When I first visited Berlin in June 2012, I had a bucket list of sorts. I did not know much about the city I was set to visit (I wasn’t the keen travel planner back then as I am today) but I did know one thing – a major trip goal was to sample as much currywurst as I could over the course of my 1-week stay.
There is no doubt that most of us – if not all – are familiar with the Holy Grail of German cuisine that is currywurst. Yes, you may quote me on that. A sliced up meaty sausage topped with a slathering of curried ketchup with fries (or bread) to match – heaven, innit?
For the uninitiated, the history of the sausage-curry combo is quite a compelling story. In 1949, post-War Berlin ‘haus frau’ Herta Heuwer gave beer to British soldiers in exchange for some curry powder. She added the exotic powder (along with a smattering of other secret ingredients) to tomato puree and there became the Granddaddy of the curry sauce we all know and love today. She sold sausage slathered with this sauce from her street corner stall and it became a surefire hit with one and all – a tradition that hasn’t weakened even today.
While writing in depth about what is essentially sausage and sauce seems somewhat like a farce, the socio-cultural-political implications of currywurst are vast. Really! Renowned food anthropologist Sidney Mintz reiterated how food and food choices are powerful markers of group identity. Shared food rituals help create and establish unique group identities on familial, communal, national, and regional scales.
In this way, as the popularity of currywurst spread from West to East Berlin and ultimately across the country, this simple feast emerged almost as a symbol of German culture in post-War Berlin. It combined traditional tastes (i.e. your good ol’ German sausage) with exotic flavours (i.e. curried ketchup) and so simultaneously instilled a sense of German-ness while giving Germans a look/feel/taste of the outside world – something that was lacking at the time in the war ravaged country.
In post-War Berlin, steak was scarce and soon enough currywurst had its own tagline as “Das Steak des kleinen Mannes” or “steak of the common man”. The humble feast saw immense popularity amongst the working class who lauded the transformation of their simple sausage into a seemingly exotic delicacy! Its cheap price sealed the deal. Its popularity spread like wildfire, and the sausage-curry combination became loved by all as a quick fix for a hungry stomach (and heavy heart… In my mind, at least!). Again, in this way, the currywurst can be surmised as a symbol of the ever so famous egalitarian, liberal Berlin society.
Also, I’d like to take a moment to applaud the fact that Berlin has its very own Currywurst Museum; built on the meal’s 60th birthday. You have to love a country that not only consumes an upward of 800 million currywurst a year (with 70 million in Berlin alone) but also a glorious museum memorialising the same. While I haven’t visited it yet myself, I promise you it is on the top of my list for next time.
What I find amazing about currywurst is that it has escaped the McDonaldisation effect – the range that can be found are as varied as people’s individual preferences for the same. Some like it sweet, others like it spicy. Some like it with bread, others with fries. Some like it with the sausage casing, others without.
Fun fact: While currywurst even defied the geographical limitations that the Berlin Wall posed, the difference between the two zones’ takes on the sauce-age boiled down to the sausage used. Sausage casing was scarce in the former East, so they went without the outer layer. Remnants of this tradition are still visible in today’s modern renditions, as they’re both available with/without skin – or mit/ohne Darm.
I myself have never had two identical plates of curry and wurst. Like I said, it’s a truly gastronomical marvel. While I was a virgin currywurst consumer before I landed in Berlin, my saucy, spicy, and often steamy love affair with the sausage did not end when I left the city.
In the latter half of 2012, my first foray into the world of part time jobs was at Kurz & Lang – a small London eatery that specialised in all things wurst. It was here, after extensive trials and tribulations, may I note, that I concocted the ultimate combination – two (pork) bratwursts sliced up with curry sauce, and extra curry powder and dollops of mayonnaise on a crispy side of fries. Noms.
What do you think about Germany’s very humble, unofficial state food? Have you nommed down on Currywurst? Would you? Tell me in the comments below!