Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to German Cuisine
Johann Sitter offers German food and beer at King's Biergarten in Pearland.
Photo by Troy Fields
Modern-day Texans may not see much German influence when they look around, but the indirect effects of decades of German settlement still linger in large pockets of the state.
The first waves of German immigration began in the 1830s ahead of the European Revolutions of 1848 that sent floods of Forty-Eighters -- German, Austrian and other Central European political dissidents -- to the United States. Over 180 years later, Germans are still the largest European ethnic group in Texas, and count as the third-largest national-origin group behind Hispanics.
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We can trace many of these immigrants back to Johann Friedrich Ernst, a gardener from Oldenburg who became the father of the German settlers in Texas after obtaining a land grant for 4,000 acres in Austin County in 1831 -- an area which would become known as the "nucleus of the German Belt" in Central Texas. Ernst wrote "America letters" to his countrymen describing the bounty of land, livestock, wild game and fish that made Texas "an earthly paradise."
And although those letters were more than a bit optimistic, Texans still view their state as an earthly paradise today -- in no small part because of fine food and drink such as our beer, our barbecue and our chicken fried steak. We have Germans to thank for all of that.
Photo by Troy Fields
If you like the link sausages in Central Texas-style barbecue, you'll probably love bratwurst and the many other styles of sausage found throughout Germany. At its most simple, a bratwurst is a sausage made from finely ground pork, beef or veal, but there are at least 40 different varieties around Germany -- each made different by the blend of meats, herbs and spices and its individual preparation (grilled, fried, boiled, smoked, etc.) There's even a variety of bratwurst that's made with raw eggs and grilled over burning pinecones.
Photo by Troy Fields
Sauerkraut and red cabbage
Sauerkraut is a wonderous food. It's full of vitamins, keeps your digestive system running smoothly thanks to plenty of lactobacilli and it's able to be preserved for long periods of time (i.e., German winters). No wonder the fermented cabbage came to be such a staple in the German diet, just as kimchi is to Koreans. There's even research to suggest that sauerkraut contains cancer-fighting agents. In case you've only ever had sauerkraut or its prettier, more perfumed cousin -- red cabbage, stewed down with cinnamon, cloves and allspice -- that comes from a jar, treat yourself to the homemade stuff at restaurants like Charivari. There, chef Johann Schuster cooks the cabbage down into a wonderfully balanced sweet-and-sour dish that's both creamy and tangy at the same time.
Notice that we're not talking about just Wiener schnitzel here, but all schnitzel. At its most basic, a schnitzel is simply a cut of meat that's been pounded flat, coated with an egg wash, breaded with flour and fried. Sound familiar? It's the basis of chicken-fried steak (and milanesa, while we're at it). Wiener schnitzel is from Vienna (a.k.a. Wien, in its native language) and always made of veal cutlets. By comparison, other schnitzels like Jägerschnitzel are covered with a red wine and mushroom gravy, while Rahmschnitzel is topped with a creamier mushroom sauce.
To my great surprise, it was cold cuts and cheese I ate most often while in Germany -- both at breakfast and at lunch -- not heavier meals of potato dumplings and schnitzels. Slices of what we'd call deli-style meat are incredibly common at both meals, and are eaten with thick slices of cheese, pickles, onions and mustards. While most of the cold cuts are sausages, these differ from the bratwurst and other hot German sausages in that they're meant to be consumed in cold slices, often in sandwich form.
R.W. Apple once wrote in the New York Times: "In Germany, I sometimes think, they don't care which side their bread is buttered on, or whether it's buttered at all, as long as it's made from rye." You'll find rye bread at every single meal, whether it's consumed with butter and jam at breakfast, cold cuts at lunch or coated with fresh schmaltz and eaten with soup and sauerbraten at dinner. And be careful that you don't mistake the schmaltz for butter the first time you eat at places like Charivari, King's Biergarten or even Kenny & Ziggy's; it's rendered chicken fat (which literally means "lard" in German). Schmeckt sehr gut!
Spaetzle and knödel
Germans love potatoes as much as they love rye bread and cabbage. They're in everything from warm potato salad (Kartoffelsalat) with bacon to knödel: potato dumplings. These dumplings can be incredibly basic -- from round balls of barely more than grated potato, flour, salt and egg -- to fancier dishes that range from savory to sweet. Spaetzle are another common dumpling, but these egg-based dumplings are far smaller and are often, in fact, referred to as simply "egg noodles." Both spaetzle and knödel are common side dishes from meatier main courses.
Sauerbraten is one of those typical meat entrees, often referred to as one of German's national dishes. If you ate pot roast growing up, you ate sauerbraten. Although the name literally translates to "sour roasted meat," sauerbraten isn't necessarily sour. It's simply a tough cut of meat -- usually a rump roast -- marinated in anything from wine and vinegar to buttermilk, as long as it's an acidic blend that will help break down the meat before roasting. As with any good roast, the juices are saved and thickened up with flour to make a creamy, meaty gravy that's served on top along with vegetables, sauerkraut/red cabbage and dumplings.
Germans like their fast food as much as we do, and currywurst is one of their proudest (and perhaps weirdest) examples of traditional German food gone fast: fried sausage covered in curried ketchup with a side of french fries. The dish dates to 1949, when a devastated Germany was attempting to rebuild its bombed-out cities after World War II. Currywurst cropped up as a cheap, filling snack that could be sold on the roadside to lunching construction workers. The Worcester sauce and curry powder came to Germany by way of British soldiers, with the curry itself coming from India, and currywurst became fast fusion street food 60 years before it was cool. If you find any in Houston, LET ME KNOW.
Döner kebab and Türkische pizza
Germany has a relationship with Turkey that's not too dissimilar from our own with Mexico. At the risk of simplifying complex international relations, I'll leave it at that. As a result, Turkish food has cropped up over the last few decades as some of Germany's most popular fast-casual food. The Wall Street Journal recently claimed "there's nothing more German than a big, fat juicy döner kebab," citing the 720 million servings sold each year. With a Turkish population reaching 2.5 million, Germans have embraced other Turkish foods as well, including what it calls Türkische pizza: döner kebab wrapped in lahmacun.
Photo by Troy Fields
Germans have been brewing beer since at least 800 B.C. By 200 A.D., beer was already being traded commercially in the region that would eventually become Germany, and before its official repeal in 1987, the famed Reinheitsgebot -- a regulation concerning the production of beer -- was the oldest food-quality regulation in the world. First conceived of in 1487, the Reinheitsgebot maintained standards for all German beer and mandated that the only ingredients allowed in the brewing of beer were water, barley and hops. To this day, German influence is felt in the Texas beers we still drink. Both the Pearl and Spoetzel breweries were created by Germans, while other breweries such as the Franconia Brewing Company in McKinney are run by German brewmasters. If you love beer, thank a German.
Where to get started:
Bar Munich: In the midst of Midtown's bustling bar universe sits Bar Munich. The bar's Web site heavily touts its German leanings, a welcome change from Midtown's usual yuppie hustle and bustle - but don't get too excited, there are no busty girls in dirndls serving suds or oom-pah bands playing on the patio. Think modern Germany, where you might find Teutonic twentysomethings taking up WiFi space and watching soccer matches.
Charivari: Chef Johann Schuster has been serving an always-stunning blend of European cuisines at Charivari for the last decade. If you want to try German food but your friends don't, take them here. You'll find everything from Italian bucatini and Austrian schnitzel to Romanian goulash and German spaetzle on his standard menu, but seasonal favorites include white asparagus and black bear.
King's Biergarten: There's no such thing as a slow night at King's Biergarten, a bastion of German and Austrian food and beer in Pearland. There's an actual biergarten, too, a rambling and rustic patio that overlooks a tidy bayou by day and hosts polka bands by night. King's offers an array of German and Austrian specialties such as schnitzel and soft pretzels alongside a broad array of German brews from Franziskaner to Spaten. If you managed to save room for dessert amidst all the goulash and bratwurst, there's apple strudel and Linzer torte to reward you.
Rudi Lechner's: For those in search of German cuisine with a Texas flair, Rudi Lechner's is a popular destination. Classic German dishes like wiener schnitzel served with red cabbage and potatoes; a grilled sausage trio including bratwurst, knackwurst and Polish sausage; and the simple, freshly baked pretzel and mustard are the house favorites. Though German food is generally a meat-heavy cuisine, the menu includes several seafood and vegetarian options. Lunchtime is generally quiet, while weekend dinners can get downright rowdy with live polka performances and dancing.
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