Seafood isn’t mentioned often when we speak about traditional German cuisine. We’ve been guilty of it, too, quite frankly. German food is so tightly tied with staples such as meat, pickled vegetables, mustard, and bread, that everything else often gets overlooked.
On the one hand, the lack of attention around German seafood is easily understandable. Its popularity hardly compares with the overwhelming popularity of German sausages. Add in the reputation of seafood from countries like Japan, Italy, Portugal, and the USA (no one beats Maine for lobsters, is all we’re saying!), and it’s quite understandable why nobody thinks of Germany first when talking about high-quality seafood.
A damn shame and a mistake we’re gladly going to rectify.
Germans and Seafood: How Much They Consume, What They Consume, and Where
Seafood consumption has a long history in Germany - just not in all of Germany, to be quite fair. Germany has only one coastal area (in the North), so access to fresh fish was quite limited for a long time.
Before the industrial revolution, only coastal areas boasted fish as a regular part of the diet. Northern German cuisine has many dishes where fish is the star of the show, and there was a time when it was considered a poor man’s menu, nothing to write home about.
On the other hand, in areas where fishing wasn’t part of everyday life and people had limited access to fresh seafood, it wasn’t a particularly popular item until the 20th century.
The one exception to this order was pickled fish, particularly the pickled herring. Unlike most other seafood items, the pickled herring’s popularity picked up around the 12th century, long before the industrial revolution. While it didn’t sweep the entire country off its feet from the get-go, it spread relatively quickly due to several factors lining up very favorably for North German fishers. First was the abundance of herring around the Swedish peninsula (their spawning grounds), to which fishers from Lubeck had easy access.
This abundance meant that fishers didn’t need to fish just to keep themselves fed from day to day. They had plenty left over to sell. Potentially, excess fish could mean a lot of spoiled product due to lack of refrigeration, but that’s where pickling entered the scene.
The second factor was the ease of access to salt to preserve the fish (the nearby town of Kiel had salt mines). Pickling increased the shelf life of the fish and made it possible to transport it deeper inland, giving non-coastal areas access to what remains today the most iconic German seafood.
Things considerably changed after the industrial revolution, when sea fish like mackerel, tuna, and salmon (among a few others), became well established and widely consumed all across the country. But the reputation around seafood changed alongside the times. What was once considered a poor man’s menu was now a luxury item and a delicacy, often costing more than meat (aside from the pickled herring; it remained a more-or-less accessible option for the masses throughout the years).
But it’s the last decade, maybe a decade and a half, when seafood consumption truly picked up in Germany. The increase in seafood consumption between the 80s of the century past and the 2020s is around 10lbs per capita (up from 25lbs to about 35lbs!). The main reason behind the increase in consumption is undoubtedly financial - fish is slowly becoming more affordable, while meat is getting more expensive. But some of it can be allotted to the increased belief that fish is a healthier source of protein.
Whatever the reason, it bears to repeat that German seafood, particularly herring, has been a staple of traditional cuisine for centuries now. Whether seafood production increases or decreases in Germany, you can certainly expect it to remain a staple for centuries to come.
Top 10 Traditional German Seafood Dishes You Need to Try:
While sea fish has slowly and surely established itself as a standard product in German cuisine (you can easily find canned tuna in the supermarkets, and few, if any, high-end restaurants will skip salmon on the menu), freshwater fish still remains a bit more popular. More than a few varieties of carp have been bred in the ponds around the country for centuries now. According to various sources, Alaskan pollock is one of the most widely consumed fishes in the country, and Nordseekrabben (small brown shrimp caught in Northern coastal cities) has evolved into a prized delicacy.
We’ve compiled a list of top traditional German seafood dishes you should be on the lookout for the next time you visit Germany. Or prepare them yourself with a little direction and the right ingredients.
Fischbrötchen, also called Fischsemmel, is quite possibly the most popular fish-based dish in the country. It’s a simple sandwich made by stuffing a thick slice of pickled fish into a white bread roll with a hard, crunchy crust (like Kaiser roll). Surprising literally no one, the most popular option is the pickled herring. Still, other options like Atlantic cod, mackerel, pollock, and salmon have also become popular in the last couple of decades. Other ingredients often include white onions (the most classic pairing), pickles, horseradish sauce, remoulade, and even ketchup.
The herring sandwich is sometimes called Bismarckbrötchen because, according to the legend, it was Otto von Bismarck’s favorite way to enjoy pickled herring.
Krabbenbrötchen is a traditional sandwich made with Nordseekrabben. Unlike the Fishbrötchen, the shrimp roll is simpler and usually made with fewer ingredients to accentuate the taste of the shrimp. It’s made with a white bread roll or bun sliced in half and generously buttered before adding the shrimp. Other ingredients are usually limited to tartar sauce and fresh lettuce leaves. Due to the high price of the shrimp, this sandwich is on the pricier side, but it can still be found at seafood shops.
Rollmops are a classic pickled herring snack. The fillets are stuffed with something savory (white onion slices, pickled gherkin, green olives, etc.), rolled into cylinders, and skewered through with wooden sticks.
Rollmops can sometimes be used to make a version of Fischbrötchen, but usually, they’re eaten by themselves. They’re considered a classic hangover breakfast item, as Germans believe they restore electrolyte balance in the body.
Räucherfisch means smoked fish in German and is an umbrella term for all smoked fish varieties. Smoked fish is almost as popular in Germany as pickled fish (and it can be argued that pickled fish beating it is mainly due to the popularity of the pickled herring). Usually, the fish is smoked whole and sold in its entirety at markets and seafood shops, but smart manufacturers have cottoned onto the popularity of the product and have started canning and selling smoked fish fillets, similar to pickled fish. For example, you can as easily find smoked mackerel in the can as you can find pickled mackerel fillets in a sauce.
Smoked fish is served cold. Germans typically have it with some white bread or with a side of boiled potatoes.
Speaking of boiled potatoes, they’re also the most popular side for Matjes and Matjessalat. Matjes are young herrings that have yet to reproduce. They’re usually caught in the season between May and July, partially gutted, and pickled in brine. They are either enjoyed on their own with a side of boiled potatoes stuffed in a bread roll (this type of Fischbrötchen is marked explicitly as Matjesbrötchen at shops to differentiate from the classic Bismark herring version) or used as an ingredient in a salad.
Typical Matjessalat is made by combining diced young herring, white onions, apples, and pickled cucumbers or gherkins, with mayonnaise or cream-based sauce.
Once a “poor man’s soup,” now brown shrimp bisque is an haute cuisine mainstay. The main ingredient is shrimp stock (though sometimes it’s switched to fish stock to cut the expenses). The stock is mixed with a roux made with butter and flour to make a thick, smooth, creamy blend and flavored with white wine. The soup is topped off with whipped cream and a bit of cognac just before serving and is accompanied by a few spoonfuls of shrimp meat on a separate plate.
Karpfen in Biersoße
Carp is quite possibly the only fish that can compete with herring in historical importance. There’s evidence that certain carp varieties have been bred in Germany for over a thousand years. The most common way to serve carp is to simply gut it, clean it, and roast it whole. But there are several more complex dishes where carp is the main star.
One such dish is Carp in Beer Sauce. Carp is first marinated in vinegar for a bit, then simmered whole in a deep pan with a stock made from sauteed vegetables, water, and beer mix. Once the fish is ready, the sauce is strained, thickened with roux, appropriately seasoned, and served on top of the carp.
Stecklerfisch is traditional Bavarian fish barbeque. While it’s considered a specialty in Bavaria and Franconia, these days, you can easily find it all over the country, in beer gardens and at different festivals (like the famous Oktoberfest).
Stecklerlfisch is made by spearing a whole (gutted and cleaned!) fish on a stick and roasting it on an open fire. White fish like bream is a popular option, along with trout and mackerel.
Brathering is a dish made with fresh herring. Shocking, I know! The herring is gutted and cleaned, then rolled in flour (or breading) and pan-fried until the outer shell is crispy. After the fish is fried, it’s marinated in a mixture of white wine vinegar and different seasonings (salt, pepper, and mustard seeds are typical). The dish is served cold, with a side of fried potatoes or potato salad.
Classic processed fish fingers are one of Germany’s most popular seafood snacks. German fish fingers are typically made with Pacific pollack, but cod (Atlantic or Pacific) and pangasius are also popular, along with some other white fish.
Check Out German Seafood Selection at Yummy Bazaar’s Online Store:
German seafood, particularly pickled, smoked or canned herring, mackerel, carp, and sprat, are known for their high quality and full flavor profile. German seafood manufacturing combines exceptionally high standards of the process with traditional tried and tested methods to preserve the flavors that made the fish staple of Northern German cuisine in the first place but isn’t afraid to experiment during the process. A wide variety of flavorful sauces used to flavor canned herring and mackerel fillets is enough to attest to the fact that German manufacturers aren’t scared to add new twists to the old classics.
If you’re a seafood lover, giving German fish, at least German pickled herring stuffed in a soft crusty white roll, a chance is a must.
Luckily, finding German seafood isn’t as hard as it used to be a little while ago. Even if you cannot find it at your local supermarket, you can always buy seafood online right here at Yummy Bazaar with just a few clicks!