It’s an unusual restaurant, and it serves an unusual dish. Oberhafen Kantine is a traditional German eatery huddled beneath a railway bridge in a forgotten corner of Hamburg’s historic docklands. A victim of subsidence, the tiny building lurches forward like a tipsy sailor, offering visitors a strange sensation of disorientation. But things get even stranger with the arrival of the local speciality dish: labskaus.
Imagine a dollop of lurid pink slop festooned with fried eggs, sunny side up, as if to hide the florid puree underneath out of shame. In attendance are chunks of beetroot, pickled gherkins and a rollmop herring. It looks like something the aforementioned tipsy sailor left behind outside on the pavement. But - and you’ll have to trust me on this - it’s actually quite nice.
What is Labskaus?
Labskaus is a local delicacy entwined with the social history of Hamburg. Back in the days when ships would sail for months on end, they needed cheap food supplies that would stay fresh. The pink slop of labskaus consists of salted beef, onions, potatoes and pickled beetroot, which were traditionally mashed up like porridge by the ship’s cook. Along with pickled gherkins and rollmops, they were ideal ingredients for long voyages.
The recipe is thought to date back to the 18th century or beyond, and there are as many variations of it as there are ports from the Baltic states to the Irish Sea. Oberhafen Kantine chef Sebastian Libbert explains: “The dish is typical for almost all northern European harbour cities. Hence, you find it in Bremen, Kiel and Hamburg (in Germany); Sweden, Norway, Lithuania... It is the dish for poor sailors.” Norwegian ‘lapskaus’ resembles a meat and vegetable stew with carrots or turnips, and is brown in colour rather than florid pink. Similarly in England, it’s a stew with beef or mutton, potatoes and carrots called ‘lobscouse’ or ‘scouse’, a term which is also used to describe the stew-loving citizens of Liverpool, where the dish was popular among impoverished seamen. Some say the word lobscouse is derived from ‘lob’s coarse’ referring to bits of leftover food ‘lobbed’ together for ‘coarse’ or rough sailors.
How to prepare authentic labskaus
In Hamburg, arguments rage over the correct way to prepare authentic labskaus. Some purists believe herring is a Scandinavian import to the recipe, and therefore surplus to requirements. Others insist rollmop herring should be a part of the mash, rather than a side garnish. One thing is certain, despite its challenging appearance, mushy consistency and complex sweet-sour flavour profiles, labskaus is enjoying something of a renaissance.
“It is becoming more and more popular again,” says Libbert. “Not only with tourists, but also locals and younger people are ordering it. In general, ‘poor man’s cuisine’ is having a revival.” Aren’t people put off by the appearance of the dish? “Of course. Some things will never change,” admits Libbert. Because of this, he occasionally offers deconstructed labskaus, where separate portions of beetroot, potato and herring reside next to a sautéed brisket of beef or breast of veal - and a fried egg. “We explain to guests that if they put these components in a meat grinder, the result is labskaus Oberhafen Kantinen-style.”
Labskaus with a gourmet twist
Nearby, at Hamburg’s upmarket VLET restaurant, deconstructed labskaus takes a further gourmet twist. Here it is presented as a clear soup with salted beef, northern German dumplings and yellow beetroot (pictured above). “The beef is put in a vacuum with beetroot juice and marinated for 24 hours. Then we boil it,” says head chef Thomas Sampl. “We also have a very special ingredient from northern Germany called mustard cucumber (Senfgurken), which are marinated sweet and used in small cubes. Then we use a small chicken’s egg, poached.”
The dish has been on VLET’s menu for seven years but, perhaps understandably, it gets a mixed reaction from diners. “When (older people) hear what it is they think we are a little bit crazy because it's a traditional dish. But they like it when they eat it,” says Sampl. “For younger people, it's very easy to get. They are interested in the soup because the original labskaus is so heavy, it's not ideal for modern cuisine.”
Both young and old congregate each year at the world’s largest labskaus festival in Wilhelmshaven. During the celebration, the little coastal town in Lower Saxony produces over three tonnes of labskaus, which is heartily consumed by thousands of hungry revellers while bands play and choirs sing ancient sea shanties. Labskaus might be the ugly duckling of European regional cuisine, but it has bags of personality, and personality goes a long way.