Germany and curry make for an unlikely pair. This is a country most famous for colossal cuts of pork served with salted potatoes in every variety — boiled, pan-fried or shaped into cricket-ball-sized dumplings. Black pepper, to many here, is considered a spicy flavour. And yet, currywurst — sliced sausage topped with a tomato sauce flavoured by spices including yellow curry powder, paprika and potentially a few secret ingredients too — has been a German favourite for over half a century. It can be eaten at almost any time of day, and at any level of intoxication. You’ll find versions sold for €4 (£3.40) from shabby stands and haute interpretations costing €25 (£21) and paired with Champagne. It’s the fuel served in factory canteens and there are pop songs dedicated to it, politicians have even posed with it and there are festivals celebrating the best of the wurst. So how did it come to be?
It would seem currywurst was not born of German culinary tradition, but more of post-war circumstance. For starters, the two main ingredients — ketchup and curry powder — were first introduced to German pantries during the US and British occupation.
From there, however, the dish’s history gets a little less clear. German writer Uwe Timm recollects feasting on platters at Hamburg’s Grossneumarkt back in 1947. But, unfortunately, he’s the only one who remembers this. Meanwhile, at Bückeburg Castle, in Lower Saxony, chef Ludwig Dinslage claims to have prepared a similar dish in 1946 for visiting British military officers. The most common iteration of currywurst’s origin story, though, is that on a rainy September night in 1949, snack-bar owner Herta Heuwer concocted the dish out of pure luck — and boredom — in her Berlin kitchen. She blended curry powder, tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce and, like any good German, served it with a sausage. She called it 'chillup’ — a portmanteau of chilli and ketchup. By 1959, Heuwer had perfected a recipe and patented the term, leading to the first documented case of ‘currywurst’ on the market.
Since then, the dish has become a fast-food staple across the country, with Germans consuming over 800 million portions each year.
How currywurst is made
The specifics of Heuwer’s original recipe are unknown as she kept it a secret until her death — although food and beverage conglomerate Kraft did at one point try to acquire the patent. But this is a simple dish that’s open to improvisation. At its heart, the curry sauce is tomato-based. Some use tomato concentrate and water, others pureed tomatoes, some swear by ketchup (to the chagrin of some culinarians).
From there, it’s all about the spices — the most essential being curry powder. Some cheffy iterations include a reduction of sugar, balsamic vinegar, garlic, ginger, cloves, apples, turmeric and more, which is combined with pureed tomatoes and cooked down to a thickened sauce. Home cooks, meanwhile, swear by unusual additions such as pickle juice or Coca-Cola.
The choice of sausage, though, is a bone of contention and a matter of regionality. In Berlin, it’s a standard, ‘ohne darm’, meaning a sausage without a casing. In the Ruhrgebiet — a working-class region surrounding Dortmund and Essen — a seared bratwurst is the order of the day. Frankfurt adores a beef sausage over the traditional pork. Even Volkswagen has a specific bockwurst the company manufactures specifically for this dish. And across Germany, vegan and vegetarian sausages are also popular.
The protein might be boiled, seared or grilled, sliced, and coated with the curry sauce. The dish is then topped with fresh paprika or curry powder. When it comes to serving, though, more arguments ensue. Do you serve it with bread or chips? If bread then what kind: dark rye or a white roll? Whatever your order, dig — and dip — in.
Where to eat currywurst in Berlin
1. Curry 36
Curry 36 bustles day and night — if Berlin had a ground zero for currywurst, this would probably be it. Since 1981, locals and tourists alike have been making the pilgrimage to this neon-lit snack stand for a quick bite — it has to be quick because there’s no seating — of the renowned currywurst. For the true Berliner experience, order a currywurst ‘ohne darm’ and a pilsner and huddle up with the dozens of others scoffing theirs down.
If it weren’t for the queue outside, you’d probably mistake Konnopke’s Imbiss for a long-forgotten kiosk, located as it is under a subway line in Prenzlauer Berg. But the history of Konnopke’s is strong. It’s here that East Berlin’s first currywurst was sold back in 1960, and this place has been an institution ever since, slinging out sausages (of numerous varieties) and curry sauce with a sliding spice scale from heavenly to hellish.
Currywurst and Champagne: a surprising combination, but photojournalist Klaus-Peter Bier — this restaurant’s founder — never got that particular memo. A late-night hangout since it opened in 1965, this shop has catered to everyone from Berlin’s chi-chi crowds to tourists stumbling home from infamous nightclub Berghain. You can order your currywurst with or without a casing, and wash it down with a glass of Moët or Dom.
A requisite stop on Berlin’s currywurst trail (if one existed), Krasselt’s started out as a food truck back in the day but has since found a bricks-and-mortar home in Steglitz, where it still cooks to founder Herbert Krasselt’s original recipe. Rumour has it the curry ketchup recipe is so sacred the current owner locks himself in whenever he views it. Taste it and you’ll understand why.