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Bring me the brain of Heinrich von Kleist

I emailed my friend Zee who is half German, half Pakistani, but was raised in Britain and now lives in Cologne. “I’ll be on your hof next week,” I wrote. “What’s the most typical Berliner fast-food outlet?” His answer came back faster than the projectile vomiting of vindaloo and lager: “Currywurst – you’ll find one in any of the main railway stations, but mind out for extreme indigestion.” That was good enough for me, but a day or so later there came a much longer communication. Zee had talked to his brother Nav who lives in Berlin, and Nav had recommended a whole raft of other eateries – kebab joints in Kreuzberg, soup stops in Charlottenburg, a Red Rooster in the Reichstag (actually, I made that one up), but it was too late: I knew Currywurst was the place for me.

Brat pack

At Alexanderplatz I was winched up from the U-Bahn into the station plaza feeling about as much like a curried sausage as is possible: I’d had to get up at 4am to make my flight, and now it was a sunny, chilly mid-morning. Out on the plaza a Joseph Beuys lookalike was flogging fake-fur Red Army hats coated in what appeared to be goose fat.

Nobody I spoke to in Berlin could give me the lowdown on Currywurst. To hear them speak, you’d imagine that it had always existed in these parts – that when the Teutonic knights knife-and-forked their way east into what would eventually become Prussia, they encountered whole tribes dining on oblong Styrofoam platters mounded with discs of stinky bratwurst that in turn were mounded with still stinkier curry sauce.
Natürlich, wurst is to the Germanic belly as worst is to the Britannic. Nietzsche, who was a spirited critic of his native cuisine, said that nothing could be expected of a nation “whose bellies are full of beer and sausage”. He fled south to Tuscany, where he lapsed into insanity while trying to devise a canapé that could be eaten by horses while standing on their hind legs. I know how Nietzsche felt.

Inside the station concourse, I came upon a branch of Currywurst open for business. It was indistinguishable from any fast-food stop in any nation with a sovereign debt crisis: glass-topped counters, drinks coolers, cooking apparatus linked to a thick and silvery duct that either sucked out the smoke and cooking odours, or else possibly pumped the curry sauce in.

I could have the Bratwurst Menu for €4.80 (bratwurst, chips, Coke) or the Bockwurst Menu for the same; there was something called a “Hänchen Spezial” that weighed in at €4.50 and, in the lurid photo, looked like a quarter of particularly couch-bound chicken (plus chips and Coke, natch). As for the Frikadellen Menu at €4.99, I had no frame of culinary reference available for this glistening blob of meaty stuff. It could have been a scale model of the soused brain of Heinrich von Kleist, for all I knew.

From bad to wurst

I ordered the Currywurst Menu and then took my slathered discs to a countertop and propped myself on a stool. The smell was bizarre: pungently chemical – almost acrid – and as I dug in my white plastic tines saliva welled up into my mouth. I’ve heard of aftertastes but currywurst is one of those foods that has a pre-taste. Chewing on the rubbery wurst while trying not to gag on the sauce – which bore about the same relation to real curry as coronation chicken does to an absolutist monarchy – I pondered the mystery of what it was that the Currywurst experience resembled. Then it hit me: the foodstuffs were completely different, but the way they finagled the palate was exactly the same. Currywurst is the homologue of stewed pinkish eels in sage-green liquor sauce.

And with this intestinal London-Berlin linkage established, I was suddenly at home. That shaven-headed character in a tight brown felt hat at the counter was no alien, but Günter Lamprecht playing the role of Franz Biberkopf in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. As for me, greedily shoving down the bad after the wurst, I was reminded of Kafka’s immortal Hunger Artist, whose dying words must surely haunt the consciousness of all restaurant critics:

“I had to fast, I can’t help it. Because I couldn’t find the food I liked – if I had found it, believe me, I should’ve made
no fuss and stuffed myself like you, or anyone else.”

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover