When thinking of traditional German food, most of us picture sausages and schnitzels, sauerkraut and pretzels, accompanied by giant kegs of beer. In fact, these and other dishes commonly served as German food across the world are more typical of Southern Germany. When visiting the harbour city Hamburg, try these eight foods to sample the best of traditional North German cooking.
The humble fish roll is a snack in which its appeal lies in its simplicity. The sandwich is typically made with pickled herring (bismarckhering) or soused herring (matjes), some onion, pickles and remoulade sauce. But the options are as varied as the food stands that offer them. You can have fried fish or fish patty, North Sea shrimp or crabmeat. The fischbrötchen tastes best if eaten while enjoying views of the River Elbe’s or the North Sea’s wind in your face.
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This traditional fish dish is named after a district of Hamburg that was once a fishing village. Plaice (scholle) is baked or pan-fried with bacon, onions and shrimp from the North Sea. Plaice is one of the most commonly eaten fishes in Northern Germany, and used to be the key ingredient in fish and chips. These days, plaice has become scarce in several seas, but walk along the streets of Finkenwerder, and you will find many restaurants expertly cooking this superb fish meal.
If you want to sample traditional sailor and seamen fare, look no further than labskaus. This dish is made from corned beef, mashed potatoes and onions, with pickled beetroot, pickled gherkin, herring and fried egg commonly served as sides. Variations of this meal are served across Scandinavia and even in Liverpool, UK, where it’s known as ‘scouse’. Admittedly, the labskaus is anything but a photogenic dish, but dare to dig in, and your taste buds will thank you.
Throughout the winter, kale – known in German as grünkohl – is served across North Germany in a manner unsuited to its fame as a healthy superfood. Kale is stewed for several hours and served with the sides of smoked pork, one or two types of sausage, as well as boiled or fried potatoes. The kale season begins after the first winter frost and is often celebrated by groups of friends or colleagues doing a ‘kohlfahrt’ – literally, a cabbage tour. In a nutshell, they walk for several hours playing drinking games, and finish the day in a restaurant by eating as much grünkohl as their bellies can hold and dancing until morning.
The oldest recipe of the Hamburg eel soup dates back to a cookbook from 1788. Some claim this dish traditionally contained no eel, but was rather a meal made from leftovers. These days, this sweet-and-sour soup is cooked with meat broth, cured beef, vegetables, baked fruit and dumplings, as well as some eel. Some claim the latter was added to avoid confusing and disappointing the city’s guests. The soup is usually served as a main course.
Once you are done sampling the hearty fish and meat dishes, treat yourself to some local delicacies of the sweet variety – for example, with the mouth-watering rote grütze cooked from red summer berries and served with milk, vanilla sauce or ice cream. This dish was brought to the region by the Danes, but has become a staple of the North German cuisine. While red is the traditional colour of this fruit dish, green, yellow and blue varieties can also be found on some café and restaurant menus.
A particular local speciality is the franzbrötchen – literally, the French roll. You won’t find these sweet pastries, which are made with lots of butter and cinnamon, anywhere else but in Hamburg and its surrounding towns. As the story goes, their creation was inspired by the French croissant introduced in Hamburg during the occupation of Napoleon’s troops in the 19th century. Traditionally made only with sugar and cinnamon, today most bakeries offer several types of franzbrötchen, for example with marzipan, chocolate pieces or pumpkin seeds.
Freshly roasted coffee
Coffee and the city of Hamburg have a strong relationship that goes back centuries. Thanks to the port of Hamburg, at the end of the 19th century the city had become the largest coffee market in the world. It is here that the famous coffee houses of Tchibo and J. J. Darboven were founded. Still today, the warehouses of the Speicherstadt district are the biggest trading place for coffee worldwide. More than three centuries have passed since Hamburg’s first coffee houses were opened, and the city’s offers for great-quality java will not disappoint even the most picky coffee lovers.
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