Lifestyle

What I learned about German food culture by working at a supermarket

Article published on July 23, 2015
Article published on July 23, 2015

Forget the sausage and potatoes - real German food is much more diverse, and sometimes much more bizarre, than the stereotypes would have you believe. An American student working in a Hamburg supermarket.

I work at a German supermarket chain collecting items for customers’ online orders. I get to carry around a neat little scanner and push around a large shopping cart and learn the location of even the most obscure supermarket products, from Studentenfutter (which literally translates to student food and turns out to be a mix of dried fruit and nuts) to mango-flavoured buttermilk (yes, Germans drink straight buttermilk) to Hüttenkäse ("little hut cheese,” which, as you may have guessed, is cottage cheese in English).

I'm a journalism student using this as a part-time job to support myself during my studies. While I don’t mind this job, it is a bit depressing to see how unhealthily people eat – as in the U.S., frozen pizzas, canned soup and microwaveable dinners seem to be staples of many peoples’ diets. Not to mention crisps and sweets  - I have been introduced to a whole array of German candy manufacturers far beyond Milka, Haribo and Ritter Sport, and seen flavours of potato chips I never knew existed, such as bacon and paprika. And of course, let's not forget the dirt-cheap alcohol! One customer today ordered 18 one-litre bottles of Gordon’s Dry Gin, along with 18 bottles of Schweppes’ Indian Tonic Water. (I can only assume he was throwing a party, or else was a serious alcoholic). The cost, for 18 litres of 40% alcohol? €180, at just under €10 a bottle.

Some more things I have learned from German culture is that Americans don't know much about dairy products. In the U.S., our staples are pretty much limited to milk, butter and yoghurt. At bigger supermarkets you can find more products such as cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, and maybe even crème fraîche if you know where to look. In addition to all of these, Germans also have quark, some sort of thick milk-based substance that you can spread on bread or eat with a spoon. In Germany you can also find any of the above products with at least two different percentages of fat content, and even these are different - instead of 1% and 2% milk, you can find 1.3%, 1.5%, 1.8%, 3.5%, and 3.8%, depending on the brand. Yet despite their love of raw-milk cheeses, you won't find any raw milk in a supermarket: rather, though, you can find a type of ultra-pasteurized milk that doesn't need to be refrigerated. These milk products also come in a variety of different flavours, from sweet and fruity flavors for yogurt and buttermilk, to savoury flavors like herbs, paprika or garlic for cream cheese, quark and butter.

In addition, living in Germany has taught me that there are many more types of bread in the world than I was previously aware of. Regular "toast" bread isn't so popular here, and plain fluffy white bread is hard to come by. Instead, northern Europeans prefer anything from a medium-dark whole wheat bread, to nut breads, to extremely dark rye breads. I've seen sunflower seed bread, pumpkin seed bread, carrot bread, potato bread, whole grain bread and protein bread, just to name a few. If a German invites you over for breakfast, you can probably expect at least two different types of sliced bread with various toppings to spread on it, including quark, cream cheese, cheese slices, cold cuts, butter, jam or Nutella. In Holland and Belgium, they put chocolate sprinkles on their bread. Bread with stuff on it is considered a full meal in this part of the world - just look at the Danish national dish, smørrebrød.

One weird cultural phenomenon that I can't believe hasn't made them more famous outside of Germany is Germans' love of carbonated water. Bottled water in 1.5-litre six-packs or twelve-litre crates is one of my least favourite orders to fill at the grocery store, partly because I'm judging the customers for wasting money and destroying the environment, partly because they're really heavy to carry and haul around, and partly because it's nearly impossible to find the right one they ordered, because there are so many different types. In addition to all of the different companies that produce bottled water, there are also different levels of carbonation, from natural or still water, to mineral, medium and "sprudel." While my roommate and I prefer not to waste our meagre student earnings on something we can get from the tap for free, most "proper" German households have a stack of large 1.5-litre bottles of carbonated water at the bottom of the pantry, to drink during mealtime. Some Germans seem to take it as an affront to their hospitality when I request tap water instead - they say "no, it's okay, we have mineral water, you don't have to drink from the tap."

In Germany, early summer is strawberry and asparagus season. At some point in May or June, hundreds of little strawberry-shaped kiosks begin popping up around town to sell fresh local asparagus and fruit. Strawberries are the most popular, but I've also seen raspberries, blueberries and cherries for sale. Asparagus also has a special place in German food culture. I still don't fully understand why, but I think it's partly because it's a sign of summer, and partly because people grew up eating it as kids so it holds a special meaning for them. While I'm used to green asparagus from central Washington, grilled or steamed or eaten fresh, Germans prefer the thicker, blander stalks of white asparagus, most commonly cooked in an equally-bland asaparagus cream soup (appeal of which I have yet to understand). Many restaurants even put a special "asparagus menu" insert into their regular menus during this season.

Although you might find a schnitzel or a wurst at your German Oma's house, the stuff most Germans eat on a day-to-day basis today is much different than it was fifty years ago. Frozen pizzas and candy bars have a near-universal appeal in the western world, and Germany is no exception. Just be on the lookout for weird dishes involving milk or asparagus while you're there.

A version of this article first appeared in Alison Haywood's blog, Following the Wanderlust.