02 February, 2016

Foods I'd Never Heard of Before I Moved to Germany

In my previous post about the things I'd never heard of before moving to Germany I promised a "Things I'd Never Heard Of: Food Edition." Well, here it is, as promised! To be perfectly honest, before I came to Germany I had a very limited idea of what German food was. I pictured dishes laden with meat and potatoes and that was about it. Although German cuisine does include a lot of meat and potatoes, that's not all there is to German food, and some of the details surprised me. In no particular order, here are 10 of the foods (and drinks) I had never heard of before I moved to Germany:

1. Vanilla sugar

I already wrote about the vanilla issue in another post, but it belongs squarely in this one as well. For my entire life, the forms of vanilla I knew and loved were whole vanilla beans or more commonly vanilla extract (whole vanilla beans soaked in alcohol). Then I got to Germany, and suddenly this strange thing called vanilla sugar came into my life -- and vanilla extract sadly disappeared. Vanilla sugar is like cinnamon sugar except that instead of cinnamon it has powdered vanilla in it. I still wholly prefer vanilla extract, though, and I am still searching for a sustainable source over here in Deutschland.

2. Poppy seed cake

Cake is confusing in Germany and is a topic that I may devote an entire post to in the future, but for now we'll talk about poppy seed cake. Before I came to Germany, I thought of poppy seeds as those things on the outside of bagels or in lemon poppyseed muffins, and it never crossed my mind that they could be used in any other way. How clueless I was.

Thanks to Lindsay for the picture :)

Poppy seed cake, or Mohnkuchen, is a standard in many German cafes. (I realize that the one pictured above looks a lot like pie; poppy seed cake comes in several forms and this is just one of them.) I've been seeing it in cafes and bakeries ever since I arrived, and up until recently I had written it off as something I was not interested in trying. It just didn't jump out at me screaming, "I'm yummy, please eat me!" Instead it whimpered, "Hi, I think I might be cake?" I finally tried it a few weeks ago and it was... pretty good! It was less sweet than I expect cake to be, almost at the savory end of the spectrum, and the poppy seed filling was quite dense. But honestly it was tastier than I expected and I would eat it again. It just won't be my first choice if there is also, for example, chocolate raspberry cheesecake to be had.

3. Milchreis

Boy was I in for a surprise the first time I tried to make rice pudding in Germany! I had seen one of the girls in my host family making what I assumed was rice pudding with Milchreis  (literally "milk rice"), so when I went about making rice pudding for myself I decided to use this type of rice as well. After going through the usual rice pudding recipe, with eggs for thickening, it came out... different. I was puzzled, until I discovered a key characteristic of Milchreis: it thickens by itself. To make "rice pudding," all I had to do was add four parts milk to one part Milchreis and cook for 30 minutes while stirring. No extra thickener required. Needless to say I felt a bit silly, but how was I to know that when I couldn't have understood the directions on the package anyway? I'm still not sure exactly how this rice thickens by itself, since the ingredients don't list any extra thickening agent. If anyone knows, please tell me!

4. Quark

No, I'm not talking about the subatomic particle, but rather the dairy product. As far as I've been able to figure out, quark is a type of cheese similar to cream cheese but slightly thicker and not as creamy. It's used instead of cream cheese in German cheesecake and is often eaten like yogurt with fruit mixed in. Despite its similarity to both yogurt and cream cheese (two of my favorite dairy products), quark has not succeeded in winning me over. Why would I stray from yogurt and cream cheese when we already have such a good relationship (my partial veganism notwithstanding)?

5. Sausage in a jar

Germany is well known for its various sausages, so I was not surprised to find way more types of sausage in Germany than are usually available in the U.S. What did surprise me, however, was the multitude of ways in which sausage can be packaged, including in jars and tins.

Despite the appearance suggesting otherwise, these are all different types of sausage. Before I got to Germany, I thought sausage consisted solely of the long, hot dog-type concoctions of meat stuffed inside a cylindrical wrapping, but apparently there are nearly endless ways of packaging pulverized animal parts that all count as sausage. Some of the sausages in the photos above may even be spreadable.

6. Ouzo

Ouzo is not technically German but I heard of it for the first time in Germany. It is a clear, 80-proof alcohol from Greece made with herbs, including anise, so needless to say I don't really like it (I find anise in almost any form repulsive).

It's often served in Greek restaurants as a shot after the main meal is finished, and I have to admit it does make the stomach feel nice. When it is offered to me in such a situation I don't say no.

7. Schnitzel

I have a confession to make: I didn't know what schnitzel was before I came to Germany for the first time. I had heard the word countless times and I knew it had something to do with German/Austrian food, but I would not have been able to tell you what it was. This gap in my knowledge was quickly remedied with a trip to a schnitzel restaurant in Berlin with the biggest schnitzel I'd ever seen! Granted this isn't saying much since I'd never seen schnitzel before, but I can definitely say that I've never seen a bigger schnitzel since. So, what is schnitzel? It's a slice of pork that's breaded, fried and (true to the German stereotype) usually served with potatoes. Basically it's a huge chicken nugget but made out of pork (usually) and much more delicious.

This is the schnitzel from Schnitzelei in Berlin. Yes, it is bigger than the plate.
(Photo from Foursquare, used with permission)

8. Gooseberries

I'm still not convinced that gooseberry is really the name of this fruit (it sounds so silly!), but my dictionary tells me that's the translation for Stachelbeere so I guess I'll go with it! These are gooseberries:

Source: pixabay.com

Source: pixabay.com

According to my research (Magic School Bus reference, anyone?), gooseberries are a species of fruit related to currants and are native to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia. Since I've never eaten one before (not that I'm aware of, anyway) I can't say what they taste like, but they are often used in cakes or tarts.

9. Persimmons

This is another word, like schnitzel, that I had heard before in my life but I didn't actually know what it referred to. Known in German and sometimes also in English as a Kaki, a persimmon (or more specifically an Asian or Japanese persimmon) is an orange, stoneless fruit native to several Asian countries including Japan and China. The best way I can describe the texture is like a cross between an apple and a nectarine.

Source: pixabay.com

They seem to be decently popular among the German population, but I for one am not a huge fan. I don't find the flavor to be very satisfying, and I would much rather eat a nectarine or some grapes if given the option.

10. Radler

And last but not least, we have Radler. Also known here in northern Germany as Alster or Alsterwasser, Radler is a drink made from half beer and half lemon-lime soda. This, like many of the things above, seemed strange to me when I first arrived, since Americans do not make a habit of mixing their beer with anything else, but this type of mixture is very popular in Germany. The traditional Radler is pilsner (the "standard" type of German beer) mixed with Sprite, but I've also seen wheat beer with Sprite as well as pilsner with everything from berries and guarana to fig and cactus.

And there you have it: 10 of the German foods and drinks I'd never heard of before heading across the pond. There are of course more than this, as well as German variations of foods that I already knew, but your attention is probably waning so I'll rein it in at ten. And it's not just new foods that I've discovered in Germany, there are also many typical American products that can't be found in Germany (the food peculiarities work both ways). To find out what some of those American peculiarities are, check out my post Foods That Are (Nearly) Impossible to Find in Germany.


  1. i am often horrified by all the weird meat products here in Germany! So gross! I'm a bit of a foodie so a few things that were new to me as an Australian- lack of self raising flour (now i have to use baking powder), fermented yoghurt drinks, stews in tins, schwarzwurtzel, pomelos....so many things hehe

    1. Yes, there are so many gross-looking meat products here! My least favorite is the "sausage" made out of gelatin with random pieces of meat stuck inside. Ewww!

  2. Okay, so the poppyseed cake looks delicious. I love poppyseeds. Wonder if I can find a recipe. I found your blog from the Boost Your Blog FB group. So glad I did! Looking for something new and interesting to read.

    1. So glad you found my blog! Thanks for the comment :)

  3. "According to my research..." Ha ha! Love this, thank you. Btw it really is called Gooseberries, I had some in my (Canadian) backyard in my old house. We never did anything with them, tried to eat them as is but ew too sour.

  4. Such a good list. I don't even realize the differences anymore until I go home and realize something is not standard everywhere. Milchreis is totally my guilty pleasure treat.

    1. I'm surprised that I still notice so many differences here in Germany. It happens when I'm in the U.S. too of course, I see something and I'm like, "Oh right, that's a thing..."

  5. Danielle, to give you some information about "Milchreis": it's a special "round grain" rice which contains a kind of natural starch which dissolves during slow cooking with milk. That's why you don't need any extra thickening agent ;-) By the way, they also cook/eat/use milk rice here in México (where I live), it's a well known dessert, not a main course like in Germany (where I was born) And some more info: a real "Wiener Schnitzel" has to be made from veal, just the "common" German Schnitzel is made from pork. Guten Appetit ;-)

    1. Thanks for the information! I finally know the secrets of Milchreis now! :)

  6. Great blog. I always find it fascinating to read about all the little differences between life in one country and life in another. About the gooseberries, they are popular here in the UK too - mainly in jam or as a pie filling. I think they would be a bit sour to just pop one in your mouth! The name doesn't really sound silly as - here anyway - it's pronounced something like guhzbry. It's weird that Americans haven't heard of common fruits, the classic one being blackcurrants. I was astonished to read somewhere that until recently they were banned in the US!

    1. I'm fascinated by such differences, too, which is why I write about them fairly often on this blog.
      Currants (black and otherwise) are common here in Germany too. They almost made this list as they are nearly non-existent in the U.S., but I had heard of them before and knew what they were so I decided to leave them out. I didn't realize they were banned before in the U.S.! Although I'm kind of not surprised, the U.S. tends to ban things unnecessarily when it comes to food.

  7. All the sweet stuff sounds excellent. Sausage in a jar... Not so much!