Photo by Maia Schoenfelder
The GDR lives on – at least in the kitchens of hobby chefs in the former East. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia, two East German cookbooks – the GDR Cookbook and the GDR Baking Book by Hans and Barbara Otzen – rank as bestsellers. Meanwhile, in Berlin, tourists and ex-Ossis flock to restaurants promising GDR dishes just like Mutti used to make them.
Last October, the retro GDR restaurant Domklause opened on the bank of the Spree opposite the Berliner Dom. After perusing the adjoining DDR Museum, guests sit under a colorful Socialist Realist mural entitled “In Praise of Communism”, depicting children at play and strapping Red Army soldiers and dig into East German dishes concocted by former GDR chef, Hans-Jürgen Leucht.
Ironically, the restaurant’s proprietor Kim-Johann Stendler comes from the West and Leucht, who used to head the kitchen at the erstwhile Palasthotel, hardly ever had to feed an East German: the restaurant only took hard currency and thus was off limits to most citizens of the GDR (the exception being high-ranking Stasi, whose prevalence at the hotel earned it the nickname, the “Stasi-Nest”).
Nevertheless, Stendler, a native of Duisburg and long-time Berliner, knows a thing or two about Ossi cuisine. One of its hallmarks, he says, was improvisation.“They didn’t have all the ingredients that we had in the West,” he explains. “With not much, one managed to be very creative.”
A typical GDR dish on the Domklause menu is the “Würzfleisch” (€6.20), a variation on ragout fin that substitutes pork for veal (which was hard to come by in the East). Guests may be familiar with the Jägerschnitzel, but here, as in the GDR, it is served not with mushrooms but with noodles and tomato sauce (€8.40). Domklause’s hotdog is called “Ketwurst” (€3.60), the hamburger is a “Grilletta” (€4.20) and roasted chicken is a “Gold Broiler” and goes for €10.90 (with fries and veggies), a little steeper than its typical pre-Wende price of 3.80 eastern marks (theoretically, about 40 cents today).
Chef Leucht uses only eastern products: ketchup from Werder, mustard from Bautzen and Dresden-style “Worcester” sauce. And of course, for dessert there is the “Schwedenbecher” (€6.80): applesauce, eggnog, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Stender explains: “Sweden was playing against the GDR [ice hockey, in the 1952 Oslo Olympics], and the guy who invented it said that for every goal the Swedes scored, he would make a “Schwedeneisbecher” for free. The dessert became famous all over East Germany. It’s one of our hits.”
As for drinks, Domklause offers Vita-Cola (€2), which is less sweet and lemonier than its western equivalent. On the alcoholic end, there’s Hungarian red wine (€3) and GDR Schnaps (€2-2.80) – like Goldkrone, made in Thuringia and, according to Stender, “especially popular among elderly people.”
And then there is Unikum (€2.80): “That’s the most disgusting liquor that we have. But it’s the one that most people drink. It’s very extreme, very bitter.”
Dr. Kochan Schnapskultur
Further inquiry into GDR drinking culture can be made a bit north at Dr. Kochan Schnapskultur, a liquor store in Prenzlauer Berg. The owner, Thomas Kochan, recently wrote a book about Schnaps consumption in the GDR called Blauer Würger.
“East Germans drank differently than the West Germans,” he says. “They drank much less wine, but when it came to spirits, they were really world champions. In ’87 they drank more Schnaps per person than in any other country in the world. In ’88, they drank 16.1 liters per person: that’s an incredible amount.”
Kochan says that while shelves in GDR shops were often bare, Schnaps was never scarce. Kristall Wodka, Nordhäuser Doppelkorn. Goldkrone and Mampe Halb und Halb were popular GDR brands that exist to this day under the same label.
“When you say “Blauer Würger” [“Blue Strangler”], which is the nickname for Kristall Wodka, it sets something off, and people start talking about old kinds of Schnaps that were a part of daily life for 40 years. It is stuck inside of the people – not my generation, but the older people who are 50, 60, 70, 80.”
Further north in the working-class Weißensee district sits Osseria, in many ways a much more authentic GDR-style restaurant than Domklause, catering as it does mainly to Weißensee locals, rather than tourists. In addition to the menu, which oozes Ostalgie, there’s the interior of the restaurant, chock-a-block full of GDR relics.
Owner Andrea Ansmann, a native of Zehdenick, near the northern suburb of Oranienburg, opened the place a decade ago, before the “East German wave”, as she puts it, hit.
“It was exactly the time that everyone was trying out Italian, Greek and all sorts of foreign dishes and were coming back to German cuisine and asking, ‘Where can one eat schnitzel? Where can one eat Boulette? Kohlroulade, Blutwurst: where can one eat all this again?’” says Ansmann. “And for this reason I opened the restaurant – because the people asked for it, because the demand was there.”
As at Domklause, there’s Jägerschnitzel (€8.60). And then for dessert, Rote Grütze (€2.70): “It’s not from berries, like in the West, but from powder and tastes more like chemistry but is typical East German,” says Ansmann.
In Osseria, one drinks Sekt with pineapple (a rare delicacy in the GDR), mineral water with red or green syrup, Fassbrause or Turkish coffee (all under €2.50).
Tourists are few and far between: “We are a Kiezlokal – 90 percent of our guests are regulars and come from the area. Of course tourists are welcome. But if my people can’t get a table here because of all of the tourists, then I wouldn’t think that was so great.”
Ansmann doesn’t believe that Ossis have more of a preference for German cuisine than Wessis, but she does notice a generational divide.
“The younger generation doesn’t go into the kitchen anymore and cook… they don’t have the time. Nevertheless, they still wants their Senfeier or Quetschkartoffeln, just like Mutti made it. And that’s why they come to us. But it has nothing to do with East and West. I think a Wessi likes to eat schnitzel or Kohlroulade just as much as an Ossi.”
About 10 percent of the GDR mementoes, posters, consumer products and household appliances adorning the restaurant came from Ansmann herself. The rest came from guests.
“This is what makes the place attractive for an Ossi,” says Ansmann. “He comes in and immediately starts thinking back to his childhood. Because we only had one or two kinds of each product. And if everyone had the same, then it looked exactly the same at home. And it sparks memories. We all had the same laundry detergent, the same deodorant. We all had the same scale at home. Unless you had West money and were able to shop at Intershop – then your home had a bit more variety. But in general, you had one or two varieties of a product, and you had to make the best of it. We had the same products, the same memories. And that’s why for an Ossi, coming here is like coming home.”
Down in the restroom, popular GDR jokes adorn the walls. “Why is the GDR coffee, Rondo, like a neutron bomb?” asks one. “You die, but the cup stays intact.”