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Best of the 'wurst'
Publication Date : 12-03-2012
Once could say that the currywurst is to Germany what the roti canai is to Malaysia – a favoured street snack that surpasses all societal strata.
It is not an unusual sight in Frankfurt to see bankers in Boss suits with their fancy ties flipped back on their shoulders, to avoid sauce splatter, eating currywurst mit pommes (curry sausage with fries) alongside construction workers in blue overalls.
The dish consists a fried pork or beef sausage, smothered in ketchup and sprinkled with a combo of curry and paprika powder. It usually comes with a side order of thick fries which are served with either ketchup or mayonnaise, or both. Those unaffected by blocked arteries can opt to have additional carbs in the form of a brötchen (bun) on top of this.
Everything is then piled onto a small, square, white paper plate and you’re given a tiny plastic fork with which to pierce the greasy morsels, thus making it quite the balancing act. The stalls themselves are spartan – you often dine standing elbow-to-elbow with complete strangers around white pub tables.
So how did the quintessentially German wurst (sausage) come into contact with Indian curry powder? The circumstances themselves reflect an amusing mishmash of what could be deemed as “globalisation”.
The story dates back to the time after World War II in Berlin, which was then divided into different zones of occupation under the Soviet, American, British and French forces.
Life was hard and food was scarce. Struggling to make ends meet, an enterprising lady by the name of Herta Heuwer experimented with sausage recipes and inadvertently created in 1949 what would decades later become a national dish.
Heuwer’s version of the currywurst was a boiled sausage that was fried with a sauce made of tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder and other ingredients.
One could classify this as a case of necessity being the mother of invention. Heuwer was probably inspired by the American soldiers (who had eaten their steaks with ketchup) and she had traded alcohol for Worcestershire sauce and curry powder with soldiers from the British sector. And voila, the currywurst was born!
However, Heuwer reportedly took the original recipe for the currywurst sauce with her to the grave, thus explaining the variations to the sauces today.
And just like the fate of dishes like Hainanese chicken rice or cendol, states clamour to claim kudos for having concocted the dish, with Berlin leading the pack.
"The currywurst is a culinary symbol of Berlin and of all Germany,” says Birgit Breloh, director of the German Currywurst Museum. Yes, you read right: there is a museum dedicated to the dish. It is also apparently customary for candidates vying for the office of mayor in Berlin to conduct photo ops at a currywurst stall.
Uwe Timm’s 1993 novel entitled "The Invention Of Curried Sausage" (which was made into a movie in 2008) is based on an alternative but unproven theory that the currywurst was invented in Hamburg by a Lena Bruecker. Meanwhile, popular German singer Herbert Groenemeyer immortalised the snack in a song simply entitled, Currywurst.
Here in Frankfurt we have “Best Worscht in Town”; "worscht” being local dialect for “wurst”.
This local chain features its own “spice-o-meter” that gives gourmands six levels of spicy. Levels 1 to 3 are tolerable, while Levels 4 to 6 claim to seriously assault the taste buds.
A few weeks ago, when I went to our local stall for my worscht fix and asked for a Level 4, I was advised against it. I followed my better judgment and settled for my usual Level 3, having recalled one unforgettable experience when my sister came to visit from Malaysia.
It was winter then and we had taken her on a tour of Frankfurt and eventually the cold caused rumbling tummies. So we headed for the nearest currywurst stand and were asked if we wanted ours extra spicy.
We smugly countered, “Yeah, bring it on”, while muttering in Malayalam “must be ‘Mat Salleh spicy’.” We were to literally eat our words with burning tongues! The man had probably sprinkled ground cili padi on our sausages because we had to fight back our tears and yet appear as if everything was wunderbar!
That was probably an exception because generally a currywurst is pretty mild. That probably also explains why Germany’s 82 million people are said to consume 800 million curry sausages every year.
I can account for at least 24 portions of that!
Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Frankfurt. She is trying hard to abstain from currywurst and fries during the season of Lent.