Every year, as summer winds down and I am picking the last, often unsightly tomatoes in my garden, a strange craving befalls me: for a fried sausage slathered with ketchup and dusted with curry powder known around the world as Currywurst, Germany’s most popular fast food.
For me, that’s a strange craving indeed, for several reasons. I did not grow up with Currywurst or hardly any fast food for that matter. I was a teenager when the first McDonalds opened in Frankfurt and I begged my mother to let me buy a hamburger. When she realized how keen I was on that stuff, she put McDonalds vouchers in my advent calendar that year. My mother, being the smart woman that she is, always knew that the best way to get me off something she disapproved of was to deliberately supply it to me. She did the same thing with cigarettes. Fact is, I have not eaten at McDonalds or smoked a cigarette since my teenage years.
Back to Currywurst. It is not the first food that I feel the urge to eat when I am back in Germany; there are many other items on my list of foods-that-I-miss-living-in-America that come before Currywurst.
What is the draw for Currywurst popularity? It is a common phenomenon all over Germany. A recent column in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit spelled it out. Despite vegetarianism and veganism being on the rise in Germany, despite company cafeterias offering more and more healthy menu options, Currywurst, alongside Schnitzel, is what most Germans crave. Volkswagen produces its own sausages from its corporate butchery, more than 6.3 million sausages annually, which is more than the number of its cars sold around the globe. The sausages are renowned for their quality and available not only at Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg but also at other outlets. It is, the column states, “probably the only product from the company that you can trust for the time being.”
So, why do office workers reach for Currywurst, instead of helping themselves to a healthy lunch from the salad buffet? Because there is comfort in the warm, greasy, spicy character of Currywurst. It is comfort food and fast food combined.Currywurst is somehow engrained in the collective German gastric memory. It was invented in post-war Germany. After years of deprivation and hunger, meat as a daily regimen was available again, and not only meat for the traditional roast served at Sunday lunch. There was enough meat again so that you could consume it on the go, from a stand called Currywurstbude, anywhere, anytime.
I can count the times I ate Currywurst in Germany on the fingers of my two hands yet one instance was especially memorable. I spent a good part of the summer of 1991 in Berlin, and whenever we had time my boyfriend and I ventured into East Berlin with friends and explored neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg.
Less than two years after the Berlin Wall had come down, East Berlin pretty much looked like a black-and-white post-war movie set with bullet-pockmarked facades. There were no places to eat. One Sunday afternoon, after walking around for hours, we were hungry and finally found a stand selling Currywurst. It was one of the few foods that were available on either side of the Iron Curtain even during the Cold War although the traditional East German version of Currywurst was without the casing.
It tasted fabulous. It could be that I was just hungry but the fact is, each time I have eaten a Currywurst since, no matter where, I think of that afternoon in East Berlin.
Chefs have concocted all sorts of Currywurst variations yet as far as I am concerned, the original is still the best, and the simpler the better. On a trip to Berlin a few years ago I wanted to see how a luxury Currywurst tasted at the famous gourmet floor (Feinschmeckeretage) of the department store Kadewe. It was a huge disappointment – lukewarm and soggy, and the straw potatoes were even worse. Upon exiting the store and heading back to the subway station at Wittenbergplatz, I walked through groups of tourists happily devouring steaming hot Currywurst off paper plates from the Currywurst stand on the street where it costs half of what I paid.
When the late-summer Currywurst craving hits me in America, I make Currywurst the slow food way, with homemade ketchup. It is an easy recipe and a great way to use up tomatoes from the garden so I am following into my grandmother’s footsteps of obsessively avoiding any food waste.
Of course you can also make the Currywurst Ketchup from canned tomatoes. The recipe for Currywurst is in my cookbook, and my fellow cookbook author Skiz Fernando turne it into a great video clip a few years ago.
From my book Spoonfuls of Germany
To make it worth my time, when canning the ketchup, I make a large batch with doubled or tripled amounts. As the ketchup contains vinegar, it is safe to process in a boiling water bath.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 pound (450 g) fresh ripe tomatoes or 1 (400 g/141⁄2-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon brown sugar
120 ml (1⁄2 cup) apple cider vinegar
A generous pinch or more of each powdered mustard, ground allspice, cloves, mace (can be substituted with grated nutmeg) and cinnamon
1⁄2 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
- If using fresh tomatoes, bring water to a boil in a large pot. With a sharp knife cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato. Place the tomatoes in batches into the boiling water. When the skins start to curl after a few minutes, remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and cut out the core. Do this over a bowl in order to catch all the juices. Coarsely cut the tomatoes.
- Heat the oil in a small saucepan and sauté the onion until translucent. Add the
- tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, mustard, allspice, cloves, mace, cinnamon, and bay leaf. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes, or until a thick paste forms. Remove the bay leaf and puree the ketchup. Season with salt and pepper and cool. At this point you can puree the ketchup or leave it chunky, which I prefer.
- The curry ketchup can be kept refrigerated for 3 to 4 weeks, or canned by filling it in canning jars with new lids and bands processing it it boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Makes 1 half-pint (250 ml) jar