One of my favorite scenes in the great German movie Good Bye Lenin is when the main character Alex, a young man who in the last days of the crumbling GDR takes care of his gravely ill mother, fills West German pickled cucumbers into old East German jars to keep the illusion of the GDR alive, because any further upset could be a fatal blow to his mother, a staunch supporter of the ruling regime.
25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, the longing for the lost goodies, edibles and others, of the former East Germany is not that far from reality. It even has its own name: “Ostalgie”, the nostalgia for the East.
There are GDR cookbooks and recipe websites. Online stores like Kaufhalle des Ostens – the name is a take on the famous Berlin department store Kadewe (short for Kaufhaus des Westens) – specialize in East German products. Some brands have managed to make the transition from a publicly owned state-run VEB (Volkseigener Betrieb) into the free market economy. For example Nudossi, a hazelnut spread that is also called the East German version of Nutella, although the manufacturer emphasizes that it contains a much higher amount of hazelnuts than its Western counterpart. Another prominent example is Rotkäppchen sparkling wine from Saale-Unstrut, Germany’s northernmost wine-growing area.
And then there are Spreewaldgurken (Spreewald gherkins), the ones from Good Bye Lenin. Together with Lausitzer Leinöl (linseed oil), the sausages Thüringer Rotwurst and Rostbratwurst, Dresdner Stollen, Salzwedeler Baumkuchen and a few others, they are East German specialties whose names are protected by the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) or Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) scheme (read more about that in a previous post).
As I wrote two years ago on the occasion of the German Reunification Day on October 3, the GDR has always remained an abstract historic monstrosity for me because growing up in West Germany I never experienced it first hand.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall I wanted to make something East German yet not any of the scrumptious cakes that especially Saxony is famous for. I wanted to make something truly GDR style, a popular and humble everyday food.
Letscho was a natural choice. In Hungary, where the dish made of bell peppers and tomatoes originated, it is a stew like Ratatouille. In the GDR, it became a chunky sauce in jars, often made at home, and eaten with grilled meats.
The addition of bacon is optional.
2 red, orange or yellow bell peppers (about 10 ounces/300 g), seeds and inner membranes removed
2 to 3 fresh ripe tomatoes (about 10 ounces/300 g), skins removed
1 medium yellow onion
1 large garlic clove
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 slices thick lean bacon, diced (optional)
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon sugar
White wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Dice the peppers and coarsely chop the tomatoes. Finely chop the onion and the garlic.
2. If using bacon, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small heavy pot. Add the bacon and cook until translucent but not browned. Add the onions and garlic and cook over medium heat until soft and translucent, stirring often. If omitting the bacon, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and cook the onions as described.
3. Add the peppers and cook for 3 minutes, or until they start to soften. Add the tomatoes and their juice. Add 1 teaspoon salt and paprika and bring to a boil. Cook uncovered for 20 minutes, or until slightly thickened, stirring once in a while. Season to taste with 1 teaspoon sugar, a dash of vinegar, and salt and pepper.
4. Fill in a sterilized jar and cool then refrigerate and use within a week.
Makes 3 cups (750 ml)