23 March, 2016

Being Vegan in Germany

When I moved to Germany, I was your typical meat-and-dairy-eating American (although a bit on the healthier side than most) so I had no trouble adapting to the German diet. I gleefully wolfed down schnitzel every chance I got, experimented with unknown dairy products like quark and Schmand, and fell head over heels in love with Weißwurst, by far the best breakfast sausage known to man.

Traditional Weißwurst breakfast with a pretzel, sweet mustard and Hefeweizen (wheat beer).

Then something crazy happened: I decided to go vegetarian. Then, shortly afterwards, something else crazy happened: I decided to go *gasp* vegan! (Quick note: I realize that the trendier term these days for a vegan diet is "plant-based." For those of you new to the lingo, vegan and plant-based are the same thing.)

To anyone who knows me and my eating habits before a year ago, me being vegan may come as a shock. In the past I've made no secret of my undying love for cheese, and unfortunately that has not disappeared just because I've decided to eat in a healthier, more humane and more eco-friendly way. As of now I haven't been able to succeed in being completely vegan for more than a few weeks at a time, and on weekends when Maxim is around I often make exceptions for dairy products. But despite the temptations that Germany throws at me, I intend to eat as vegan as possible (without making myself crazy) for the foreseeable future.

As you might imagine from its reputation as the sausage capital of the world, Germany is not the easiest place to be vegan. The culinary path of least resistance leads toward massive amounts of meat and cheese in almost limitless varieties. (You know all that fancy French cheese that's illegal to import into the United States? Yup, we have that here.) However, it is definitely possible to be vegan in Germany, as long as you are willing to explore new foods and take a bit more care in choosing restaurants. I've found the experience of cooking vegan food for myself to be different than finding vegan food in restaurants, so I will discuss those aspects of the vegan lifestyle separately, along with several others.

Cooking Vegan at Home

Cooking vegan food for myself has been easier than I expected it to be. The hardest part was at the beginning, when I had to train myself to think about food in a completely different way. When I first went vegan I found and subscribed to a ton of vegetarian and vegan food blogs, which helped me expand my menu options and avoid simply trying to remove the meat from my existing diet. If you are thinking about making the switch to veganism, I highly recommend checking out some vegan food blogs for inspiration during those first few months when you're not sure what to cook. A few of my favorites are The Simple Veganista, Vegangela, Pinch of Yum (not strictly a vegan blog but many of her recipes are) and Minimalist Baker.

Now, thanks to food blogs and a fair amount of googling, I don't just follow the standard meat + starch + vegetable formula that I had followed fairly consistently for the past few years. Instead, I have greatly expanded my repertoire to include meals based on lentils, quinoa, tofu, sweet potatoes and even amaranth, a grain that I wasn't even sure existed until a few months ago. I've also discovered the joys of coconut milk, which forms the base of many of the dishes I now love, including the one pictured below. A variety of soups, lentil curries and vegetable stir fries have replaced the lamb steaks and sliced meat and cheese on bread that I used to eat so much of, and I couldn't be happier with how many delicious new dishes I've discovered as a result. I've ended up cooking things I never would have thought to cook before, like curries that are just bursting with flavor.

One of my new go-to dishes: lentil curry with vegetables.

Vegan Grocery Shopping

I was thrilled to discover that the average German supermarket stocks a decent selection of products that feature prominently in vegan meals, such as grains, beans, lentils and coconut milk. Grains like amaranth and quinoa can be hard to find, and quinoa especially can be expensive, but you will be able to find them in many supermarkets, especially health food stores (Bioläden). I wouldn't expect to find a large selection of grains, lentils, seeds or even beans at the discount supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi, but even they are catching on to a wider variety of foods. For example, I've found quinoa and chia seeds at one Aldi location, as well as hummus, which can be hard to find in Germany. If you're looking for coconut milk, avoid the discounters. Aldi had coconut milk once, and Maxim and I stocked up because it was considerably cheaper than at the regular supermarkets. But they haven't had it since, so unless that changes I would plan on buying coconut milk at the regular supermarkets like Edeka or Rewe, or at a Bioladen.

If you're the type of person who doesn't want to completely scrap your existing meal plans and prefers vegan substitutes like veggie burgers and vegan cheese, the widest selection I've found has been at Edeka. Rewe also has a fairly good selection as far as German supermarkets go, but I haven't been totally satisfied with the products they offer (other than the Alpro non-dairy yogurts, which are also sold at other stores). I'm not really into the fake meat and cheese replacements, but of the few that I have tried I've enjoyed the saitan-based organic sausages from Edeka the most. All the supermarkets I've been to, including the discounters like Aldi and Lidl, sell tofu, but they usually only have one or two choices, and if they have two, one of them is often smoked (which I don't like). I've seen silken tofu once, but the standard tofu selection is firm tofu and nothing else.

As far as fruits and vegetables go, the selection at every German supermarket, including the discounters, is ample, both fresh and frozen; however, I have had consistent difficulty finding fresh leafy greens like spinach, chard and kale. Spinach and kale come frozen all year round, but fresh is at best inconsistently available. Strangely, kale is also available precooked in jars year round, which doesn't look like something I would want to eat. Chard seems to be mostly unknown here and I have never seen it in any supermarket in Germany.

Edit: Since writing this post I've discovered the joy that is the local market, or Wochenmarkt in German. There is a market held near me twice a week and this is where I've found the best selection of local produce, including greens like spinach and chard that can be hard to find at other places. Kale is still only frustratingly seasonal, with the season seeming to last five minutes and the kale itself only coming in approx. 1 kilogram bags (more than two pounds), which is way more than I need at a time.

Vegan Food at Restaurants

Finding vegan options at restaurants in Germany can be challenging, and I consider it a success when a restaurant has one or two vegan options on the menu. The hardest places to find vegan options seem to be German restaurants (where it's possible that the only vegan options are sauerkraut, beer and maybe a side salad), Greek restaurants (which are very meat-heavy) and Italian restaurants (dairy is a problem here and is in basically everything). For vegetarians Italian places can be a good option, since there are always at least a few pizza and pasta options without meat, but for vegans they are usually a no-go unless you want spaghetti with tomato sauce every time. I've had good luck at Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, since those cuisines are not dairy-based and they always have non-meat options.

Vegetarian and vegan restaurants are not common, but they are gaining popularity in bigger cities, especially in Berlin. Lindsay and I went to an absolutely superb vegan crepe restaurant in Berlin called Let It Be that both of us highly recommend. It is also possible to find vegan food even in places you wouldn't expect; for example, all of the burger places I've been to in Germany have offered a veggie burger of some sort. Maxim and I even walked by a burger place in Hamburg over the weekend called Peter Pane that had a whole section of its menu devoted to vegetarian and vegan burgers.

Despite the growing popularity of vegan food, vegans in Germany may have to get used to the possibility that there will be a grand total of one dish on any given restaurant's menu that they can eat. It is possible to ask for a dish to be altered, but German restaurants are often not very accommodating in this way, and some restaurants even have it written on their menus that changes to the listed dishes are not allowed. An unfortunate truth of the Western diet is that whatever doesn't have meat in it usually has cheese, and I have found this to be just as true in Germany as it is in the U.S.

Vegan Döner?

I can't give much information about vegan fast food options since I almost never eat fast food, but I will briefly mention the vegan options at your typical Dönerladen. While the majority of their menu items will be off limits, a safe bet is to order a falafel and just ask for no sauce (the sauce is usually yogurt-based). It will be a little dry, but it will feed you in a pinch if nothing else is available. You could also ask for tahini instead, although check first to make sure it's vegan (it isn't always).

Vegan Coffee and Desserts

If you take your coffee without milk, you are already good to go. Black coffee and espresso are available at every cafe and restaurant in Germany and are cheaper than the milk-laden options. You can also opt for soy milk in your coffee at many cafes, although they usually charge extra (soy milk is significantly more expensive than cow's milk in Germany). If you want milk and aren't into soy milk, though, you will be out of luck at most cafes. Only one cafe that I've been to in Germany (Goodies in Leipzig) had more non-dairy milks than just soy milk to choose from. [Edit: Since writing this post I've discovered a cafe in Hildesheim called Black Apron that also offers oat milk in their coffee drinks. I much prefer that to soy milk since the flavor goes fairly well with espresso. I've also seen oat milk at Balz & Balz and oat, soy and rice-almond milks at Happenpappen in Hamburg.]

When it's time to have Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) on a relaxing Sunday afternoon, vegans may also be out of luck when it comes to the Kuchen. Confession time: coffee and cake are two areas in which I consistently make exceptions to my veganism. Firstly, I don't like soy milk in my espresso so I opt for a cappuccino with cow's milk, and secondly, I'm a huge sucker for American cheesecake, which is very "in" right now in German cafes. (I know, I'm a bad vegan!)

Due to this tendency of throwing caution to the wind when I'm around cake, I haven't paid the greatest amount of attention to the availability of vegan cakes, but as far as I've seen they are not widely available. I did, however, see several vegan desserts at a cafe in Hamburg called Elbgold that Maxim and I went to over the weekend, so there is hope! I highly recommend Elbgold, especially but not only because of the vegan desserts (the espresso is also excellent). [Another edit: Black Apron also offers several vegan dessert options.]

So there you have it, my not-so-quick rundown of the possibilities and pitfalls of being vegan in Germany. As I mentioned before, it's not the easiest place to be vegan, but it's also not the hardest. During the past (almost) year of being vegan, I have not found too many obstacles in my way other than my own self-control. And I have no doubt that being vegan in Germany is just going to get easier from here. The more people who get on board, the greater the demand and the more options there will be in the future.

Have I forgotten anything crucial? If you are a vegan in Germany or considering becoming one, let me know about your experiences in the comments section below!

You may also be interested in checking out my more recent blog post where I discuss why I'm vegan in more detail. That post also lists many vegan resources to help you along the way.

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