What Traditional German Food Means to Me (Not What You Think)

Despite what you might have heard about a place, you have to experience it yourself to get a true feel for it. Thus, my take on traditional German food.

Spring break!

When I was in high school, I got to visit Germany. Twice. I went with my German class as part of two of those seven-countries-in-ten-days romps across Europe over spring break—the first time as a freshman and the second time as a senior.

Both times, we went to Munich. Both times, I marveled at the gigantic mechanical clock in the town square. Both times, I visited the Dachau concentration camp, which became the subject of my senior photography exhibit during my high school’s annual art show.

I was deeply affected by my visit to the place, but I also feel like I got such a tiny glimpse of what it means to be German. I got an even smaller, almost insignificant-seeming taste of traditional German food.

My favorite German food is… not what you’d expect


During that first whirlwind visit to Germany during my freshman year of high school, the food that sticks in my mind is doner kebab. Traditionally Turkish, they were brought to Germany by Muslim immigrants. They’re kind of like Mexican tacos al pastor or Greek gyros in that they’re bread filled with slices of meat shaved from a spinning, vertically skewered roast.

Because it was spring break, we visited Europe right at the tail end of Lent. Not only were various businesses closed, and not only were many workers on strike, the timing of this trip also closed off the majority of the students on the trip with me from various culinary possibilities, since they were strict Catholics and were therefore giving up meat for Lent. I think it was also a Friday. Either way, meat was forbidden. Not for me, though.

I dug into that doner kebab with gusto. The pita-style bread was soft, the yogurt sauce and pickles were tangy; I think there was some crunchy shaved cabbage in there, too…. The meat was salty and savory. It was a cloudy day, and I can’t remember if we actually got the doner kebabs in Munich or Heidelberg, but I do remember that they were purchased from a street vendor—something that I didn’t give a second thought. As any good traveller or aficionado of traditional (i.e. “real deal”) cuisine knows, you gotta go for the street food.

Was it authentic?


Beyond that, I don’t remember much. And this brings us to a quandary, or perhaps a crossroads, or maybe even a real point of conflict: though I remember eating soft pretzels as big as my head and poking at pale unappealing sausages, that doner kebab was the only food that I really enjoyed eating in Germany.

I think we actually were brought by our tour guide to a place called The Navajo Café while we were there, or maybe that was in London… either way, cuisine was not at the top of our tour group’s list. That is, except for one glorious night in Switzerland spent at a traditional fondue place complete with dancing and live music where I danced with this kid’s dad—who was some kind of disciplinarian at the school—as well as my tipsy German teacher, but that’s another story….

So, my favorite food in Germany was brought there by immigrants from somewhere else. Does that mean it’s not German? No. Does that mean it’s not traditional?

At this point, I think it is. Since my own relatives left Germany several generations ago, I know it isn’t what they were eating, but this is what I got to experience when I eventually explored a tiny slice of Germany myself.

What is authentic?


Once again, this leads me back to an exploration of the terms “traditional” and “authentic.”

In our globalized, highly connected society, it’s hard to say what really “comes from” or “belongs to” any particular place.

Trade routes between Asia, the Middle East and Europe were developed centuries ago, and people have been exploring, migrating, colonizing, decimating, visiting, loving and destroying parts of the world that were not their native lands for… well, forever.

And the funny thing about people is, when we’re not exploring, fighting, working, eating, loving, killing, dying, being born, taking over the world, obeying our masters and all of the other things that people have also seemingly done for all of time, well… we’re eating. All of us. Every day, generally.

Because people have had to eat regularly for all of our existence, this means we’ve brought food with us on our travels, shared it with others, and brought it back home whenever we’ve discovered something tasty and new.

Memory tends to fail us, and at least until recently, most of us haven’t been all that great at record-keeping—at least when it comes to the ins and outs of daily life. Just because we associate sausages and pretzels and beer with Germany doesn’t mean they’ve always been associated with that particular place on the map. Well, maybe the beer has. Sadly, I wasn’t old enough to sample the beer when I was there.*

(*OK, maybe someone I know might have tried some beer at McDonald’s since it’s such a novelty to discover that they serve beer there in other countries, and I might have another friend who ordered Smirnoff Ice from a bar on one of these trips because she didn’t know what else to ask for and was so shocked that she was getting served, and maybe there was even some wine sampled in Switzerland and a few tastes of schnapps that she heard about from other students in Austria… but no traditional German beer, sadly….)

In the end, though tradition is still largely associated with a taste of place that’s based on what’s unique about a particular land and its ability to produce certain foodstuffs, these associations are becoming weaker by the day. And so, for me, Germany means doner kebabs, preferably eaten during Lent.

Got a favorite German food tradition that you want to share? Tell me all about it in the comments!

About the author

Allison M. Sidhu

With a master’s degree in gastronomy, this girl’s got food on the brain! Allison’s a Philly native and recent transplant to LA. When she’s not exploring the local food scene, she loves snacking on homemade goodies in front of the TV with her husband.

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