Don’t call me Kraut - … the proper term should probably be “potato”
No, don’t worry, this article won’t complain about insults thrown at Germans. Rather the opposite: We want to correct an inaccurate stereotype and replace it with something far better. Yes, Sauerkraut is pretty neat. But the whole “Kraut”- thing is overrated. What really defines German cuisine is potato, and you should know about it, because it’s delicious.
Before embarking on praise for the “Erdapfel” (“apple of the soil”), as the potato is called in some parts of Germany, we want to take the chance to introduce you to Gus Backus’ song “Sauerkraut Polka”. The American entertainer, who spent most of his adult life in Germany, summed up the stereotype like nobody else, and Germans loved it:
But back to what matters: The potato is one of the most consumed food crops around the world, but Germans take that to a special level. Potatoes are part of many meals and enjoy a similar status as rice in China – which is, surprisingly, the greatest potato producer on the planet. In Europe, Germany is the production leader of the chubby roots. For good reasons: Its citizens consume on average 70kg per person every year.
So prevalent is the starchy crop, that it has made a big entry into German language: “Die dümmsten Bauern ernten die dicksten Kartoffeln” is a common proverb, meaning: “The more stupid a farmer, the bigger his potatoes will be.”
To “drop someone like a hot potato” means letting someone down without a second thought, and “having to eat potatoes for a long time” refers to the need to live a frugal lifestyle due to poverty.
Wherever in Germany you are travelling, in the Eifel or in Thuringia, in Franconia, Palatinate, Rhineland or the Ore Mountains – invited for a home cooked meal or dining in traditional restaurants you will meet regional potato-based specialties. The town I grew up in celebrated a yearly “Krebbelchensfest”, with market stands offering a huge variety of potato fritters with different trimmings from Apfelmus (apple sauce) to Kaviarschmand (Sour cream mixed with Caviar). These celebrations were an important part of town life in Bendorf, and yes, Kaviarschmand is a thing. It is, for example, a go-to food in my mom’s home-made cuisine. She serves it with potatoes cooked in the skin, which leaves dinner guests with the decision whether or not to peel the already boiled potatoes or just eat them as a whole.
To enjoy potatoes in the skin, you will have to shop for the right quality. German stores label potatoes as "festkochend", "vorwiegend fest kochend" or "mehlig" – in English: waxy, or primarily waxy and floury, or starchy. It’s the “festkochend” kind you’d choose for recipes that require the full potato – Bratkartoffeln, for example, fried potatoes that accompany many German dishes instead of the English chips. Some meals consist mainly of fried potatoes, with added bacon and other vegetables, topped up with a fried egg – so well-loved in Germany that “Bratkartoffel-Restaurants” are a thing all over the country.
The potato wasn’t always this loved when it came to Germany via England and Spain. The colonial powers discovered the plant in America, where it was treated like gold by the Inca nations that grew potatoes in higher regions of their mountains, where other crops wouldn’t flourish.
In the beginning the potato was widely misunderstood – noblemen and kings kept them in their gardens for their pretty blossoms, and some people tried to eat the plant rather than the root, leading to food poisoning. Later, the plants where mainly used as animal food.
German leaders understood the value of the potato as an answer to the very common famines in 18th and 19th century Europe: The crop was sturdy, undemanding and nutritious. King Frederick the Great (the “Alte Fritz”, as he is still known in today’s Germany) forced the plant on his country by law: Every farmer was required to have at least one field of potatoes. It is said that he also used psychological tricks to promote the new plant: His personal potato fields where vigilantly guarded by soldiers, to give the general population the idea that potatoes are a rare specialty. The guards would at times be sloppy to encourage farmers to steal some of the plants and grow them on their own fields.
The Bavarian king Karl V was less diplomatic. He ordered his farmers to grow and eat potatoes or have their noses cut off. It is surprising that modern Bavaria is a potato stronghold like none other.
Specialty or fast food: The potato can’t be missed. The German version of Fish and Chips is either Bratwurst or Currywurst with fries, in German “Pommes frites” or short: “Pommes” or “Fritten”. If you don’t like Wurst, you might choose a Schnitzel – which brings us to the realm of proper German cuisine. Schnitzel, in its many variations, comes with potatoes in just as many forms.
Besides boiled, mashed or fried potatoes, the Potato Dumping (Kartoffelknödel) are an important essential at German meal time, because they take in sauce and gravy like nothing else. No matter if Königsberger Klopse (Koenigsberg Meatballs) or Sauerbraten (marinated and braised beef with raisins in rich gravy), Kartoffelknödel are the best to come with it. If you want to try, here is a Koenigsberg recipe (which also has a historic element to it, since Koenigsberg is today Kaliningrad and hasn’t been German in a very long while)
There are too many potato recipes to mention, but one shall not be forgotten: The salad.
German party culture features Kartoffelsalat and Pasta salad by any means. Potato salad can be served warm or cold and is a rich mix of other ingredients, all of which can be a matter of vicious arguments. For some, mayonnaise is an essential, for others this would be considered a deadly sin, to name one example. Whatever version you fancy, if you serve German style potato salad on a party, you’ll see the eyes of German visitors light up right away.
To close the circle to the start of this article: Don’t call us Krauts. If you want a catchy, slightly insulting term to address your German friends, choose potato instead, or rather the German word: “Kartoffel”. Immigrant youngsters in Germany have done it for ages – and they are sure to know their German peers.