I have trouble taking sausage seriously as a food. I mean, no matter how full I am, I always feel like I can eat another sausage or two. But good God, did I put down a lot of currywurst in Berlin.
I didn’t even really know what currywurst was before getting there, but I arrived on a mission to find it. Anything that marries a German wurst with curry kind of has to be awesome, right?
And so it took me, I swear, eight minutes from the airplane to my first encounter, at a stand in the airport bus terminal. The moment could not have better realized my imagination of Berlin: waiting for a currywurst with a poodle at my ankles, its hair dyed punk-rock pink to match its 50-year-old owner. Maybe it was the moment that caused me to fall for currywurst, because in truth, it is…weird. Imagine a smooth, white sausage cut into chunks, drowned in ketchup, with a shake of curry powder on top. So much for my romantic curry-and-wurst wedding. This is more like a marriage of convenience.
But Berliners love this stuff, and it’s easy to see its charms: sweet, spicy, and greasy. And, with some guidance and a bottomless appetite for sausage, I certainly found surprising nuances from shop to shop. Here are a few of my more notable findings.
This is probably the most famous currywurst stand in Berlin, frequented by former Prime Ministers and people in all stages of sobriety, and a good place to start talking about how the wursts get cooked. Some shops grill, some griddle, some shallow-fry, and some go straight for the Frialator, prompting my Italian friend Giovanni to say, “Currywurst is the filthiest thing I’ve ever had. You see the wurst in the fat…it’s horrific. I love it!” Konnopke’s shallow-fries theirs, but I swear I saw the good woman give my sausage a little finishing dip in the French fry basket, just enough to give it a ketchup-proof oil sheath. I enjoyed this specimen well—they take time to cook the wursts, getting them sandy brown all over with a pleasing chew. Their sauce is gingery, a little subdued in the curry department. “But why is it so famous?” I asked Bjorn, an expert on such things. “Konnopke’s is in a popular district, so when fashionable people come, they see it. But I think it’s just pretty good.” It’s too bourgeois for his tastes, in other words.
Curry 32 (Greifswalder Str. 32, at Hufelandstr.)
All over, you’ll find stands with names like this one—curry-plus-a-number. Most of them are unrelated, and probably the number refers to the address, but the closer the number is to 36, the more the place is trying to ride the coattails of the most famous curry-plus-a-number stand of all. Curry 32 advertised organic (“bio”) wursts, though, so I was intrigued. The ketchup has a mellow, integrated curry flavor, and may have been my favorite sauce of the bunch. The wurst tastes as if a turkey burger and a Vienna sausage had a baby. I mean that in a good way, if you can accept that. And hey, it’s organic! Still, like all “drunk” foods, the question is: Is it a food for drunks because it’s good for hangovers, or because you have let your inhibitions go to eat it?
Okay, so I’m cheating. This place is not in Berlin, but in Hamburg, where I found that the two cities have a feud over who actually invented the currywurst. This food means something! I’m not prepared to judge one city over the other, but Curry-Grindel is clearly work of a higher order. They grill their sausages and give you a choice of fine or course grind, though both are smooth, with a pleasing snap and lots of allspice. The sauce is complex: Shakes of chili powder give some heat, and sweet sautéed onions round it out. As a bonus, two tremendously friendly men work the grill with enormous smiles, one like an Italian comedian, the other a human Michelin man.
Across the street from the capitalistic pleasure palace of KaDeWe, the largest department store in Europe (where the sixth floor contains every food known to Europe), there is a clean, bright little stand called Witty’s, recommended to me by The Wednesday Chef. “Free range pork!” she wrote. It’s good, and by far the least mystery-meat-tasting of the lot, lightly smoky with a snappy skin. But as I watched the clean-cut employees in chef’s coats charmingly shaking the curry can with smile and style, listening to catchy ’90s alterna-rock on the stereo, I knew that I wanted more sleaze out of this place than it was able to give me.
Everyone, from my friends to the Lonely Planet guide, sang the praises of this place, touting its sauce as spicier and more complex than everyone else’s. To my mind, the sauce was fine, still kind of ketchup-y. BUT! A long, slow torment in hot grease gives these wursts a crust that tastes convincingly of…fried chicken. Yes, you heard me. A sausage that tastes like fried chicken. I think nothing more need be said.
Die Es S-Bahn (in both Tegel and Schöenefeld Airports)
Call me sentimental, but in the end, my favorite specimen was my first, where they cooked the wurst until it puffed like a sausage soufflé, where the curry powder was powerfully aromatic, where the mayo was so thick it was like custard, where the fries were fried in God’s own grease: bright yellow, crisp, and buttery, with some magic dust that tasted uncannily like the flavoring of BBQ potato chips. Even after eating a lifetime’s worth of currywurst in a week, I stopped by for breakfast before my flight out, one last shot before taking off to see Germany, Lego green, vanish beneath me.