For the Germans, the dish is untouchable, like a national treasure – the Prussian culinary pride and joy. And yet this sausage garnished with tomato and curry has a very recent history that, in a kind of anthropologic, gastronomic oddness, has been transformed into legend. And, as with all legends, there are many different versions.
According to the most credible version, the birth of the currywurst goes back to 4 September 1945. We’re in a Berlin that’s been devastated by war, by the cold, by its citizens who have no money to spend. Herta Heuwer sets up a humble kiosk (imbiss) in Charlottenburg at the corner of Kant Straße and Kaiser-Friedrich-Straße. To warm up, she cooks sausage and puts everything she has on it: tomato sauce, onions and curry (the only exotic spice present in the city at the time). In 1959, she asks for and obtains a patent for this special sauce, and in just a few years, the currywurst becomes a kind of local fetish.
According to other versions, the dish was created in Hamburg. And still others maintain that the currywurst was already in vogue during the Thirties. There’s even a novel that rewrites the dish’s history, Die Entdeckund der Currywurst (The Discovery of Currywurst) by Uwe Timm. Currywurst is the most popular street food in Berlin, and this a universally accepted fact; at the very most, one can slightly vary in the choice of the type of sausage or the condiment. But the changes end here.
You can, for instance order your currywurst ohne darm, without the skin (pork intestine) or with skin, mit darm. Traditionally, it’s eaten without skin, but real foodies often opt with the crunchy “peel”.
Another element that may vary is the spiciness of the sauce. And these are the only allowed extravagances – with regards to the rest, a currywurst must be boiled and then grilled, cut into bite-sized pieces and then served with white bread (Brötchen) or French fries.
If you happen to be in Berlin, you shouldn’t leave without trying a currywurst; with its strong, sweet-and-sour, spicy flavour, it’s perfect with a bitter beer. The food snobs love the Konnopke’s Imbiss kiosk, one of the most popular in the city and perhaps its most famous. Here, instead of the ubiquitous cold beer, the sausage is often enjoyed with a bottle of champagne. The same practice goes for those who seek out a more chic setting: flues and porcelain cups at the Hotel Adlon and at Bier's Kudamm 195, on Berlin’s most elegant street.
Konnopke’s Imbiss Schönhauser Allee 44B, beneath the U2 metro station of Eberswaldenstraße Tel. +49 (0)30 4427765, website Konnopke’s Imbiss
What’s important is that you eat your currywurst while it’s still warm and that it comes with a generous portion of curry sauce. At the kiosks open until late at night, you’ll find businessmen and manual labourers, alternative artists and tourists.
In a way, the imbiss reflects the democratic, relaxed mood of the city. And, like with all street food, it facilitates social interaction. Because currywurst is eaten in open-air kiosks – even on the icy cold winter nights – and it’s common to find yourself side by side with a stranger, teeth chattering, and you are immediately united by the currywurst ritual, which provides much-needed warmth and calories. This is one of the reasons Berliners love the dish so much, and don’t want to see it changed.
Germans are quite rigid when it comes to culinary tradition. They’re open to adopting “foreign” specialties like the doner kebab, but rigorously committed to maintaining their own. And while Berlin is a thriving city that is constantly changing, the currywurst is a fixed certainty. Can it ever be transformed? Can its essence be preserved while perhaps adapting the dish to haute-cuisine standards? There have been attempts. Like the vegan version proposed by the delicious fast food restaurant Yellow Sunshine, which serves it with organic beer or fruit juice. But proposing a currywurst referendum to the Berliners would be a dangerous initiative indeed.
Yellow Sunshine Wiener Straße 19 Tel. +49 (0)30 69598720, website Yellow Sunshine
In the wake of the enthusiasm surrounding the opening of the Museum of Currywurst (see attachment), Thomas Kammeier and Kolja Kleeberg, two of the most talented chefs on Berlin’s eating scene, are trying to bring a gourmet touch to the dish. It’s likely that something interesting will come of their endeavour, but for now it remains a purely intellectual exercise. Today, for a true Berliner, the currywurst is one thing only: the original dish invented by Frau Heuwer.
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