the smoked mackerel, but it’s not an elegant eating experience. I was hacking away at it, trying to separate the flesh from the bones using a regular dull table knife and not doing such a good job. I think there was some private commentary from an elderly couple at a nearby table; I caught them looking at me, probably quietly laughing at my ridiculous attempt.

The pickled fish had a heft to it, unlike the thin bottled pickled herring you typically get in the U.S. The flesh was beautifully white and toothsome.

Both the smoked mackerel and pickled fish were high-quality products, but I would have preferred them in a sandwich of some sort. They were a bit naked on their own.

My general impression of German culinary fare: It’s comfort food and preserved products to get people through the long, cold months. Unlike, say, the tradition of indulgent, gastronomic pleasures in Spain, German dishes are simple, rib-sticking food to power through the days.