The Cult of Currywurst

By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author

This multi-cultural fast food has overcome its humble origins to obtain cult status in Germany, even rating its own museum.

What could be more German than currywurst: chunks of sausage slathered with a sauce based on the same ingredients as Anglo-American tomato ketchup spiced with English Worcestershire sauce, Hungarian paprika and Indian-inspired curry powder (by way of Britain), served with French fries on the side?

Some German cooks even add another multicultural twist: spiking the sauce with Caribbean and South American peppers, as a challenge to macho munchers competing for the top-dog spot in their local currywurst “Hall of Fame.”

From its humble origin as a street food in the country’s war-torn capital, currywurst has risen to culinary cult status in Germany, even rating its own museum. That’s right: a museum devoted entirely to currywurst opened in Berlin in 2009, on the dish’s 60th birthday, with exhibits on everything you always wanted to know about currywurst (but didn’t know you wanted to ask).

Currywurst was invented in Berlin in 1949, when a woman named Herta Heuwer supposedly acquired some English curry powder (and maybe also Worcestershire sauce) from soldiers stationed in the British sector of the occupied city. Experimenting in her home kitchen, she concocted a tomato-based sauce as a topping for cooked sausages, which she sold at a street stand to construction workers rebuilding the rubble-strewn metropolis.

Heuwer’s currywurst was such a success that she was able to open a small restaurant in the red light district, which soon became a popular hangout for celebrities. In 1951, early in her career as the queen of currywurst, she also patented the secret recipe for her seductive sauce, which she called “Chillup,” its name a contraction of “chili” and “ketchup.”

Currywurst went on to take the country by storm. All over Germany street stands, festival stalls, food trucks and even restaurants now sell their own versions of this simple dish. More than 800 million currywursts are consumed annually in Germany—that’s nearly 10 sauce-covered sausages for every man, woman, child and foreign tourist in the whole country.

Currywurst sausages, sauces and sides vary widely, not only from one region of Germany to another, but also from one vendor to the next, even in the same neighborhood.

The recipe for Herta Heuwer’s original Berliner currywurst sauce remains a secret, although many cooks have tried to replicate it. Some street vendors and restaurant chefs take pride in making their own signature sauce from scratch, refusing to reveal their personal recipes. Others take the easy way out by merely adding spices to bottled ketchup. And big companies such as Heinz and Knorr market a variety of “Curry Ketchups” in Germany. Just squeeze the bottle and squirt.

Most sauce recipes include curry powder and paprika, along with other seasonings such as vinegar, sugar, garlic and onion. The sausages are first simmered in water, broth or beer, then finished on a griddle or grill, or pan-fried in a skillet. Usually they’re cut crosswise into pieces before being covered with sauce. German engineers even invented a commercial cutter to slice the sausages in one whack, quickly and uniformly. (Cutting 800 million by hand just wouldn’t be efficient.)

An exhibit at Berlin’s Currywurst Museum showcases several varieties of this favorite German fast food. The original West Berlin version is considered the classic currywurst: a thick sausage (usually Bockwurst, sometimes Knockwurst) cut crosswise into chunks, topped with a red tomato-based sauce, garnished with curry powder and served with a bread roll. The East German version uses skinless sausages, supposedly invented out of necessity when sausage skins were scarce in the early era of post-war rationing. In the Rhineland, bratwurst is favored, doused with a thinner dark-red sauce (with the curry mixed in but not sprinkled on top) and served with French fries on the side.

A “Manta plate” consists of currywurst and French fries, with ketchup and mayonnaise dolloped on the spuds. (In Cologne and Düsseldorf the same combo goes by another name, whereas in Hannover it’s called “the Chancellor’s plate.”) And a “taxi plate” is a caloric triumph of multiculturalism: currywurst with French fries, barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise, plus Greek gyros (thin slices of spit-roasted meat) and tzatziki (yoghurt-cucumber-garlic sauce).

There’s even a “Luxus” version (“for those very special moments in life”), a prime example of Berlin ironic humor: a whole sausage with a piece of gold leaf draped over the top, surrounded by a pool of currywurst sauce on a white china plate and accompanied by a glass of Sekt (German sparkling wine). And at Aqua, the Michelin 3-star restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Wolfsburg, I was served a cute little dessert amuse-bouche consisting of marzipan “sausages” wedged between macaroon “buns,” garnished with red strawberry sauce and sprinkled with cinnamon—the ultimate currywurst haute dog.

Despite its many riffs, currywurst is still just a simple, inexpensive take-away food, most often bought at a Schnellimbiss or Currywurstbude (fast-food stand) and eaten while standing up. (Even McDonald’s felt compelled to add “McCurry Wurst” to its menu in Germany.) Currywurst traditionally comes in an oval-shaped white cardboard bowl, along with a little wooden or plastic fork and a small white paper napkin for blotting up the messy drips of sauce—although some eat-in restaurants serve their sausages on a plate.

Currywurst connoisseurs are well known for their unswerving loyalty to a particular currywurst stand, disdaining all others as unworthy of their patronage. Claiming your favorite currywurst stand as the “best” can quickly get you into a heated discussion at a German bar.

Eaten by everyone from proletarians to high-level politicians, currywurst is particularly popular in its hometown of Berlin, where 70 million of these saucy sausages are sold every year. Many critics consider the currywurst at Konnopke’s Imbiss (two locations in Berlin) to be the best classic version in the city. A few years ago, two other stands, Curry 66 and Curry & Chili, entered the scene, both claiming to serve the hot-spiciest currywurst in Berlin, the sauces made with such tongue tinglers as habanero peppers and Black Death bottled hot sauce. And Curry 36 in Berlin bottles its own original curry ketchup for customers to take home, in case they get a craving for currywurst in the middle of the night.

Hamburg is another hotbed of currywurst consumption, with 72 million eaten annually in the Elbe port city, famous historically as a gateway for spices imported into Germany. Hamburg also claims to be the original home of currywurst, an assertion roundly rejected by Berliners.

Other popular places for eating currywurst in Germany include Scharfrichter, a restaurant that specializes in hot-spicy currywurst with sauces rated on a heat scale of 1 to 10. Curry 24 in Dresden advertises “the hottest currywurst in the city,” with a clever illustration on the menu showing a red sausage “rocket” with seven “burn levels” of rocket fuel. The owner uses different liquid chile pepper concentrates to fuel his rocket sauces—and sells over 250,000 of these mouth-flaming currywursts every year.

Who would have ever thought this humble fare could inspire not only cooks, inventors and museum curators, but also singers, writers and artists? Currywurst is featured regularly on a German television series, and in 2009 it was the subject of a cartoon contest on the Internet. Currywurst has its own page on Facebook, and you can listen to “The Currywurst Song” on both Facebook and YouTube. But you might get a bigger kick out of watching some of the currywurst eating contests posted online—that is, if you get turned on by red-faced men with bulging tongues, tears streaming down their cheeks, stuffing themselves with German sausages.

About the writer
Sharon Hudgins is an award-winning writer with four books and more than 700 articles published worldwide. Her food and travel writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Saveur, Gastronomica, German Life, Russian Life, The World and I, Chile Pepper, Fiery Foods & Barbecue, major newspapers in the United States, and periodicals in Germany, Russia, and the Czech Republic. For several years she was the food columnist for The Stars and Stripes newspaper in Europe, and since 1997 has been the food columnist for German Life magazine in the United States. A former editor of Chile Pepper magazine, she has also worked as a cookbook editor, photographer, filmmaker, university professor, and lecturer on international tours offered by National Geographic Expeditions, Lindblad, Road Scholar, and Silversea Cruises.

Sharon Hudgins has lived in nine countries of Europe and Asia and traveled in 50 countries across the globe. Her European experience includes living in Germany for 15 years, as well as in several European capitals and small towns from northern Scotland to southern Spain to the Greek island of Crete. She is the author of an award-winning cookbook about the regional cuisines of Spain, and her personal memoir, The Other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East, won two national awards for travel and food writing.

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