For a young country, existing as a nation only since 1871, Germany has a long culinary history, stretching back through the Prussian empire and beyond to the conquering Roman battalions that introduced wine and pungent green herbs. In Phaidon’s gorgeously illustrated new tome, The German Cookbook, author and chef Alfons Schuhbeck includes a recipe for Frankfurt sauce — a variation of salsa verde — that Teutonic tribes likely adapted from the Romans.
The footprints of more recent invaders can be found in the country’s currywurst, invented in Berlin in 1949, apparently when food kiosk owner Herta Heuwer secured curry powder from British soldiers, adding it to a medley of tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce. Heiliger Strohsack!
From such humble origins, greatness springs. Today, some 800 million currywursts are eaten every year in Germany, and the dish is so popular it even has its own museum, the Deutsches Currywurst Museum in Berlin.
German emigrants to the United States, meanwhile, brought with them their love of meat, including the Hamburg steak, which paved the way for the Big Mac. And if you ever find yourself chowing on a pretzel slathered in mustard, say a prayer to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants. Bread plays an outsize role in German cuisine, though Schuhbeck is less interested in dense pumpernickel and rye than in other German staples, like potatoes and dumplings.
Scouring Germany’s states, Schuhbeck compares and contrasts dishes as they pick up regional accents. In Westphalia, potato pancakes are paired with ham and served with apple and pear purée. In Hesse, sausage-stuffed potato dumplings come with a creamy bacon sauce.
But while German cuisine has long been synonymous with dairy- and meat-heavy dishes, Schuhbeck also takes note of changes in German diets that have helped popularize lighter fare. A bowl of creamed spinach, spiked with nutmeg and black pepper, accompanies a fried egg and potatoes for a hearty and easy supper. A rhubarb compote is as light and healthy a dessert as you’ll find, though Schuhbeck knows when to tinker and when to leave a classic well alone. His strudel is exactly the one your German grandmother would make, if you had one — juicy with apples and rum-soaked raisins, and served in a pool of vanilla sauce. Resistance is futile.
Creamed Spinach with Fried Egg
2 floury potatoes
1¾ lbs spinach
1 cup light cream
4 tbsp butter
freshly ground pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
Peel, wash, and cut the potatoes into ¼-inch dice. Boil in salted water for 10–15 minutes until tender, then drain in a sieve. Wash the spinach leaves, let drain and remove the larger stems. Blanch them in salted water for about 3 minutes. Drain and plunge into iced water. Let the spinach drain, then squeeze out excess water and chop the leaves.
Heat the cream in a pan. Put in a blender with the potatoes, spinach, and half of the butter, and purée. Return the mixture to the pan and warm over low heat. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
Heat the remaining butter in a large pan or skillet. Crack the eggs and slide, side by side, into the frying pan or skillet. Let stand until the white sets, leaving the yolks shiny. Season the egg white with salt and pepper. Serve with the potatoes. Serves four.
Adapted from The German Cookbook by Alfons Schuhbeck