If people think about Germany, maybe even before punctuality, high quality cars and an allegedly underdeveloped sense of humor, they think of beer, sauerkraut and -most importantly- sausages.
Although sausages are traditionally made and eaten in most European countries and have become a staple food around the world in the last few centuries, Germany can be considered the epitome of sausage variety, quality and quantity.
There are over 1500 different types of sausage in Germany alone and the average German consumes about 30kg of sausage a year. That is half of the annually consumed total amount of meat in the form of juicy links and thinly sliced cold cuts.
As you can see from the map, not unlike Japan, Germany has both ocean and mountains.
In the far north, there are the coastlines of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea (we even have some islands) and in the far south there are the mountain ranges of the Bavarian Alps.
The big difference to Japan is that Germany is not an island nation but a country in the middle of Europe and is therefore surrounded by nine neighbor states: Denmark, Poland, Czechia, Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Thanks to the European Union, free travel between these countries is possible without any border checks.
I was born and raised in the southwestern German state of Saarland.
Saarland is the smallest of the German states (except the special city-states Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen).
Tucked in between the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz and the French Département Moselle, it also shares a small border strip with the country of Luxembourg.
From my hometown, it takes 20 min by car to reach France and 40 min to reach Luxembourg.
With a size of 2,570 km², Saarland is just slightly bigger than the Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture (2,187 km²) although with roughly 1.000.000 inhabitants it is decidedly less populated than Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture with its 13.600.000 citizens.
One of the most iconic sightseeing-spots in Saarland is the “Saarschleife” or saar meander, where the river Saar, from which Saarland gets its name, makes a very tight bend around a hard rock formation it was not able to carve through.
Schwenken is a special style of grilling that is practiced in Saarland and is a very important part of regional identity. “Schwenken” in German means “to swing” or “to swivel” and describes the art of grilling over a beech wood fire with a special swing-swivel grill, which is called Schwenker. Any other form of barbecue with a static grilling surface, even more so if no fire from natural beech wood is involved, like in coal, gas or electric grilling, is very strongly disapproved of as a matter of regional patriotism.
In most cases, a Schwenker-grill sports a tripod design, which can often be taken apart for transport, or it has a swivelling arm which is either held in balance by a counterweight or by being buried into the ground. All designs have in common that the grid is hanging from a chain or steel wire in a way that allows continuous rotation, ample swinging and height adjustment. For many years, it has been a point of pride for a true Saarländer to build their own Schwenker by themselves, with the help of friends or at least commision one from a neighbor with metal working skills, as long as they were not store bought. Although recently, more and more shops offer ready made solutions that have become increasingly accepted in the population.
However, Schwenker is not just the name of the grilling device, but also the name of the most popular (non-sausage) meat item that is prepared on such a grill: a thick spicily marinated pork shoulder steak. The name Schwenker in this case means “that which is being swung”. Of course, schwenken is the best method of preparation for a Schwenker. Ideally, the grill is touched by the tips of flames from still brightly burning wood, while wood that already turned to white-hot coal provides the base heat. The constant movement of the grill surface allows for a very short distance to the fire while simultaneously protecting the meat from burning. Scientifically, this grilling method can be viewed as a means of controlling heat intake via manipulation of spatio-temporal parameters (pendulum amplitude and rotational speed) over a constant heat source instead of adjusting the temperature of the heat source itself under a static grilling surface. As a result, this allows for longer cooking time and more even cooking of thick meat slices, while also producing a “flame-kissed” crust and the coveted beech wood smoke aroma. Anyone who has ever tried to prepare a thick slice of Schwenker in a frypan can immediately tell how the results (either perfect crust and raw inside or perfect in the middle and dry outside) differ from what can be achieved on a Schwenker-grill.
To add to the confusion, “Schwenker” can technically also denote the person who is operating the above described grilling device. In this case the word means “the one who swings”. As a rather tepid joke, the three homonyms of Schwenker (the grill), Schwenker (the pork steak) and Schwenker (the grillmaster) are sometimes referred to as Saarland’s holy trinity.
Currywurst literally means curry sausage. Although it might not be well known to anyone outside of Germany, Currywurst has consistently been one of the top three most popular fast foods there since the 1950’s. Sometimes switching places with the other two: the döner kebab, which was actually invented in Germany by Turkish immigrants before it became popular in Turkey itself and around the world and the hamburger which is sold by infamous generic american fast food chains).
SAUSAGES IN JAPAN
The types of sausages that are widely available in Japan are of course copies of German originals. Unfortunately, they became warped over time and where “adapted to Japanese taste”. An expression I really don’t like. This kind of backwards thinking only results in bad experiences for customers. Imagine we would “adapt” Sushi to “German taste”: Germans don’t usually eat sticky rice and are not used to raw fish at all. So let’s just use pieces of bread instead and put pork on top. Oh wait, that’s not Sushi anymore…
People try foods from other countries BECAUSE it is unusual to them and if they do, they want to experience the original taste and not some version of it that was “adapted”. A lot of the “Japanese” Sausages that can be found in supermarkets here (see picture above) look like plastic and sadly, also taste like that. Some come with wooden sticks or even bones (!) protruding from them to serve as a handle. Everything only because “Japanese are not used to eating bread” so they needed to be “adapted” to another way of holding them….
Because seeing this is too sad, it has become our mission to re-introduce real and original tasting handmade German sausages to Japan!
If you are interested, let’s get REALLY into detail about the names:
In Japan, sausages are either classified as “Wiener”, from the German term for Vienna Sausages, or “Frankfurts”, from the German term for Frankfurter Sausages.
Alas, the things you can buy in Japan under these names do not have any resemblances with actual Vienna or Frankfurter Sausages.
What are Frankfurter and Wiener in Germany?
They are actually almost the same thing. Both are thin sausages made from smoothly ground meat that contain curing salt and are hot smoked before being boiled. The only difference is that Frankurter are made from pork only and contain potato starch, while Wiener at least 30% veal and no starch. The Wiener can therefore be considered a variation of the Frankfurter.
It was invented in 1805 by a butcher from Frankfurt who moved to the Vienna. At that time, pork butcher and beef butcher where two separate professions in Germany. In Austria there was no such separation, which led him to the idea to mix pork and beef into the same sausage. In Vienna, the sausages were called Frankfurter, because that was where the inventor was from. They quickly became popular and found their way back to Germany where they became known as Wiener, because they were invented there. It is illegal in Germany to call a product “Wiener” if it does not contain a certain amount of veal.
What are Wiener in Japan?
Most Wieners in Japan look like short versions of real Wiener. They have the typical reddish-brown color of hot smoked and boiled sausages, although this is often achieved through food coloring. But as soon as you look inside and read the ingredient list, you start to see the differences. They do not contain veal and neither are they smooth. On the contrary, most of them carry the word “arabiki” (= coarse) in their name to indicate that they contain large chunks of cured pork meat and fat (basically ham) that are embedded into a small amount of smoothly ground meat paste. The taste is also very different. German Wiener have a very subtle, refined seasoning to bring out the flavors of the veal, while Japanese Wiener tend to be more heavily seasoned and salty. In German they could only be sold as “Schinkenwürstchen”, which denotes a boiled sausage that contains coarse pieces of cured ham. Some variations of smooth Japanese Wiener without the large chunks exist as well, however, they suffer from the same unimaginative ham seasoning as their brethren.
What are Frankfurter in Japan?
What is called a Frankfurter or just Frank in Japan is actually most of the time just a thick Japanese Wiener. They contain the same large chunks of cured meat and fat, with or without the smooth meat paste, no herbs at all and sport the same overly salty ham taste as Japanese Wiener.
At festivals, they often come with a wooden stick or even a bone sticking out of them to serve as a handle, because they are not served in a bun, as is common in Europe. They are mostly heated on a griddle pan (Teppan) instead of a grill which fails to produce a nice crust and smoke aroma and even sometimes leaves them cold in the middle. Then they are garnished with mustard and ketchup simultaneously. A custom that gives most Germans the shivers from just seeing it. Although both ketchup and mustard are available at every food stall in Germany as well, those two condiments are never mixed.
So, what are the sausages called that we are selling?
As any literal translation would certainly result in a pretty cumbersome circumscription, let’s just use the German name, which is also widely accepted in English speaking countries: BRATWURST, sometimes shortened to the rather unsightly “Brats”.
As you probably noticed by now, “Wurst” means sausage in German. The first part of the word “Brät” comes from the Old High German word for finely chopped meat.