Hamburg Street Food 101

By: Liz Tarpy

I recently returned from visiting friends in Hamburg, Germany. It was my first trip to the city on the Elbe. Tall metal cranes unloading container ships score the horizon. Musty cathedrals stand side by side with shiny modern buildings and narrow row houses lean into each other as if to hear a secret. Canal boats channel tourists through a maze of the city’s waterways. There are sidewalk cafes and leafy parks and bicycles everywhere. The landscape was not like the pastoral Black Forest tableau I’d envisioned. But travel is all about new experiences, especially the food, and I arrived in Hamburg very hungry.

Because of Hamburg’s watery location, and its proximity to the North Sea and the Scandinavian countries, I found a lot of fish. Eel, herring, mackerel, salmon. Pickled, smoked, fried. You name it, I found it. Though I never got out of bed early enough (or stayed out late enough) to make it to the 5 am fish auction, I did sample some mighty tasty fish sandwiches ( fischbrotchen) from one of the vendors in the long row of warehouses that make up the Fischmarkt. The fish came on a crusty roll with little else to adorn, just some raw onion or a leaf of lettuce. A crisp German pils is the standard accompaniment to the smokey (or briney or pickled) flavor of the fish.

Currywurst is also popular in Hamburg. (Like many good culinary stories, the exact invention or attribution of the dish is murky; some say the birthplace is Berlin.) I liked it more than I thought I would, not being a fan of the generic powdered curry flavor. At The Curry Queen, fat chunks of bratwurst are covered in a slightly sweet ketchup sauce, with a sprinkling of your choice of freshly ground curry powders ranging in ingredients and heat levels, with names like Quick Killer and Curry Dragon. It was a zippy lunch on a chilly October day to fortify more exploring.

Wandering into the neighborhood near the main train station, kebab houses abound. Glass cases display skewered meat – some ground, some in chunks, some flavored with spices – and once your choice of kebab is charred and juicy, it arrives at the table with a tart tzatziki sauce and tomato rice. Or you could get it piled into a pita bread with the sauce and some salad inside (a doner kebab). It's the food of the millions of Turkish immigrants that have settled in the towns and cities across Germany, and is now part of the German culinary landscape alongside the fish and sausages.

As all vacations feel, this one went too fast, and I know there were more tasty discoveries to be had. Luckily, my friends will be staying in Hamburg for some time. I'm already scheming my next trip.

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