I remember the first time I went to a bakery in Berlin and asked for three “Weckle.” The woman behind the counter looked at me blankly, and then slowly, contemptuously, following my line of sight, said, “Don’t you mean three Schrippen?” I nodded, slightly confused at her huff – because even in the States, where we have few regional dialect differences, when someone asks for a “pop,” we just laugh and ask what rock they grew up under (it’s Ohio).
But not in Berlin. Here, Berlinerisch is spoken with pride – and a certain amount of sass, which even has a name. “Berliner Schnauze” literally translates as “Berlin snout,” but is more closely captured by the phrase “smart-ass sassafras pants.” The Berliner Schnauze is a trifecta of “snappy attitude, dry wit and downright rudeness” (a lovely description from Ian Farrell’s article on Berlinerisch in Slow Travel Berlin). Everyone’s a comedian. But a kind of scary one you can’t understand.
My childhood experience of Germany was almost solely limited to the south, where they speak their own brand of incomprehensible dialect, Schwäbisch. But since I grew up hearing it, I can understand it – most of it.
But one of the interesting things about growing up in the US speaking a German heavily influenced by a particular dialect, is that when you move to a different region in Germany, you’re not ever totally sure if a word you use is real German (aka Hochdeutsch) or if someone is going to laugh at you for saying “Weckle.”
Technically, Berlinerisch isn’t actually a dialect (or an accent), but a metrolect, “a mixture of different dialects all piled together in one big urban area, usually due to a long history of immigration into the city, from both elsewhere in the country and further afield. There is no one ‘standard’ form of Berlinerisch; everybody speaks it differently” (see again the STB article).
But there are definitely some things you pick up, by going to the bakery (there’s that Schrippe again, a bread roll), trying to get your bike fixed (nope, can’t understand any words here, please fix my bike?), or by listening to shouting bums (“Halt die Fresse!” or “Shut your trap!”).
I think it’s important to immerse yourself in the place you live – learning the language and its special regional twists, eating its cuisine, walking its streets, living the culture, and feeling the city’s own particular rhythmic beat.
I’ve recently rediscovered Kittys Berlin-Kochbuch (Kitty’s Berlin cookbook), which my friend Elli gave me when I moved here. It’s a charming book, with fantastic illustrations by Kitty Kahane that imaginatively capture the city’s local flavor. There are classic recipes – dishes you can find at snack stands all over Berlin today, like “Buletten und Kartoffelsalat” (snack meatballs and potato salad) and “Bienenstich” (a sweet cake with honey, vanilla pudding, and almonds). And there are recipes with funny names, like “Wurst im Schlafrock” (sausage in a nightgown) or “Errötende Jungfrau” (blushing virgin). But there are also things I’ve never heard of – soups made with beer, hard-boiled eggs cooked in mustard sauce. Reading through the book is a fascinating, colorful trip into Berlin’s culinary history.
That’s where I found Königsberger Klopse, meatballs cooked in a white wine and cream sauce with capers. Lemon and anchovies have always been integral parts of the dish, though the cooking broth and sauce vary slightly from recipe to recipe. Some call for cooking the meatballs in salt water, others thicken the cream sauce with a flour roux.
Originally named after the Prussian city Königsberg situated on the Baltic Sea (today Kaliningrad, Russia), the dish suffered the fate of many things in Germany: being renamed to suit the current political climate. In West Germany, then, the dish was called “Kochklopse” (boiled meatballs) to distance the connection to its namesake city, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union after WWII.
Today, they’re back to being called Königsberger Klopse, but they’re no longer as ubiquitous as they once were. It can be hard to find traditional German food in the capital – at least if you’re eating out. At home, Klopse are still family favorites, like Berlin’s equivalent of your mom’s best casserole.
Their flavor is distinctly maritime – the oceanic salt of anchovy is as present as the caper’s briny punch – and perhaps this taste is a nod to the coastal town for which it was named. But it’s also an incredibly comforting dish with rich, full flavors: the heady depth of wine and egg yolks whisked with heavy cream.
Königsberger Klopse is traditionally served with a beet salad and boiled, buttered new potatoes in parsley. Kitty says: “Rote Bete gehört zum Königsberger Klops wie das Bier zum Prater, die Goldelse auf die Postkarte und die Bulette mit Mostrich auf die Faust.”
It’s such a Berlin phrase: Beets belong with Königsberger Klopse like beer belongs in the Prater, the Victory Column belongs on a postcard and meatballs with mustard belong in your hands and not on a plate.
But to truly understand that phrase – to know why all those things go together like sprinkles on cupcakes, peanut butter on jelly, and fireworks on the Fourth of July, you have to live here, in Berlin, and say that phrase with sass.
Slightly adapted from Kittys Berlin-Kochbuch.
For the beets:
4 (500 g) cooked beets
4 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. honey
2 pinches caraway
Salt & pepper, to taste
For the meatballs:
1 yellow onion, diced
1 tbsp. butter
1 stale roll (or 2 slices dry bread)
6 anchovy filets
1 lb. (500 g) ground beef
Salt & pepper, to taste
3 cups (700 ml) chicken broth
½ cup (100 ml) dry white wine
3 egg yolks
¾ cups (200 ml) heavy whipping cream
3 tbsp. capers
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Slice beets into a medium-sized bowl. Whisk together vinegar, honey, caraway, salt, and pepper, and pour over the beets. Set aside and allow to marinate as you prepare the meatballs.
Sauté onion in butter until translucent. In the meantime, soak the roll (or bread) in warm water until soggy, then squeeze out all the excess water. Finely chop the anchovy.
In a large bowl, mix together ground beef, onions, roll, ½ of the anchovies, eggs, salt, and pepper until well blended. Form into meatballs with slightly damp hands (should make about 12).
Bring broth and wine to a boil in a deep skillet. Add meatballs and turn the heat down to medium. Cook the meatballs for 15 minutes until cooked completely through. Remove from cooking liquid with a slotted spoon, and remove the cooking liquid from heat.
Once the liquid has cooled slightly (warm to the touch, but not hot), return to low heat. Whisk egg yolks and cream together, and slowly whisk into the broth. Add capers, sardines, and lemon juice. Return meatballs to broth and cook covered for another 3 minutes.
Serve with beets and new potatoes in butter.