Unlike romantic French or melodic Italian, German is not what I consider a pretty language. Hearing it spoken aloud, some words and phrases aren’t too bad and remind me in a way of pigeons softly cooing. Other sounds are harsh, guttural and downright ugly. This is not a good thing when you’re trying to figure out something appealing to eat in a restaurant and it sounds like your waiter is trying to clear a big wad of phlegm from his throat as he recites the specials.
It’s a given that you’ll have to eat during a visit to Germany, so it does pay to get acquainted with a few of the more common food items and how to pronounce them. Many restaurants in larger German cities such as Cologne do offer menus with English translations to make things easier. Many, however, do not, leaving you scratching your head and wondering just what the hell “erbsen” is and whether you really want to eat one.
It’s always reassuring when the plate the waiter brings to the table contains exactly what you thought you were ordering, and it is possible to deduce some items phonetically or visually. Say “schokolade” out loud and you can pretty much guess that it means “chocolate.” Same with “milch” (milk), “kaffee” (coffee) and “salat” (salad). However, seeing signs for “back” shops initially made me think they were advertising chiropractic services, or perhaps something along the lines of a “Relax the Back”-type store. Au contraire, mon frere. “Back” means “bake,” so there you go. Bakery, or as the Germans say, “backerei.”
The items that really threw me for a loop the first time I read them were the meat dishes. Meat here is called, somewhat graphically, “fleisch.” Yup. You’re literally ordering flesh. Add on the animal to determine the kind of meat, as in “schweinefleisch” (pork) or “rindfleisch” (beef). To make matters worse, ground meat is called “hackfleisch.” It’s enough to turn one into a vegetarian if you think about it too much.
Oddly, “schinken” is not chicken, as you might be led to believe after pronouncing it aloud. It’s actually ham. Chicken is “huhnchen.”
After you’ve dined out a few times and eaten something that you’ve enjoyed, it’s easy enough to look for it again on menus elsewhere. Ever the creature of habit, hubby finds one or two things he likes and sticks to them (see “pizza salami” in my earlier entry). Some consistently good and authentic German standbys that I often find myself seeking out include “gluhwein,” a delicious hot mulled red wine; “gulaschesuppe,” spicy beef-tomato soup with peppers; “schnitzel,” breaded pork tenderloin; “rippchen,” a smoked pork chop; and “spaetzle,” noodles, sometimes served with a cheese sauce like a German mac and cheese (“spaetzle mit kase”). Oh, and “eis,” which is ice cream or gelato. You see tons of signs for “eis cafes,” charming little eateries that serve coffee and desserts.
There’s sort of a caste system of restaurants here as well. There are the nicer, more upscale, sit-down places where you can enjoy full table service. There is plenty of recognizable American fast-food, sadly. There are smaller, cozy, more casual restaurants where you can enjoy a beer and some food. There are also tons of bakery/coffee shops with a handful of barstools or sometimes even just tall bar tables and no seats, good for zipping in and out for a quick espresso and a pastry. There are also snack stops galore (“imbiss”) where you can grab a quick bite of whatever might tickle your fancy. Turkish kebabs, Chinese take-out, pizza slices, even seafood.
As in any language, the most important German words to know are “bitte” (please) and “danke schoen” (thank you). I’ve found those two utterances alone, along with awkwardly pointing to the item you want on the menu, can often see you through the worst of times when it comes to ordering.