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What most have come to know as an integral part of Berlin’s beloved street food scene goes much deeper than you might initially think. It’s not just toothsome grab-n-go food, it’s emblematic of Berlin’s post-war resilience and its mindset to skyrocket onward. Most have become acquainted with the ubiquitous grub, whether it be as a tourist treat or a late-night necessity, but its history is simple yet complex, mirroring the dish itself.
Arguably, like most things brought into existence in this world, it started with a woman; her name is Herta Heuwer. Little did she know her concoction would spiral into becoming a part of the iconic fabric of Germany’s capital; there’s even a currywurst museum.
She was born in 1913 in Königsberg, a city largely destroyed in World War II, where only the vestiges of the 13th-century city remain. In 1946, it was officially renamed Kaliningrad, as it underwent different rule on the East side of Germany. Herta, like much of Germany, didn’t let devastation color her future. She was a woman of progress, a woman who had to become used to her country as a constant palimpsest, and to evolve meant to take the good and keep building. Eventually she would make it to Berlin where she settled up in the West and opened a fast-food kiosk, or imbiss. A plaque sits today where her imbiss once rolled out hot meals to the hungry on the corner of Kant Strasse and Kaiser-Friedrich Strasse.
In 1949, Herta came across a British solider who (in some sort of exchange) ended up giving Herta ketchup and curry powder. Maybe Herta stumbled upon the recipe through trial and error or maybe her matured palate after years of slinging grub to the street omnivores knew what the people wanted. She mixed the ingredients obtained from the British soldier with a few other elements and voilà, currywurst reared its saucy head into the world. First boiled, then fried, then drenched in a sauce medley coined (by Herta) as chillup: the name resembling a colloquialism of the internet guzzling millennials didn’t stick for long, but was patented in 1951.
It was in Charlottenburg where her street eats sold like hot cakes. Her stand was reported to have sold 10,000 currywurst per week, and remained in business until 1974. Today, currywurst is sold all over Berlin and Germany. Falling under the umbrella of fast food doesn’t keep it in the shadows. Currywurst stands are tantamount to Starbucks in NYC. It’s a beloved favorite in the Hauptstadt, with 70 million being sold yearly, which is only overshadowed by the 800 million that sell in Germany every year. Even the Volkswagen in Wolfburg supplies its employees with a special currywurst clad cafeteria. It might be time to rethink the symbol of Berlin.