Food & Drink

Restaurant in Berlin Serves Up Old East German classics

A meatloaf smothered in brown sauce; Germany’s answer to the Hawaiian pizza; an oily schnitzel with noodles and tomato sauce. East German food wasn’t exactly gourmet, but that isn’t stopping customers from flocking to a restaurant in Berlin dedicated to recreating it.

“We’re out of ketwurst,” says the waitress. It’s only noon and the restaurant in eastern Berlin is not exactly full. Is the old East German version of a hot dog really so popular?

The patrons at the Volkskammer restaurant near the Ostbahnhof station don’t seem perturbed. Instead, they order another classic dish from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – a Carlsbad schnitte.

East German cuisine isn’t exactly known for its sophistication. And yet some dishes from the old communist Germany have stood the test of time. The Carlsbad schnitte, also known as Hawaii toast: Take a slice of white bread, slap on a slice of ham, canned pineapple and cheese – in that order – and put it under the grill.

The list continues: falscher hase (fake rabbit), jaegerschnitzel, solyanka, wurstgulasch (sausage goulash), kalter hund (cold dog).

In the GDR, people were more adventurous than in the West: if you do not believe it, try the “Jagdwurstgulasch” in the Volkskammer / Image: Thomas Uhlemann

Food is highly evocative, something that easily enables a walk down memory lane. That’s what Volkskammer is all about: The restaurant is laid out like a typical eatery at the time, and a picture of the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the GDR’s parliament, hangs on the wall.

Times gone by are brought back to life here – especially through the food. That’s how Aurick Guenther wants it. The food is almost exactly as it was in the GDR, namely “simple, plain and good,” says the owner.

In short, no one leaves the restaurant hungry. But patrons looking for something sophisticated will be left wanting at Volkskammer.

Berlin GDR restaurant
Image: volkskammer.de

“The taste of the East was definitely a utopia of sameness,” writes Jutta Voigt in her German-language book about food in the GDR. “The cuisine was about satiating the large collective of eaters, not the taste buds of just a few bourgeois gourmets,” according to Voigt.

The food was also easy to make at home, for example jaegerschnitzel. While it may sound like a cut of meat, it’s actually just slices of sausage breaded like a schnitzel and fried in a pan with oil. The sauce is made from tomato paste and ketchup, along with peeled tomatoes, salt and pepper, and butter. The dish is then served hot with pasta and topped with butter and parsley.

Cuisine in the GDR was also moulded by the fact that not all ingredients were available. There were constantly shortages of certain foods. “There really wasn’t any hardship in the GDR – but everything was lacking, and not everything was always available,” says Stefan Wolle, the research director at Berlin’s DDR Museum.

Berlin GDR restaurant
Image: volkskammer.de

“You had to queue up and run around and wait. But there was no hardship. It was too much food, above all too fatty and too sweet.”

Meat played a big role in people’s diets: In 1986, the average GDR citizen polished off 96 kilograms of meat per year, according to Voigt. They also consumed 43 kilograms of sugar, nearly 16 kilograms of butter and 307 eggs. “As consumers, we were world class,” she writes.

In contrast, meat consumption in Germany in 2017 stood at just under 60 kilograms per person, according to industry figures.

Sebastian Hadrys was born in the eastern German city of Magdeburg and grew up in the GDR. He was 14 years old when reunification happened in 1990. Today he owns a restaurant in Magdeburg, Landhaus Hadrys.

Berlin GDR Restaurant
Image: volkskammer.de

To him, GDR cuisine stands for community, sincerity, team spirit and resourcefulness. “The idea of eating seasonally was more imbued in the cuisine of GDR times than it is today. It was a prerequisite to have memorized when which fruit and vegetables were in season, since nothing was flown in [from abroad],” he says.

A glance at the falscher hase served at Volkskammer in Berlin makes one really question how this food hasn’t died out yet: The ground meat has been moulded into a loaf form and cooked to a dark brown colour. The egg baked in the centre of the loaf is so grey, it hardly resembles an egg any more, though it’s hard to tell as it’s all coated in a thick, brown sauce. How does it taste? Hefty.

So who exactly are the clientele at this establishment? Owner Guenther says that, at first, it was mostly old people. However, these days, more young people are showing up, so it’s now a mix.

Either way, patrons always tell him: “It tastes exactly like before.”

Thanks to Tom Nebe, dpa.

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