Traditional German cuisine is largely composed of hearty meals, many of which are composed of pork, beef, eggs, potatoes, cabbage and root vegetables. While some dishes can surprise with their delicious flavours, these are the food items that both younger generations of Germans and foreign visitors definitely need to think of trying at least once.
Brace yourselves for this German dish. The name refers to a bowl of ‘blood soup’, and no, that’s not a metaphor. Once a staple meal in north German households, each town’s slaughtering day would provide families with the main ingredient: pig’s blood. Mixed with vinegar, the blood solidifies and turns black, after which cloves, onions, pepper and bay leaves are added for a bit of extra flavour. Depending on the region the soup is made in, it can include pig’s feet, their tails, snouts or other leftover parts.
What’s generally considered one of the must-try foods when you’re anywhere between Bremen, Hamburg or the East Frisian Islands, is certainly not for everyone. The initial reaction and expectation people have when they first see a bright pink serving of labskaus is for it to taste somewhat sweet, like a berry compote. But the purée dish is composed of corned beef, pickled beetroot, mashed potatoes and onions topped with a fried egg, herring and gherkins.
Because one dish made with blood is not enough, Upper Franconia joins the list with its traditional Hofer Schwaaß dish. Today, it’s mainly the older generations of Germans who appreciate the traditional recipe which, just like with Schwarzsauer, is traditionally prepared on the slaughtering day. A pig’s blood is collected and poured over bacon, onions and white bread, then seasoned with salt, pepper and marjoram before being baked in the oven until the top is crispy. Butchers in the rural areas of the region even sell the ready-made dish, so if you do decide to visit and would like to give Hofer Schwaab a try, you won’t need to experiment with blood in your kitchen.
Across Germany, in the Rhineland region in particular, people don’t shy away from eating their beef and pork sushi-style—in other words, raw. A Mettbrötchen is nothing but an open-faced bun with butter and spreadable ground pork, seasoned with salt and pepper and topped with onions. Every traditional brewhouse in Cologne and Dusseldorf lists this item on its menu and the cold buffet at private parties is often adorned with a Mettigel, or a pile of ground beef and pork made to look like a hedgehog.
To take a break from Germany’s blood- and meat-based dishes, we’ll focus on cheese. Milbenkäse is a local speciality of Saxony-Anhalt, in the town of Würchwitz to be more precise. Usually, it’s lactic acid bacteria that are in charge of the ripening process of cheese, but not in this case. The local cheese is made with the help of cheese mites; their saliva helps with the fermentation process and over time, the cheese takes on a yellow, then rusty-red and, finally, black colour. The mites are still alive at the last stage of the process and are devoured together with the cheese.
Given that not wasting any part of an animal after slaughtering it for food is an honourable effort, Schmalz wins some serious brownie points. The name stands for spreadable pig’s or geese fat that is heated and mixed with a range of other meaty items, depending on what it will be used for. Griebenschmalz is usually prepared with leftover chunks of bacon, apples and onions, and has a strong flavour. Once cool, it’s spread on thick slices of bread and served as a popular snack in several regions across Germany.
As with labskaus, the pink colour of Heringssalat is deceiving. While its name gives away what it is, putting pickled herring in a salad might sound a bit odd for foreign tastes, it’s well worth a try. To make this special delicacy, red Heringssalat, fish fillets are chunked up and mixed with diced apples, boiled and grated beetroot, onions, gherkins, sour cream, yoghurt and hard-boiled eggs. While the combination might sound a bit unusual, locals swear by it and offers the perfect opportunity to have your protein, vegetables and fruit all in one hearty helping.