The Wurst Food in Germany
By Evelyn Kanter
I’m the American-born daughter of two German immigrants, so wurst is part of my DNA, and my main diet each time I visit Germany.
Sometimes I’ll order maultaschen, ravioli-like pockets of dough filled with chopped beef or pork, served either as a main dish or floating in a soup, most popular in the Schwabian area of northern Bavaria. Or, schweinzhaxel, a slow roasted pork knuckle with a super-crispy “skin”, a popular cold weather dish everywhere. Or, a traditional schnitzel, the ubiquitous breaded veal or chicken cutlet eaten year-round and nationwide. And in spring, menus throughout Germany feature shinken und spargel, piles of fresh ham (shinken) and tender white asparagus (spargel) that’s cut before it breaks ground and turns green from sunlight.
Only sometimes, because when I’m in Germany, I simply succumb to my wurst eating habits. There’s just no escape.
In Munich, my mother’s hometown, it is weisswurst, tender veal sausages that are boiled, not grilled or fried, and served in pairs, most often for breakfast and sometimes for lunch but rarely for dinner. They are always accompanied by a large, soft bread-like pretzel, and both are dipped into a sweet red – not spicy or yellow – senf, or mustard.
My two favorite spots for weisswurst are my cousin’s kitchen table and the large and bustling Vitualmarkt (farmer’s market) in the center of Munich, around the corner from the famous Glockenspiel in Marienplatz. While there are just a couple of butchers in my cousin’s sleepy village outside Munich, the Vitualmarkt has at least a dozen, selling an infinite variety of wursts for sandwiches, to cook at home or cooked on site to wolf down at a narrow counter.
There are three ways to eat weisswurst properly.
Easiest is to cut a slice, peel off the thin casing, eat that slice and repeat. It requires more dexterity and experience to slice gently through the entire length of the wurst, peel away the casing in one piece, then slice and savor each uncased slice.
The most difficult and most traditional way is to take the entire weisswurst in one hand and literally suck the insides out of the casing. It takes years of experience not to make a fool out of yourself, so it’s not recommended for tourists, especially after a couple of beers. And don’t try it in the Donisl, the historic and elegant restaurant at the edge of Marienplatz, where weisswurst are a breakfast only menu item not served after 11am.
In Germany, what we call salami is also wrapped into the general category of wurst, and there are as many kinds of salami style wursts as there are smaller tube wursts. It also means that another favorite of mine – leberkase – is also a wurst, and also abundant in the Vitualmarkt.
Leberkase translates as “liver cheese” which sounds pretty gross. But this is really liverwurst, or pork terrine, sliced into half-inch-thick slabs warm from the steam table and plunked between two halves of a soft roll, called a brotchen, literally small bread. It’s a great, filling sandwich – of the wurst kind, of course.
In Frankfurt, my father’s hometown, it is bratwurst, also served in a brotchen by street vendors and sidewalk kiosks and in restaurants as a lunch or dinner entrée. Brat is German slang for “grill”, and grilled wursts here can be almost anything – short and fat or long and thin. In Frankfurt, they all have a casing that snaps when you bite into them so the flavor literally explodes in your mouth. The best of the wurst.
The city’s residents, who call themselves Frankfurters, never EVER call their brats a “frankfurter”, and neither should you. Legend says brats were introduced here in 1487 – five years before Christopher Columbus left Spain to discover the New World – and continue to be made only with pork.
American hot dogs and what’s known as Vienna sausage can contain beef, chicken, turkey, or even plant-based make-believe meat, and are sometimes steamed. Doing any of that is the worst thing you can do to a wurst in Frankfurt, or anywhere in Germany for that matter.
Just like Columbus, wursts traveled. In the 1600s, a butcher in nearby Coburg started calling them “dachsunds” or little dogs. The German name for Vienna is Wein, and around the same time, Austrians started calling their bratwursts weiners. The German word for wine is wein, which can be confusing if you want a glass of wein with your weiner in Wein. But I digress.
While Frankfurters would never call their hometown wursts a frankfurter, it’s a different story in Nuremberg, where the local sausages are proudly known as Nurembergers. These are thin, finger-sized brats, with at least three or four needed to make a decent brotchen and a dinner portion is often a dozen.
There’s a couple of fascinating stories behind their smaller size.
Nuremberg claims they were invented here in 1313 – more than a century before Frankfurt – as a way to feed prisoners in the city jail. Simply, the little guys could be stuffed through the keyhole, which was much larger in those days than today. The size also allowed visitors locked outside the city gates after closing time to be fed. I don’t know about the bread and mustard.
The other reason Nuremberger brats are tinier than in the rest of Germany has to do with taxes. In the 1500s, the town council ruled that brats sold by street vendors had to be smaller than those sold by butchers or served in taverns, who paid larger taxes. Now, they all sell the same smaller size.
Nuremberger brats also are different from wursts elsewhere in Germany because of their flavorings, which include marjoram, mace, chervil, cardamon and ginger. That reflects the city’s important Medieval role in the international spice trade.
The city is serious enough about its brat history to have an actual museum dedicated to them.
The Nuremberg Bratwurst Museum is across an old cobblestone street from the Henckel Museum, formerly the home of the town executioner, which is now a museum about the history of Medieval punishment. They are both a few hundred yards from the old jail with its large keyholes.
I learned about the taxes and spices in the brat museum. In the other museum, I was fascinated to learn that when longtime town executioner Franz Schmidt retired in 1617, he became a respected surgeon, using his knowledge of anatomy – including cutting out tongues for the crime of blasphemy – for more positive use. But I digress – again.
Berlin is partial to currywurst, which is a brat slathered with curry. It can be a dusting of curry powder or curry sauce or ketchup flavored with curry powder and other spices. Sometimes the brat is served whole, sometimes sliced, but always with some kind of curry. It is everywhere, from street vendors and kiosks called schnellimbisse (exact translation – quick eating) to fancy restaurants as a main dish with sides, usually fried potatoes called “chips” but never called French fries.
Blame World War II. The invention of currywurst is attributed to a woman who got Woresteshire sauce and curry powder from British soldiers and ketchup from the Americans and mixed them, adding chopped onion. She began selling her wurst and sauce concoction to construction workers rebuilding the war-torn city, and the rest is history.
It is real history. Herta Heuer patented her “Chillup” in 1951, and was honored by the city of Berlin in 2013 on her 100th birthday. Today, Berlin claims the city consumes more than 70 million currywursts a year.
My cousin Heinz and I have our own post-war ketchup story.
As a little girl in New York City, I remember helping fill what my mother called “care
packages” with coffee, sugar, and other staples to send to her sister’s family in Munich. On one of my recent visits, cousin Heinz laughed at the memory of opening one of those boxes and finding what he described as a comish (strange) bottle of red sauce with his name on the label.
I can’t wait to return to Germany for more of the wurst food on the planet.
Evelyn Kanter is a NYC-based travel and automotive journalist and who has visited Germany more than two dozen times, including to update the Essential Fodor’s Germany guidebook series.