15 November, 2015

Foods That Are (Nearly) Impossible to Find in Germany

As you may have noticed, this blog has been in a bit of a hibernation period lately. This is not entirely intentional, but so far this semester has been very hectic and I just haven't gotten around to blogging too much. More on my hectic semester in a future post!

Today I had the sudden inspiration to write about the food items that I just can't seem to find here in Germany. I remember before I left for Spain in 2010, which was my first time outside the United States, people warned me that I wouldn't be able to find peanut butter in Spain. This didn't particularly bother me since I don't like peanut butter (let the indignant and disbelieving comments begin!), but there are several gaps in the German supermarket selection that I have not taken in stride quite as well.

1. Vanilla extract

This may seem insignificant, but I wanted to bake something a few weeks ago which called for vanilla extract and hit a brick wall. I searched and searched in the supermarket (it doesn't help that the supermarket across the street is horribly organized) and I was finally forced to admit defeat. The only options I found were whole vanilla beans, vanilla powder, and vanilla sugar (sugar with vanilla powder in it). I even looked in the health food store, and the only additional option I found there was what I can only describe as vanilla bits (seemed to be roughly chopped dried vanilla beans). I opted for the whole vanilla bean, but it seems like such a waste to use an entire vanilla bean when a teaspoon of vanilla extract would have done the trick. I could make my own vanilla extract, but with a single vanilla bean costing 2.49 euros (about $2.70 USD) and the vanilla extract recipe I found calling for 7-8 beans, that would become very costly very quickly.

2. Brown sugar

Another American baking necessity, brown sugar is nowhere to be found in Germany. There is a product called brauner Zucker, which literally translates to "brown sugar," but it is by no means the same product. German brown sugar is what Americans would call unbleached sugar. It's basically normal sugar that hasn't gone through the bleaching process to make it white, but it has exactly the same consistency as white sugar and none of the stickiness of "real" brown sugar. The only solution to this problem that I have heard of is to make your own brown sugar by adding molasses to regular sugar in a specific ratio, but I haven't tried this out myself.

3. Canned pumpkin

Since it's fall and pumpkin season is in full swing, I naturally wanted to do some baking with pumpkin, particularly now that my Bloglovin' feed is filled with pumpkin recipes. (Incidentally, the recipe that led me to this canned pumpkin discovery is the same one which brought about the vanilla bean issue.) I already had a vague idea that canned pumpkin might be hard to find, but even going to the biggest, most promising supermarket I could find did not produce any canned pumpkin. After poking around on some expat forums (and wading through judgmental posts about those lazy Americans who don't know how to cook pumpkins themselves), I came across one person's discovery that the closest you can get to canned pumpkin in Germany is -- get this -- pumpkin-flavored baby food! Yuck! I guess that means I'll be making my pumpkin from scratch. Oh wait...

4. Pie pumpkins

I'm certainly not opposed to starting from scratch, but here I ran into yet another problem. The typical pumpkin known in America as a pie pumpkin isn't available here either. The pumpkins available in supermarkets here are more accurately classified as a different kind of squash and are known as Hokkaido squash or Hokkaido pumpkins. They are what the German population thinks of as a normal pumpkin but they certainly are not normal to Americans like me. Here's the difference.

Pie pumpkin:
Looks like the pumpkins used for carving on Halloween but smaller

(Source: pixabay)

Hokkaido pumpkin:
More pear-shaped, stem more flexible, bottom not flat, bumpier skin, can be more red than orange

hokkaido pumpkin
(Source: pixabay)

The taste and texture are also slightly different, although it's been so long since I've had what I consider "normal" pumpkin that this could just be my imagination.

5. Cilantro

This one is part of why I included the "nearly" in parentheses in the title. I have succeeded in finding cilantro once, but it was only sold as a whole potted plant. To anyone who knows my track record with plants it will come as no surprise that my cilantro plant is no longer with us. I haven't been able to find it again, and not once have I seen it sold fresh in bunches or dried with the spices. It just isn't used in German cuisine, which is reflected in the fact that German doesn't even have a unique word for cilantro. Cilantro is actually the leaves of the coriander plant, so if there is ever a need to talk about cilantro in German (which is rarely the case) you have to say frischer Koriander ("fresh coriander") to specify that you mean the leaves and not the spice made from the seeds.


Flour is of course readily available in Germany, but I've included it in this post because of the complexity and confusion involved in finding the right kind. The most common type of flour in Germany is made from wheat, just like in America, but after that the similarities end. The standard names for the types of flour that Americans are used to, such as all-purpose flour, bread flour, pastry flour, etc., will be absolutely no help here in Germany. Instead of easy-to-remember names, flour varieties in Germany are marked with a three-digit number to specify... what exactly? I have no idea.

For example, the flour I have in my kitchen cabinet right now is called "type 405 wheat flour." What does the 405 mean? No clue. As far as I know, type 405 is the standard type used in most recipes, but I've also seen other 400s as well as numbers in the 500s. The first time I bought flour in Germany was for my host family when I was an au pair, and they gave me absolutely no instruction before sending me to the store. After 10 minutes of staring blankly at the rows and rows of incomprehensible three-digit codes, I just grabbed one at random. It ended up being type 550, and when I got it home one of the girls remarked with surprise that I had chosen that one, which I gathered was because they don't usually buy such high-quality flour (or something like that). I should probably find out what the difference really is sometime...

Life as an expat is certainly never boring. Whether it's confusing flour taxonomies or unfamiliar varieties of squash, there's always something new and surprising to learn!

To the other expats out there: What have I forgotten to mention? Are there any other foods you can't find in Germany?


  1. This post is really relevant to me because today I tried backing a white cake with coffee buttercream frosting and it turned out...different. The oven settings, ingredients, amounts, tools and back forms used--they're ALL different. It made backing a basic cake a hassle, and after all the work to figure it out, the cake didn't even turn out to be....cake/ t wasn't bad, but the sugar in the "crust" of the cake caramelized and turned crunchy, but the inside was soft and fluffy. Definitely never had a basic white birthday-style cake come out like that before!

    Also, 405 flour is "cake flour," 550 is "All purpose" (essentially, but not exactly), and 1050 is for bread.

    1. Thanks for the explanation of the flour types! You're right, with all the elements like oven settings and ingredients being different it does make things... interesting. My main source of confusion when baking is still the question of Umluft or not? I'd never seen an oven with an Umluft setting before I came to Germany (I don't even know what it's called in English) so now I can never tell if the temperature I'm baking at is the really the right one (since Umluft baking temps are different than non-Umluft temps). Confusion!

  2. Amazing post dear! Have a nice day:)


  3. Hey Danielle, if you ever need cilantro again, try at an Asian store. I usually go there when I need some. Greetings from Istanbul :)

  4. In case you want to know some details on the flour types: It shows the amount of minerals (in mg) contained in 100g.

    So type 405 means 405 mg of minerals in 100g flour.

    The more of the outer parts of a wheat corn is removed during the milling, the less minerals will be in the flour and the finer it is.

    So type 405 flour can be mixed up better and will result in a smoother dough.

    (Please do not mind my english - I'm doing my very best :)

    1. Thanks so much for explaining this! Now I finally know :) It makes a lot of sense when combined with McKaley's explanation that 405 is for cake and 1050 is for bread, since cake typically needs to be a smoother dough.
      (Your English sounds great, by the way :) )