Our current unit in German class is about food and eating, and our workbook’s section on German ‘Eating culture’ (‘Essenkultur’) has helped explain some (but not all!) of the foibles of the German grocery store. In Germany, traditionally lunch is the main meal, with dinner and breakfast being bread and cheese or sausage. You eat lunch at work with your colleagues, in the canteen. Justin’s office offers a large, all-you-can-eat buffet (for only 4 Euro!) with vegetarian and meat options and at least three different types of potatoes. Even my small language school has a teeny 5-table canteen, with sandwiches, hot entrees and cake (more about the cake to follow). Dinner, which is often referred to as ‘Abendbrot’ (‘evening bread’), is traditionally bread and wurst, which explains why what seems like half our grocery store is bread and wurst. Every so often I will buy a small packet of salami or ham for myself, but the options are quite dizzying and I usually stick to what I recognize.
Vegetarian options are not as limited as one might think. Many Germans seem to have adopted vegetarian diets as a health choice, and so Justin’s canteen, for example, has an entire vegetarian buffet line – however, I’ve heard from him and his colleagues that it has the same options every day, so it’s a little less helpful than it could be. We are lucky to live by a large (by German standards) grocery store that stocks a wide range of vegetarian proteins. However, many of them are kind of gross faux-sausages that don’t look too appealing. Since Justin eats chicken, faux schnitzel is also a bit unnecessary, but it’s definitely available. Tofu is usually a diet staple for us (I cook a lot of stir fries) but the tofu available in the grocery store is vacuum-packed, probably to increase its shelf-stability, and somehow has kind of a funny smell and taste to it. However, they do have tofu ‘gehacktes’ (‘minced meat’), which makes a pretty good fake Bolognese sauce. In the Asian grocery stores, you can find plenty of normal, water-bath tofu that has the expected taste (or lack thereof), along with curry pastes and all the other spices that seem to so intimidate the Germans. Also common here are ‘bio’ (organic) stores, and those have plenty of vegetarian options (seitan, beans, tempeh). Unfortunately, these stores tend to be kind of expensive.
Baking in Germany is kind of funny. All of the leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, baking soda – if you can find it) and vanilla come in single-serve packets. I assume German baking recipes will call for a packet of baking powder like American recipes call for a stick of butter. Finding these things in bulk (and by ‘bulk’, I mean, ‘containers with more than a teaspoon in them’) was a quest I went on during our first weeks here. First, I went down an Internet rabbit hole where I discovered that German baking powder is ‘single-acting’, while American baking powder is ‘double-acting’. Apparently this difference is less problematic when making something like banana bread, where you mix and put in the oven right away, but can cause problems in cookies that you bake in batches, because the German powder has already exhausted its leavening potential. Anyway, I found some bulk packages of baking powder and baking soda at the Indian grocery store here. I suspect the powder is single-acting, but I am unlikely to make cookies in our balky, teeny oven anytime soon, and it works fine for the cakes and breads I’ve made.
I think baking might be a little uncommon here, since everyone seems to buy a slice of cake at all times. I’ve heard that Britons have the worst sweet tooth in Europe, but Germans must be a close second. Every afternoon coffee break includes a slice of cake, and cafes often display huge cakes on the bar to entice patrons. Even the canteen in my language school always has two large cakes on the ordering counter to tempt the students with. Friday, I was in line at the Backerei to buy some bread for the weekend (bread, pastries and desserts for sale in the supermarket are solely decorative or sold to unsuspecting foreigners) and the two patrons in front of me ordered sweets: a woman got three large slices of cheesecake with strawberry topping, and a man got two large slices of the same cheesecake and added some sort of large nut-coated, frosted coffee cake.
Much like how the baking supplies come in packets, for some reason you can get condiments in toothpaste-style tubes. Mustard, mayonnaise, and ‘remouladen’ (a sort of tartar sauce/remoulade-style mayonnaise-based sauce) are all available in weird little tubes, to squeeze on your sandwiches. They also come in normal containers (well, somewhat normal, the mustard is in fancy, unsealed jars), but sometimes I buy the tubes for the sheer entertainment value. The tube of mayonnaise I bought came with a star tip, perhaps for gussying up your appetizers with shaped dollops of mayo? Anyway, tubes of mustard are a pretty good thing to smuggle back as a souvenir for friends.
This past week, Thursday was Ascension Day, which apparently doubles as Father’s Day or Men’s Day in Germany for reasons no one can seem to fully explain. On sale for Father’s Day in the grocery store we had vodka, large cans of Kölsch beer, and chocolate. This article describes it as “Men’s Day” and explains some shenanigans that went on. We didn’t see anything described in the article, but a friend in Greifswald in far northern Germany said there was clearly some drunken cycling going on in his neck of the woods.
One last bit about eating culture – the bread here comes in a huge variety, so I’ve started tracking the different breads I buy on the sidebar menu (visible if you click on the three-bar equals sign at the top right of the page).