The story of Currywurst
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You’d be forgiven for tarring German cuisine with a generic brush of ‘not very spicy’. As delicious as they are, all those boiled veg and potatoes, braised meats, succulent sausages (over 1,500 different variants) and smoked fish don’t particularly utilise anything spicy. However, there’s one famous dish that really hits the spot and goes against all logic. Currywurst.
This spicy dish is confusing in its un-Germanness. It’s a culinary contradiction, yet a meal so popular that it’s actually considered a national dish. The Deutsche Currywurst Museum (yes, they have a museum for this) estimates that over 800 million currywursts are eaten every year in Germany, with 70 million consumed in Berlin alone. So, what’s the story of currywurst?
Firstly, what exactly is currywurst? Naturally, there are many regional variants and different takes on the dish across Germany, but the traditional approach is to firstly boil then fry German Bratwurst (pork sausage), cut up into bite-sized chunks and season with curry ketchup – a sauce that’s based on spicy ketchup or tomato paste which is itself topped with more curry powder and served with french fries. It really is spicy.
The curry powder used to help season the ketchup and sprinkled on top is usually a mixture of turmeric, chilli powder, ground coriander, ground cumin, ground ginger and pepper. Alongside the curry powder, you’ll also add in cayenne pepper and paprika, along with Worcestershire sauce. It’s wonderfully bizarre and begs the question, who on earth came up with this?
Currywurst has its origins in the aftermath of World War Two. Like any great dish, it was born out of necessity. There was a post-war hunger that combined with resourcefulness, as well as an openness to new flavors. The story goes that a German housewife by the name of Herta Heuwer, living amongst the still-smouldering ruins of Berlin in 1949, came across a British soldier. In a trade, she gave him spirits and in return, received ketchup, curry powder and Worcestershire sauce. A fair and simple deal, it would seem.
However, this changed Herta’s life and shifted the culinary landscape of Berlin forever. Through trial by error, Herta mixed these ingredients together and poured them over pork sausage. Currywurst was born. Having been bitter enemies for half a century over two world wars, British ingredients and German ingenuity were now coming together. Food has a funny way of bringing people and cultures together.
In 1951 she patented the name of this sauce combination under the name ‘Chillup’. This came as the popularity of the dish soared. She had begun by selling it in the district of Chalottenberg in West Berlin, where construction workers had taken a fancy to it. It hit all the key selling points for a builders favourite, you see. Low cost, high protein and, as an added bonus, a hint of exotic flavour too.
At its height, this little food stand was selling 10,000 servings every single week and it wasn’t long before it was a popular meal not just for construction workers rebuilding the city but for all Berliners. An overnight success. And so, you see, currywurst isn’t quite the glaring culinary contradiction that we so often think it is. This dish actually provides a window into Berlin’s post-war mentality. As Brienne Pierce writes in a 2017 Culture Trip article, there’s something about ‘its ability to move beyond a terrible past, to embrace new flavors and make them its own’. It ‘reflects a food culture that is both traditional and still evolving’. This is Berlin cuisine through and through.
Herta Heuwer continued to sell the dish until 1974, by which point it was already everywhere, embedded in the fabric of the city and the nation as it rebuilt through the cold war. So, although you can no longer eat at Herta’s original place, where can you get your currywurst in the German capital these days?
The truth is, just about anywhere. You will find a fast-food joint on every single corner of this city. Berlin is a foodie heaven. Because of its nature as a fast-food takeaway dish, it’s very easy to make, as well as to eat. It’s a simple, humble street food – something you can eat while on-the-go, standing up, or at the end of the night stumbling home after many, many beers. But now all currywurst is equal. Naturally, with so many places offering the dish, some are great and some are not so. Not that you would notice after all those German steins, mind.
There are a select few establishments we can highly recommend if you’re in search of the very best.
First up, Konnopke’s Imbiss. ‘Imbiss’ is basically any fast-food kiosk in Germany and Konnopke’s is one of the oldest in the city. It’s been serving currywurst up since 1960 and was the first to do so in East-Germany. Sitting in its original position under the elevated train lines of Prenzlauer Berg, it’s something of a legend on the Berlin street-food scene. Want to try currywurst in the uk? Look no further than Herman ze German.
Meanwhile, ‘Best Worscht’ does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s some of the best currywurst around and it also serves up a number of different options, including vegetarian takes on the dish. The staff are really nice and friendly too, happy to laugh and banter with you whilst you wait. It puts that whole ‘Germans don’t have a sense of humour’ myth to bed.
Another firm favourite is ‘Curry 36’. Indeed, a quick Google review will reveal that many believe this is the best currywurst they’ve ever had. The sausages have that wrinkly skin whilst remaining soft on the inside. The sauce itself has a powerful kick, bursting with flavour. An indication of any great establishment is if the locals clamour it and we guarantee you’ll find everyone from police, cab drivers, office workers, photographers and tourists all here.
Alternatively, if you can’t make it to Berlin any time soon, why not bring Berlin to you? We’ve put together a currywurst recipe that we think you’ll really enjoy!
For the curry powder itself, we have a range of different options and you may want to have some fun experimenting with what works best, just like Herta Heuwer did back in 1949. Check out our worldwide gourmet curry powder selection here.