Virtually every part of Hamburg has good dining options, ranging from humble to fine. Unsurprisingly, seafood is a favourite in this port city, with everything from traditional regional specialities to sushi on offer. You'll also find a truly global variety of foods reflecting this city's international links and traditions, but don't neglect the widely available local specialities.
On paper, Germany's (and Hamburg's) best-known specialities appear deceptively simple: wurst, brot, kartoffeln and sauerkraut (sausage, bread, potatoes and pickled cabbage). But, as any local will tell you, the devil is in the detail. Where else will you find so many kinds of sausage, such a cornucopia of bread, and potatoes in so many guises? Elevated to near art forms, these staples both unite and divide the country: ingredients are often similar but regional recipes interpret them totally differently.
In exile in California in 1941, German playwright Bertolt Brecht confessed that what he missed most about his homeland was the bread. Tasty and textured, often mixing wheat and rye flour, and available in 300 varieties, German bread is a world-beater. A visit to an old-fashioned bäckerei (bakery), with yeasty smells wafting from ovens, bakers elbow-deep in dough and staff who remember customers by name, is a treat.
'Black' rye bread (schwarzbrot) is actually brown, but a much darker shade than the slightly sour bauernbrot – divine with a slab of butter. Pumpernickel bread is steamed instead of baked, making it extra moist, and actually is black. Vollkorn means wholemeal, while bread coated in sunflower seeds is sonnenblumenbrot. If you insist on white bread (weissbrot), the Germans have that, too.
Fresh bread rolls (called brötchen in Hamburg) can be covered in poppy seeds (mohnbrötchen), cooked with sweet raisins (rosinenbrötchen) or sprinkled with salt (salzstangel).
And here we have the quintessential German side dish that many outside the country find impossible to fathom: sauerkraut. OK, we won't. It's shredded cabbage, doused in white-wine vinegar and slowly simmered. But if you haven't at least tried rotkohl (the red-cabbage version of the white-cabbage sauerkraut), you don't know what you're missing.
Chipped, boiled, baked, mashed, fried: Germans are almost as keen on potatoes as the Russians. The kartoffel is not only Vegetable Nummer Eins (first-choice vegetable) in any meat-and-three-veg dish, it can also be incorporated into any course of a meal, from potato soup (kartoffelsuppe) as a starter, to potato salad (kartoffelsalat) with smoked fish, or potato pancakes (reibekuchen or kartoffelpuffer) as a sweet, sugar-sprinkled treat. In Hamburg and surrounding areas, you may find kartoffelkeller, literally a potato cellar where they serve very little else.
In the Middle Ages, German peasants found a way to package and disguise animals' less appetising bits and the humble wurst (sausage) was born. Today, it's a noble and highly respected element of German cuisine, with strict rules determining varietal authenticity.
There are more than 1500 sausage types, all commonly served with bread and a sweet (süss) or spicy (scharf) mustard (senf).
Bratwurst is made from minced pork, veal and spices, and it is cooked in different ways: boiled in beer, baked with apples and cabbage, stewed in a casserole, grilled, or barbecued.
Hamburg, along with Berlin and the Ruhrgebiet, claims to have invented the takeaway currywurst (slices of sausage topped with curry powder and ketchup).
No period ranks higher on the culinary calendar than spargelzeit (asparagus season), when Germans devour great quantities of (mostly) white asparagus, which is generally considered tastier than the green variety. The harvesting of the first crop kicks off in mid-April and the season lasts until 24 June, the feast day of St John the Baptist. You'll find restaurants with asparagus menus and whole books devoted to the subject, while many towns go so far as to hold asparagus festivals in May and June.
If there's one Hamburg, or northern German dish that Hamburgers love more than any other, it's labskaus. The constituent ingredients are potato, cured beef, herrings and beetroot (the latter gives it the rather lurid colour that distinguishes true labskaus) and although it's usually called a stew, 'mash' would be more accurate. It's usually served topped with an egg.
The origins of the dish are rather simple – labskaus is made from ingredients that kept well on long ship journeys and was therefore known as a sailor's dish, at once nourishing and easy to prepare.
Finding the perfect Fischbrötchen (fish roll or fish sandwich) is something of a Hamburg obsession, at once lunchtime snack or late-night comfort food for those on the way home from a big night out. It's a very simple dish, with a piece of pickled herring (sometimes salted, sometimes sweet) served in a small roll, often with a token piece of lettuce.
History of the Hamburger
A classic Calvin and Hobbes comic strip once asked if hamburgers were made out of people from Hamburg. And while Hamburg’s citizens are, of course, known as Hamburgers, it was the city’s role as an international port that gave rise to its most famous namesake.
The origins of the ubiquitous fast food date back to the 12th century. The Tartars (Mongolian and Turkish warriors) wedged pieces of beef between their saddles and the horses’ backs, softening the meat as they rode until it was tender enough to be eaten raw, and the practice soon spread to Russia. By the 17th century, Hamburg ships brought ‘steak tartare’ (named after the Tartars) back to Germany, which visiting seafarers then referred to as ‘steak in the Hamburg style’. These patties of salted minced beef – usually slightly smoked and mixed with breadcrumbs and onions – were highly durable, making them ideal for long sea voyages.
Hamburg emigrants to America continued making the patties, which they served in bread. (The question of who in America officially launched the burger remains a fanatical culinary debate.)
American chains have invaded Hamburg, as they have everywhere. Although known here, too, as hamburgers or burgers, the original style of patty is rarely called Hamburg-anything in Germany, but rather Frikadelle, Frikandelle or Bulette, all staples of train station sausage stands.