How Currywurst Became Germany's Go-To Fast Food

When Americans think about iconic German foods to try, things like dark pretzels, crispy wiener schnitzel, and apple cake probably come to mind. But one of the most iconic German dishes is actually a fast food staple, and no, we're not talking about Germany's McDonald's burgers. We're talking about currywurst. At first glance, a plate of currywurst might just look like a plate of cut-up hot dogs doused in ketchup. But it's so much more complex — and delicious — than just that.

"Wurst" means sausage in German, so currywurst is obviously a curry sausage dish. At its most basic, the sausages are covered in a tomato-based sauce or ketchup seasoned with curry powder. Germans eat about 800 million portions of currywurst each year, but its popularity doesn't mean it's some ancient German snack. In fact, this fast food favorite has a much more recent history. It was created in post-war Berlin, and it turns out the strongly flavored sauce might have been used to mask the flavor of the mystery meat sausages available at the time. It became popular with construction workers who prized its high protein content, affordability, and flavor. Those same factors are what's made currywurst a German fast food favorite for more than 70 years. 

The invention of currywurst

The most popular version of how currywurst was invented goes like this: In post-WWII Berlin, a woman named Herta Heuwer made a trade with some British soldiers during a time when food was scarce, giving them alcohol in exchange for some ketchup. She then made a dish of sliced sausages topped with the condiment and sprinkled with curry powder. Another version of the story also features Heuwer, but says she invented the signature sauce in her snack shack by blending tomato paste with curry powder and Worcestershire sauce and serving that over sausages, calling it "chillup," short for chili ketchup. She eventually patented the recipe, and there's even a memorial plaque where her snack stand was located.

These days, there are many variations on the original recipe. The sausage used, from bratwurst to bockwurst, varies regionally — even between East Berlin, where they use case-less sausage, and West, where the sausages are in firm casings. In some cities, you can even find vegan versions of the dish. The sauce is just as easily mutable based on where you are. Though it always has a tomato or ketchup base, ingredients like vinegar, garlic, ginger, paprika, and even Coca-Cola can be used to customize the flavor of the sauce, and many people add their own unique tweaks. Try it for yourself — currywurst may just become one street food you wish was common in America.