Disks of pale-pink sausage meat, coated in breadcrumbs and fried, swim in a velvety tomato-ketchup sauce, sweetened with sugar and soured with pickle juice. A dollop of spiralling pasta (Spirelli Nudeln) nestles on the side, brightened by a sprig of parsley. In the Volkskammer, the DDR memorabilia-packed restaurant serving East German fare on the ground floor of a Plattenbau in the former East Berlin district of Friedrichshain, the only clue that you haven’t been teleported back to the German Democratic Republic is the side of lettuce and tomatoes – both of which, along with much fresh produce, were often scarce on the eastern of the Berlin Wall.
“There were hardly any vitamins because there were few fruits and even fewer vegetables to buy. Especially when I was on duty in the army (NVA), there was really bad food every day, no good meat and it was a complete disaster,” says Gordon Freiherr von Godin, director of the DDR Museum in Berlin. Born in 1970 in the East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, Freiherr von Godin was doing his military service near Neubrandenburg when the Wall came down. Food-wise, he says the experience was “terrible.”
Not surprising then, that apart from a few Ostalgie-branded restaurants (like Pila on Schönhauser Allee) and the odd Ketwurst served at kiosks along train tracks and in shopping centres on the outskirts of the city, little appears to survive today of the food of the DDR in Berlin.
Not even at the DDR Museum: the Domklause, the DDR Museum’s restaurant serving DDR fare, closed in 2016. It was replaced with a reconstruction of a DDR flat. Behind the original cream-coloured cabinets in the narrow blue-and-white tiled kitchen, a monitor shows an illustrated menu of DDR-era dishes and drinks for visitors to scan and print out the recipes.
The Jägerschnitzel is a case in point. In East Germany’s answer to the Viennese classic, sliced Jagdwurst, the compact, patchy sausage made from ground pork and pork belly, replaces veal, which was rarely available in the East. Along with other dishes on the museum’s menu – from Falscher Hase, a meatloaf shaped like a rabbit, to the Tote Oma, a splodge of blood sausage named after a deceased relative – the Jägerschnitzel showcases the inventiveness that many see as the one true trademark of DDR cooking.
Whenever we speak about East German socialism, we always speak about the things that were missing and not so much about what was there.
“Whenever we speak about East German socialism, we always speak about the things that were missing and not so much about what was there,” Freiherr von Godin muses. But much of the cuisine in the DDR actually predated the foundation of the East German republic in 1949, he explains. It was rooted in the pre-World War II history of Germany’s relations with countries including Poland, Russia, and today’s Czech Republic. Popular dishes were then adapted to the scarcity economy of the DDR. In fact, Freiherr von Godin suggests, it makes little sense to speak of a DDR cuisine as such. The cuisine was rather regional. “This still exists in the different provinces of the former East, such as in Berlin and Thuringia, though less and less so these days. You can find it in some restaurants. But most of all it’s in the families,” he says, reminiscing fondly of his mum’s food: hearty, home-cooked Berlin classics such as liver with mashed potatoes and Quetschkartoffel (crushed potatoes) with onions.
Ask any East German and they’ll tell you a similar story: the best DDR food was at home, where cooks became experts at zhuzhing up the limited ingredients available. They created hearty, tasty dishes, where creativity made up for a lack of variety.
Modern, local, zero waste, home cooking
“There are lots of clichés about DDR cooking,” says UX designer and artist Katrin Langer*, speaking quietly so as not to wake her two-month-old baby, resting beside her in her Schöneberg flat. “But I remember eating the Jägerschnitzel, and it tasted really good!”
Langer grew up in Saxony, where her parents had a garden and grew all they could. “Tomatoes, courgettes, apples, pears, plums, cherries. Things weren’t always available in shops. This way, we always knew what we got.”
Many people grew their own food – not so much out of choice but out of necessity.
Faced with constant shortages due to planned economy failures, many people grew their own food – not so much out of choice but out of necessity. Langer remembers the cellar in her childhood home, stacked high with jars of preserved fruit and vegetables for winter. Sweet and sour pumpkin was a family favourite. “We called it ‘East German pineapple’,” she smiles. “Because it was yellow and cut into small cubes, just like the tinned pineapple you get in the supermarket nowadays.” Tropical fruits were famously hard to come by in the East, where the food was often local, seasonal and sustainable by default.
“We made as much as possible ourselves and wasted nothing,” Langer remembers. “We knew where most of our food came from, and we appreciated it.”
*Name has been changed
From everyday homey to starred creativity
Just across the border from East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, on the western end of Friedrichstraße, is a Michelin-starred Berlin restaurant championing a similar approach. Since 2015, Nobelhart & Schmutzig has been forging a new identity for East German cooking.
In the evening light, the restaurant’s art-gallery windows reflect the blue sign marking the entrance to Kochstraße U-bahn. Inside, restaurateur Billy Wagner and his kitchen team – led by head chef Micha Schäfer – serve up colourful, artfully put-together dishes that showcase a commitment to regional products, sustainably produced by people whose names appear on the restaurant’s menu alongside the dishes.
Currently on the menu at Nobelhart & Schmutzig is a take on the regional German classic and DDR favourite Himmel und Erde, using potato, horseradish, apples and onions (the original features black pudding, too). Another dish is cucumber, dill and a mustard sauce. “All of these ingredients are super local,” Wagner explains. “Indigenous flavours from the region.”
Wagner was born to a family of restaurateurs close to Karl-Marx-Stadt, now Chemnitz, and fled to the West with his parents at the age of eight, “right before the Wall came down.” As a child, he spent his school holidays with his grandparents. “My grandma had a big garden and produced quite a bit, because otherwise, she wouldn’t have any tomatoes, cherries, apples, pears, gooseberries – the things that people eat!” Wagner remembers. “I was always doing stuff in the garden or cooking in the kitchen – making strawberry marmalade, or filling jars with cherries and preserving them for when there was nothing fresh because the DDR supermarket, Konsum, didn’t offer the products people in the West were used to.”
But if many of the ingredients used at Nobelhart und Schmutzig wouldn’t have looked out of place in Wagner’s grandmother’s DDR kitchen, the end results are different.
That’s how Wagner started learning about the quality of food that his restaurant stands for today. “The combinations we do, or how I eat, are influenced by this idea of a certain quality level of what a good strawberry means or what a good cherry means that I learnt about in my earliest years.”
But if many of the ingredients used at Nobelhart und Schmutzig wouldn’t have looked out of place in Wagner’s grandmother’s DDR kitchen, the end results are different. “Micha and the team are creating dishes using the same ingredients as my grandmother,” Wagner explains, “but obviously, we’re cooking completely different stuff, because of our international approach.”
More than in a specific cuisine, the legacy of DDR cooking is an approach. “A style of cooking and style of making things that was born out of having nothing,” as Wagner describes it. It’s one that might come in handy as we face an uncertain future. “We will see what happens with having no gas and no energy,” Wagner continues, “and we can’t afford all the things we’re used to. Or maybe there’s a war and the whole infrastructure of logistics will collapse, you know?” He laughs. “Then maybe, we’ll need to go back and look at how they did things back then,” adding thoughtfully: “But I hope not.”
More on the topic
Read what life was like in the 80s in the DDR. Curious about the Stasi? Here is our list of the best secret police exhibitions in Berlin. If you want to learn more about the DDR, this section includes all our articles about it.