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Food and Drink

An American redefines BBQ in Berlin

Craving the sticky sweet pulled pork of America's smokehouses, DW's Katherine Sacks set out on a mission to find barbecue in Berlin. What she found was something completely different.

When we first arrived in Berlin, one of the things my boyfriend and I craved most was American-style barbecue: the rich taste of smoked meats slathered in tangy barbecue sauce. Throughout the winter we sought out our craving, that flavor of home, in our new Berlin environs.

A Google search for "Berlin barbecue" immediately revealed the stark cultural differences. While barbecue in America refers first and foremost to items cooked low and slow like pulled pork, baby back ribs, or beef brisket - when a German says barbecue, what they really mean is grilling.

So when summer rolled around we decided to investigate what the German Grillkultur had to offer. In a land deeply associated with sausage, it comes as no surprise that Germans love to grill. I wanted to see what it was all about.

In the spirit of the stereotypically well-prepared German, I began my quest with research by e-mailing Ebbo Christ, the managing director of the German Barbecue Association. Christ heads up the group's annual German Grill and BBQ Championship, which pits teams against each other to grill everything from pork ribs to dessert.

He gave me the low-down: Unlike American grilling affairs, which almost always include hot dogs and hamburgers, or the aforementioned American barbecue, Germans usually grill sausages, pork, and occasionally turkey cutlets or chicken.

From Wurst to veggies

Christ also explained that a growing number of Germans are interested in a wider variety of foods when it comes to the grill. I found a survey done by Lidl - a well-known discount supermarket chain in Germany - that backed this up, revealing a heightened interest in grilled vegetarian food.

The Lidl poll also pointed out that, as a woman, my pursuit went against the popular belief that grilling is the man's job; the majority of respondents viewed men as the masters of the grill. As Christ put it, "In most cases, the men are seen as heroes on the grill, while women are responsible for salads." A quick look at American food media shows this is a viewpoint the two cultures generally share.

Undeterred, and armed with Christ's helpful advice, I was ready to check out the Grillkultur first-hand. Although I'd read that Germany loves charcoal burning grills for the smoky flavor they impart, they are banned in many parks and public places. Still, a few options remain in Berlin, including Mauer Park, where we headed on a sunny Sunday.

Mauer Park in eastern Berlin is a barbecue paradise; friends, families, students, travelers, punks, and hippies had all gathered to set up shop. These weren't the massive iconic Weber barbeques we have back in the States - instead I saw everything from tiny orb grills and single-use aluminum boxes to a patch of sand cleared away as a fire pit. I had never seen anything like this in the US. While some American parks have permanent grills in place, picnicking with prepared foods is the norm there. But Sunday at Mauer Park was a come one, come all barbecue blowout.

A man cutting grilled meet at a barbecue event in Berlin by Sven Dörge

Pork is common on German barbecues

DYI for everyone

Emboldened by my discoveries, I headed home and searched online for a grill. Although high tech options are available for the serious connoisseur, there are some pretty inexpensive alternatives, with single-use grills costing as little as 3 euros ($3.90). And you can find one that will last the season for 20 euros.

Our mini version arrived a few days later. For our try that weekend, my Berlin-born friend Daniel brought sausages and curry ketchup from Curry 36, a city favorite for the street food delight. When the charcoals were red hot, we cooked up a round of Wurst, letting them turn dark and crispy. The sausages were delicious, and I realized that curry ketchup was sort of a German version of barbecue sauce - spicy, sweet, and a decent topping for just about anything that comes off the grill.

Germans also have a true affection for mustard, a must-have sausage accompaniment for the grilling pantry. Händlmaier's Sweet Mustard is a classic and quickly becoming our home favorite.

Pork without sauerkraut

On the suggestion of Christ, the following week I met Sven Dörge, a barbecue master based in Berlin who took first place at the 2005 and 2006 German Barbecue Association's competitions. That success bolstered him to start his own catering business, Barbeque Company Berlin, which hosts events all over Germany.

Dörge brought me along to a grill event in nearby Potsdam, and driving across town he broke down some more about the basics. Steak in Germany means pork, he explained, not beef, like Americans think. Bratwurst, like the Nürnberger or Thüringer styles, is a staple of barbecue, but Sauerkraut is not eaten with grilled foods (another common American misconception). Unlike the specific sides that go hand-in-hand with American barbecue, including baked beans, coleslaw, and biscuits, Germans vary their salads and vegetable dishes when it comes to grilling.

Like the Lidl survey found, Dörge's customers often want vegetarian options and the team always prepares a variety of vegetables, such as stuffed mushrooms or an interesting spinach phyllo roll. Although the company caters to German tastes, cooking plenty of sausages and preparing a number of salads, Dörge is very influenced by American-style cookery. At the Potsdam event, a 220-person celebration for Sweden's Big Image Company , the crew used a large smoker to prepare beef brisket, salmon cooked on wood slates, and pork ribs.

Various kinds of meat at a barbecue event in Berlin by Sven Dörge

On the grill, anything goes

Cutlery is optional

Inspired by Dörge and his modern take, I was ready for my next cookout. I picked up some pork steaks, marinated in chilies, and some large mushrooms, which I stuffed with a mixture made from the mushroom stems, garlic, marjoram, and Parmesan cheese. Along with more sausages and the requisite beer, we decided to try out Tempelhof Park, the former airport. Unlike Mauer Park, which is packed to the brim with Sunday grillers and feels like a block party, the expansive space of Tempelhof Park allows for a much more relaxed experience.

I was happily surprised by the stuffed mushrooms, hearty and filling, and a great alternative to all the meat. But I'll probably pass on the pork steak next time, since it's a hassle using a sharp knife while sitting cross-legged in the park. I prefer my grilled food as portable as possible, but that's the joy of barbecue: anything goes. Some bring elaborate sets with tables, chairs, plates, and flatware, while others simply use their bread rolls as a plate for their Wurst.

In the end, I fell into the gender stereotype and it was my boyfriend, very supportive in this mission, who worked his magic with the grill. I watched eagerly, and intently proclaimed I would take charge on our next outing. I want to try grilling shish kebabs next, perhaps on a visit to Kreuzberg's Görlitzer Park - and the more we do it, the more I begin to feel like a real grilling Berliner.

Berlin-based food and travel journalist Katherine Sacks blogs at katherinesacks.com and tweets at @LaVitaCucinare.

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