OK, maybe it is not really a fad. Not here in Germany that is. But almost 6000 years ago the Kosher food “movement” (everything is a movement now) started. It still exists but has a big brother, Halal. The two dietary systems have much in common which shouldn’t be surprising considering the shared roots of Jews and Muslims (and Christians). Funnily enough, following these food customs is something that can bring Jews and Muslims together in a place like Central and Northern Europe that barely acknowledges non-pork fare in most restaurants.
My first few visits here were the hardest in terms of eating. I am Jewish and try to keep Kosher but otherwise I’m not very outwardly religious. By the way, the term I really should be using is Kashrut which is the actual dietary law, but Kosher is a general term used which is meant to say that one is staying within the bounds of what is acceptable.
In my native Boston and my previous home of San Francisco it was easy to keep Kosher. While both towns have a large Jewísh population it was really a matter of wealth, history and the safety of exploring new cultures through cooking that led an easy Kosher lifestyle. San Francisco in particular became a big food town largely due to the fishermen who built it up after it’s initial founding, the following wave of gold minors and then wave after wave of immigrant groups. During the Gold Rush many of miners did not have facilities to cook properly in their little apartments so an entire economy of cafes and restaurants established itself to feed these hungry men. Eating out became a way of life.
The history of Germany (and Europe) is quite different, though. This land was alternately ravaged by war and famine while the great European powers fought for supremacy. The relatively peaceful industrialized, First World nations are a recent development. This was once a land where the nobles gorged themselves on horse (yes… horse), beef, lamb and fruits such as cherries. The poor had to get by on much less. When they could raise or buy meat it still had to be as cheap as possible. That happens to be pork.
As the European nations found themselves at peace and with growing prosperity, lower and middle class families could finally afford meat products more than once a month. Pork was still the meat of choice, partially because people had a taste for it, but also because beef and lamb were still so expensive that only upper class families could afford it regularly. Ultimately the pig became a symbol of improving fortunes (ever wonder where piggy banks came from?).
Restaurants in Germany serve a different function than in more food culture oriented places like San Francisco and Boston. In those cities people go out to eat to explore new cuisines and new cultures from the saftey of their stomach. In Germany restaurants are more of functional place to eat while you are on the road or for special occasions and are more about the ambiance than the food itself. Or sometimes they act as an oasis where husbands can sober up before returning home.
That is not to say that there are not great restaurants here, there certainly are. But the overall culture is more difficult for us food snobs (oh! My true colors are showing). Back in SF it was trivial for me to find my favorite Asian dish of beef strips with peanut sauce and spinach over rice. Sushi was never more than 15 minutes away. A darn fine War Wonton soup was within easy reach of five dollars. All of those things happen to be Kosher, by the way. Well… except for the War Wonton soup. I’m not so religious as to pass up steamed pork wrapped in a noodle shell with mushrooms, shiso and various vegetables. Hey… I’m not crazy.
But I am crazy about food. Which has been one of the hardest things about living here. In the large cities it is easier, but I am smack dab in the middle of the traditional oldtime Rhineland region. Pork this and pork that. I was at a restaurant in Koblenz during my first or second trip here where 80% of the dishes were pork. Just as vegetarians tire of having to order the pasta or salad all the time, I had to settle for the… salad too. If the local pork dishes were as yummy as the War Wonton soup back in SF I could have gotten by with my dilettante attitude towards religion. But sadly, I had no taste for the local swine dishes. Five years later I still do not. Pigs are just not in my genes.
So here is a food tip for other folks in my predicament, and that includes vegetarians; make your way to the nearest Turkish and Middle Eastern food joints. For the meat eaters among us there is either beef or lamb (depending on just where the restaurant owners come from) or a good many vegetable options. I’ve become somthing of a vegetarian Lahmacun aficionado lately. Lahmacun are a flat bread topped with a spicy sauce, vegetables and sometimes meat. They usually referred to as Turkish Pizzas in Northern Europe. They can be served flat or rolled up like a burrito (oh how I miss burritos!). They are always Halal (and almost always Kosher), tasty and even healthy if you stick with the vegetarian versions.
I’ve made it my mission to try every Lahmacun stand between Aachen and Frankfurt. If you are ever in the neighborhood and are in the mood, drop by we’ll go on a Turkish Pizza run.