On the Trail of Currywurst in Berlin

Tossed with tomato puree and sprinkled with curry powder, the humble sausage dish carries stories of Germany's present and past.  
On the Trail of Currywurst in Berlin
Photo by: Slawomir Fajer/shutterstock

Grand old Berlin, Germany’s most magnificent city, may have been left reeling from two World War defeats but its spirit remained unbroken. For years afterwards, its inhabitants struggled to free themselves from totalitarian rule by escaping over The Wall, until that came tumbling down and with it the regime that held Berlin in thrall. And with that new dawn came new freedoms, a new ethos and a new and exciting cultural flowering. This is particularly evident as my husband and I walk along the mile of avantgarde art and paeans to liberation that is the East Side Gallery, the most colourful and stirring section of what remains of the Berlin Wall. This stretch of the infamous wall that once tore a people apart hasn’t just been saved as a reminder of the horror of division, it’s been transformed into the funkiest artistic tribute to human resilience and love for our fellow man. If that love is captured beautifully in the mural of Russia’s Leonid Brezhnev passionately kissing East Germany’s Erich Honecker in a pastiche condemning wars, and in the sunny yellow-and-white affirmation that god is not only a woman but one of colour, then it is also to be found in the kiosks clustered on either end of this span of the wall.

These stalls peddling everything from pieces of the wall to global grub (American apple pie and “Indische” mango ice cream) reinforce the message of this gallery. International amity they seem to say, not war, is the need of the hour. And nothing does that better than the largest, most thronged shack of all at one end of this iconic wall, a stone’s throw from the commanding Oberbaum Bridge—a currywurst stall.

The storied, modest snack of currywurst is ubiquitous in Berlin. Photo by: Peter Cripps/Alamy/indiapicture

The storied, modest snack of currywurst is ubiquitous in Berlin. Photo by: Peter Cripps/Alamy/indiapicture

Currywurst is not only Berlin’s favourite fusion dish; it is currently its favourite dish, with over 70 million units consumed annually. This curry-powder-sprinkled, hot-sauce-slathered snack, which costs between €3-5/Rs 230-385, is a contemporary take on the traditional wurst, a chunky pork or veal sausage, and the backbone of conventional German cuisine. But the wurst is no more than pleasant till this potent powder is added to the mix, blended into its tomato-puree coating or drizzled on top, and then bazinga, it becomes quite another culinary party.

Currywurst is more than just added zing to the German diet; in its bringing together of the varied, inclusive present with the best of the classical past, it is a sign of the times. Not surprising then that its history is closely allied to the spot we found ourselves standing in next, having wandered from The Wall with currywurst in hand. We’d arrived at Checkpoint Charlie, once one of only two entry points from East to West Germany along the wall. It had been the former’s window into the western world, and heavily guarded by Allied soldiers, mostly American ones, as a result. But it was their comrades in arms, the British soldiers, who were responsible for the coming of currywurst. With their vast Indian “holdings,” and their love of spices and contraband, the British are believed to have smuggled curry powder into Germany for the first time when they marched in at the end of the war. Its journey into German hearts however took much longer, as it was half a century before they’d warmed to the red-hot powder.

Further evidence of this new, broadminded Berlin is to be found on the way from Charlie to the centre of the city. Artificial beaches have sprung up to make the most of the late summer sun and Berlin’s perennial party spirit. At each of these sand-smothered watering holes with their abundance of deck chairs and beer (two of Germany’s favourite things, we’re told), a brightly bedecked currywurst stand enjoys pride of place. And at Charlie’s Beach in Schützenstraße 2, the least crowded of these, we try our second sausage of the tour. It has the zing and meatiness of the first but it also has the added oomph of a fruity enhancement to its sauce; raisins, the seller assures me, explaining how the currywurst has become a cosmopolitan catch-all for ingredients from the East. Because Kemal, who owns the kiosk, is a Turk he has introduced something from his own cuisine into it.

Restaurants and street stalls the writer visited feature the dish. Photo by Stephen Handley.

Restaurants and street stalls the writer visited feature the dish. Photo by Stephen Handley.

We swing by what had sounded like an intriguing pit stop on our currywurst crawl, but The Currywurst Museum, a two-minute walk from Checkpoint Charlie, is dimly lit and dull, charging extortionately (€13.9/Rs 1,060) for nothing more than a stroll through sausage pictures, and we hurry past. At the triumphal arch of the neoclassical, 18th-century Brandenburg Gate in Pariser Platz, we’re struck by the majesty of Berlin’s heart. The imposing Reichstag, headquarters to Hitler and his Nazis in their prime, is now the bright, glass-domed home of Germany’s Socialist parliament. But it still stands divided from the neighbouring Brandenburg, symbol of military might, by the widest crossroads we’ve ever seen, in a cautionary tableau. Skittering down side streets, we are brought back to the comfort of the more accommodating present. Here, breaking free of the constraints of classical conventions, the architecture has evolved from sophisticated to the strikingly shambolic. From the riverside shanty-bars to the large utilitarian pipes crisscrossing the city, everything has been daubed in the brightest shades. And psychedelia has blossomed on every conservation-friendly, often-deliberately-lopsided wall. A walk down to Gendarmenmarkt, even grander than the centre of the city with its Grecian opera house and gracious churches, brings us to our next currywurst stall, but it is busier than everything else around, from the sidewalk cafés and impromptu wine-tasting pods, to the fancier restaurants elegantly sitting back.

So it isn’t before we hit Hackescher Markt, past the cavernous central train station, that we have another chance to feast on currywurst. Emerging from the gloom of the station, it turns out that we have saved the best for last. Swathes of brightly coloured market stalls selling everything from the juicily spiky rambutan to sticky-sweet pistachio-topped baklava greet us. There are stands full of hats and handicrafts, and unsurprisingly, half a dozen hawking currywurst. In a quandary over which one to select, we follow our noses into Weihenstephaner, an inviting wood-panelled pub beyond the kiosks, just as it begins to rain for the first time on our sun-drenched trip. And there, in the most traditional place we could have tried currywurst, we discover the most delicious one of them all. Our veal sausages are punchy and tangy from the curry-infused tomato sauce, but also hearty with its crisp accompaniment of fried potatoes. This is fusion street food at its best and though we leave a little bit the worse for so much currywurst, we know we will be back.

  • Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.

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