Germany is split into 16 states, each with their own local government. However, the Federal laws and regulations still take precedence, so that means anything coming out of Berlin is the law of the land (ie: Berlin is the Germany equivalent of Washington, DC). Much like we see in the US, these sprawling states indicate that throughout the large country of Germany there are different dialects of language, habits of culture, and threads of belief.
For instance, there is a noticeably stronger culture around food and traditions to be experienced in Bavaria than in Berlin. Much of this could have to do with the dwindling population of the city/state during WWII and the Cold War, as well as the influx of immigrants and refugees in more recent years. Being an international city, it is as easy to find sushi, ramen, pho, falafel, Thai, and so on in Berlin as it is to find
“traditional German” food. The opposite is true in Bavaria, where beer halls (known as “brauhaus”) are only ever a stone’s throw away offering communal tables, freshly brewed beers and traditional foods of the south.
If we’re comparing cities to America…
Berlin -Feels like Chicago meets New York. Roughly the size of Chicago, Berlin is home to people and cuisines from all over the world. The people are actually very nice in Berlin, but there is an edginess to the city and it’s art and music scenes. Berlin is the only city in Germany with a license to keep bars open til 10am (or noon?), so people have dinner late (10pm or even later) and many nightclubs don’t even open til 2am! Because of their more relaxed way of life, things just tend to start later in the day. In the Mitte neighborhood, I was able to find a meditation class on Wednesday morning at 6am, but it was the only class I could find between various yoga studios, Crossfit boxes, and conventional gyms that offered any classes before 7am. On the weekend, the earliest class I could find was at 11am!
Munich – Kind of feels like a big Portland, Oregon to be honest with you. With a population of 1.5 million, this is also a University town with a large English Garden in which you can find people surfing in a man-made river. Beer houses galore and also plenty of money around (by that I mean wealthy people). People really embrace their traditional Bavarian roots here, and if you talk to a local it becomes apparent that the popular opinion is, “Berlin is not real Germany”.
These two cities also have different ways of addressing Germany’s history in relation to themselves; many Munich citizens don’t want to talk about WWII anymore and Berlin wears this history on it’s sleeve. You can’t do a Berlin tour without hearing about Hitler and the war at least three times (most of Berlin tours are set around WWII and the Cold War), while in Munich I had a tour guide who kept apologizing for even having to bring “him” up (though the Third Reich and Dachau Concentration Camp tours are two of Munich’s top three best sellers, along with Neuschwanstein!). In Berlin, memorials to those who perished in WWII take up prime real estate all over town, showing that the city wears this history on it’s sleeve. In Munich, memorials to those who perished in the war and markers of historical events in the war would be difficult to find or understand without attending the Third Reich tour.
I can guarantee that if I were to ask, “Name a traditional German food”, one would answer either bratwurst/sausages, pretzels, or schnitzel (some might even say schnitzel without even knowing what it is!). While any of those answers would be correct, German tradition holds so much more than that! Of course you can find “German food” in Berlin, but outside of Berlin, and venturing into Bavaria, is where you will find more intense food culture.
Let’s start with the healthy stuff:
Sauerkraut / pickled and fermented foods… In the name of food preservation, pickling and canning is traditional since it allows this population to be able to eat local fruits and vegetables in the cold winter months. Pickled cabbage and potatoes, among other vegetables, are highlights and the well-known sauerkraut is a condiment that Americans are very familiar with. Sauerkraut is actually fermented cabbage, and this means it is a great source of probiotics which help keep your gut healthy! Sauerkraut is not only served as a condiment for various meat dishes, but also as a side item. It can be served warm or cold, and is sometimes tossed with bacon. Sauerkraut on it’s own gets an A rating from the dietitian. Vegetables + probiotics can’t be beat.
Honeys and jams made from local fruits are integral to life in Germany, as well. Some of the less-well-known in America fruits available in Germany include quince, seabuckthorn berries, lingonberries, gooseberries and rosehip. Apples are abundant in Germany and are used often in pastries and desserts as well as made into syrup. Of course making jams and jellies involves using added sugar, and while I believe added sugars should be kept to a minimum for a healthy lifestyle, this method of preserving fruits is not only traditional to many countries throughout the world but is also delicious and can be part of healthy lifestyle if left to moderation. These fruits are also high in water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C, are full of polyphenols, and eating local foods like honey from bees who have flown around in your environment should help strengthen your immune system.
Then there’s the less “healthy” stuff:
Although meats are full of vitamins and minerals and can be part of a healthy diet with some moderation; the abundance of sausage, schnitzel, bacon and other cured meats, cheeses, eggs, and dairy products available in the landscape of German food can add up to a lot of animal products, meaning loads of saturated fats and cholesterol. We know that dietary cholesterol may not be as bad for us as once thought, and any amount of fat that one chooses to eat should be partnered with a daily dose of exercise, but still all those animal products can add up. The recommendation for meat consumption coming from the German Society for Nutrition explains, “As part of a wholesome diet, you should not eat more than 300 – 600 grams of meat and sausages per week”. This equates to 10.5-21oz per week, 3oz or less per day! The American recommendation is 26oz or less per week, which would be <7oz per day, for those meeting the 2000 calorie threshold (which, let’s face it, most Americans don’t require that many calories).
Today, Germans are consuming about twice that recommendation. Between currywurst, bratwurst, Schweinshaxe, Königsberger Klopse, and other meat products, it isn’t surprising. This is a similar situation to what we see in American meat consumption.
For a very in-depth guide to traditional German foods, meals, and manners, visit here. Wikipedia also has a comprehensive list of German foods by region, and I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here 🙂 My favorites are spatzle (noodles tossed with onions and sometimes cheese), Konigsberger Klopse (meatballs served in a white sauce with capers), and anything with potatoes. I’m also fond of pretzels and sausages (in moderation!).
Public Health and Policy
Germany has a few government and health organizations working to create a more healthful country. As mentioned before, there is the German Society for Nutrition. The Federal Ministry of Health, based out of Bonn with a second main office in Berlin, is the government department responsible for defining the country’s health goals and priorities. Some of the health goals Germany is currently focusing on include:
- Reducing risk factors and development of Type 2 diabetes
- Reducing mortality rates from breast cancer
- Reducing tobacco consumption
- Increasing life skills, exercise, and nutrition for children
- Enhancing health competence, strengthening patient sovereignty
- Healthy ageing
- Reducing alcohol consumption
Some quick numbers on obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and so on:
- 60.5% of adults are overweight, 25.1% falling into the obese range (WHO)
- ~8% incidence of type 2 diabetes (>6.5 million cases in 2015… IDF)
- 3.1% mortality rate related to heart disease
- 3% incidence of all cancers among both sexes (WCRF), responsible for ~1.3% of all deaths in Germany (WLE)
- 46.6% of people over 15 years old do not get enough exercise (WHO)
In addition to the above organizations, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture is responsible for issues involving food labeling, food safety, food security, agricultural policy, and the like. Programs like Too Good for the Bin and Food Sharing aim to reduce food waste while increasing access to fresh, healthy food for the masses.
Germany prides itself on being a country forward-thinking when it comes to sustainability and the environment. Recycling is commonplace, green roofs combine gardens and office buildings to share one space. At the Christmas markets, vendors of Gluhwine and hot chocolate use ceramic mugs with a $2-3 deposit (so you can either keep the mug or return it). Many nightclubs in Berlin also enforce a deposit on bottled drinks, including water. This not only allows the club to recycle returned bottles, it helps keep the club clean because customers have an incentive to return their empty container to the bar.
Germany is one of the lead countries in the world from an environmental standpoint. Someone told me that 99% of plastic and glass purchased in Germany get recycled (I have to look into that), and if you take a train anywhere you can easily spot fields of solar energy panels and wind mills. [pictures coming]
A 2015 article published by online resource Young Germany describes more in depth the 10 following things that Germany is doing to support a sustainable environment:
- Phasing out nuclear power
- The Renewable Energy Act
- Taxing gasoline, diesel, and fossil fuels
- 25% energy coming from cogeneration by 2020
- The Renewable Heat Act
- Expanding the renewable energy grid
- Efforts to promote conserving energy
- The Ecodesign Directive (ErP) was created to regulate products with the worst environmental performance
- Encouraging alternative modes of transportation
- Recycling and waste management