German food is one of the best ways to get to know German culture.
German dishes reveal a lot about the country’s history, the different regions, and what’s important to the German people.
What’s more, German food is super tasty. Who can complain about getting to know a culture and its people whilst eating Spätzle or a Weißwurst Frühstück? Whether you’re a meat-eater, a vegetarian, a beer drinker or completely teetotal, there’s something for everyone.
In this article we’re going to take the ultimate deep-dive into German food and culture, learn some important words and phrases, and explore the foods you definitely can’t afford to miss.
German Food Culture: What You Need To Know
Germany has a rich and diverse food culture that changes from region to region. Germany has only been a unified country since 1871 (and was reformed again in 1990) which makes it hard to say any food is quintessentially German. Why?
Because each of the counties in Germany was once its own standalone state or was part of a different region; each area has its own deeply ingrained culture and traditions. What might be considered traditional in Bayern may be alien in Saarland. However, there are lots of similarities and consistencies which make German food recognisable and tie all of the different regions delicacies together. For example, seasonal eating is important to the Germans.
You can tell what time of year it is just by looking at what fruits and vegetables are available in supermarkets. From asparagus to goose and strawberries to cookies, there’s a season for everything.
Germans are also really proud of their bread. They still have a great baking culture, and there are lots of different variations of bread to choose from. It’s rare to find a German who doesn’t feel their bread is the best in the world!
You’ll also find that most German foods are simple but heavy. They focus a lot on meat, garden vegetables, bread and beer. Nowadays you can get lighter versions of all of these foods, but it’s all quite filling.
Germans also tend to eat quite early.
Traditionally the main meal of the day was at lunchtime, with a lighter meal coming in the evening (though some Germans might argue that breakfast is the main meal, with meals getting progressively lighter through the day). Evolving work habits and influence from other western cultures have pushed the main meal back to a more internationally recognisable time of the mid-evening. Some people still like to eat their main meal much earlier, but it’s not as clear of a divide as it used to be.
103 Essential Vocabulary Words For Food In German
Before we dig into German food and culture let’s look at some of the essential words you’ll need. Whether you’re reading a menu, ordering in a restaurant, or want to talk about that crazy pork dish you had for lunch, these words will come in handy.
I've split them into different sections for each part of the day, so you can learn them sequentially. And, some of them, like the verbs in the section below, will be used in action later in this article.
Ordering Food in German
- bestellen (to order)
- nehmen (to take)
- gerne (gladly)
- Beilage (sides)
- dazu (with that)
- die Rechnung (bill)
- der Tisch (table)
- zum hier Essen (to eat here)
- zum Mitnehmen (to take away)
German Vocabulary for Breakfast (* Frühstück*)
- das Brötchen (Bread rolls)
- das Weißbrot (White bread)
- die Butter (Butter)
- die Margarine (Margarine)
- der Joghurt (Yoghurt)
- der Honig (Honey)
- das Ei (Egg)
- das Rührei (Scrambled Egg)
- das Spiegelei (Fried Egg)
- das gekochte Ei (Boiled Egg)
- der Käse (Cheese)
- die Wurst (Sausage)
- das Würstchen (Little Sausage)
- die Marmelade (Jam and Marmalade)
- der Schinken (Ham)
- der Kaffee (Coffee)
- der Tee (Tea)
- die Milch (Milk)
German Vocabulary for Lunch (Mittagessen)
- der Salat (Salad)
- die Kartoffel (Potato)
- die Bratkartoffel (Fried Potato)
- das Kartoffelpüree (Mashed Potato)
- die Pommes Frites (French Fries)
- die Krokette (Croquette)
- das Gemüse (Vegetables)
- der Blumenkohl (Cauliflower)
- die Tomate (Tomato)
- der Spinat (Spinach)
- der Kohl (Cabbage)
- der Mais (Sweetcorn)
- der Spargel (Asparagus)
- der Pilz (Mushrooms)
- die Karotte (Carrot)
- die Zwiebel (Onion)
- die Erbse (Peas)
- die Bohne (Beans)
- der Lauch (Leek)
- das Fleisch (Meat)
- das Rindfleisch (Beef)
- das Schweinefleisch (Pork)
- das Kalbfleisch (Veal)
- das Geflügel (Poultry)
- der Fisch (Fish)
- das Hähnchen (Chicken)
- das Lamm (Lamb)
- der Speck (Bacon)
- das Kotelett (Cutlets/Chops)
- das Schnitzel (Austrian Style fried slice of meat)
- die Spätzle (South German-style pasta)
- die Brezel (Pretzel)
- der Knödel (Dumplings)
- der Reis (Rice)
- die Nudeln (Pasta)
- das Mehl (Flour)
- der Essig (Vinegar)
- das Öl (Oil)
German Vocabulary for Evening Meals (Abendessen oder Abendbrot)
- das Brot (Bread)
- die Fleischwurst (Meat sausage)
- die Geflügelwurst (Poultry sausage)
- das Vollkornbrot (Whole wheat bread)
- der Lachs (Salmon)
- der Senf (Mustard)
- das Ketchup (Ketchup)
- die Gurke (Gherkins)
- das Bier (Beer)
- der Wein (Wine)
- das Wasser (Water)
- das Salz (Salt)
- der Pfeffer (Pepper)
- die Schokolade (Chocolate)
- der Kuchen (Cake)
- das Bonbon (Small sweet or dessert)
- die Nuss (Nut)
- die Praline (Chocolate with filling)
- der Keks (Cookie)
- das Eis (Ice cream)
- die Sahne (Cream)
- der Zucker (Sugar)
- die Süßigkeiten (Small sweet-things)
- die Rosine (Raisins)
- der Süßstoff (Sweetener)
Fruits in German
- das Obst (Fruit)
- der Apfel (Apple)
- die Birne (Pear)
- die Banane (Banana)
- die Orange (Orange)
- die Zitrone (Lemon)
- der Pfirsich (Peach)
- die Pflaume (Plum)
- die Traube (Grape)
- die Erdbeere (Strawberry)
- die Himbeere (Raspberry)
- die Kirsche (Cherry)
How To Order Food In German — Helpful Phrases
Ordering food in Germany is really easy! Staff are friendly and helpful and will be patient if you’re trying to order in their language.
The simplest way to order food is to say the number of items you want, the word “mal” (times) and then the name of the food you would like to eat, and the word “bitte” (please). For example:
- Einmal Wiener Schnitzel bitte (One wiener schnitzel please)
- Zweimal Cheeseburger bitte (Two cheeseburgers please)
- Einmal Flammkuchen und dreimal Pommes bitte (One flammkuchen and three portions of french fries please)
But if you’d like to order in a more polite way, you can use the phrase Ich hätte gerne which roughly translates to “I would like to have” (This uses the Accusative case, which means any time the word “der” is used, it becomes “den”).
- Ich hätte gerne Knödel bitte (I’d like the dumplings please)
- Ich hätte gerne Kalbfleisch bitte (I’d like the veal please)
- Ich hätte gerne Käsespätzle mit Speck und ein Bier, bitte (I’d like to have the Käsespätzle with bacon and a beer, please)
If you want to ask if something comes with the dish – like if a burger comes with fries, or if you have to order them separately – you can use the to signify that.
- Sind beim Hamburger schon Pommes dabei/inklusive? (Does the hamburger come with fries?)
- Ist der Apfelkuchen immer mit Sahne? (Does the apple cake come with cream?)
- Ist bei Eiern immer Toast inklusive? (Do the eggs come with toast?)
German Restaurant Phrases
There is a whole world of German restaurant phrases you can use to do more than just order.
Before you eat, it’s polite to say “Guten Appetit” to the people on the table. This can be alien English speakers, where we don't have a word like this to start the meal (I still get caught on on this after a year of living in Germany), but it's correct procedure here.
Once you’ve tucked in, you can begin to describe the food you’re eating by using some of the phrases below:
- Lecker! (It’s tasty!)
- Sehr gut (very good)
- Ich finde es scharf (It’s spicy)
- Ich finde es ein bisschen fade (It’s a bit bland)
- Es ist köstlich. (It’s delicious)
- Oh nein, es ist kalt (Oh no, it’s cold)
- Es ist heiß! (Hot!)
- Sehr, sehr saftig (Very, very juicy)
If you want to see how the food of everyone else is, you can ask a simple one-word question, too. “Schmeckt's?” translates to “how does it taste?” and is probably the only short question you can ask in German.
Let’s say you’re enjoying your food, but you go to grab your drink and notice it’s empty. How do you order another one? For that, you’ll just need the word “noch” followed by the amount of the drink you want.
- Noch ein Bier bitte (Another beer please)
- Kann ich bitte noch eine Cola haben? (Can I have another Cola please?)
- Noch zwei bitte! (Another two please – if they already know what you’re drinking)
Then, once you’ve eaten your food and you’re ready to pay, you can ask for the bill in a few different ways:
- Die Rechnung bitte (The bill please)
- Wir möchten zahlen (we’d like to pay)
- Können wir bitte zahlen? (Can we pay please?)
Manners And Eating Habits In Germany
Table manners in Germany are pretty straightforward, especially if you come from a western background.
If you’ve gone out to a restaurant, you usually won’t have to wait to be seated unless it is explicitly signposted to do so. If a restaurant is busy, it’s also perfectly okay to take a place next to strangers, as long as you ask their permission before you sit down. It’s a pretty free and easy culture like that.
Much like you would at home use “bitte” (please) and “danke” (thank you) as much as possible when talking to waiting staff.
In a nice restaurant, it’s also considered polite to receive menus, pour drinks and place your order in order from the oldest woman through to the youngest man. This is a dated principle, but depending on the company you’re keeping, it’s worth knowing it.
Wait until everybody is sat at the table before you start eating. Keep your elbows off the table, and before you begin to eat wait until everyone has been served, or until someone says “Guten Appetit”.
On special occasions such as a birthday or wedding it’s considered rude to start drinking your drink until a toast has been made, too.
Germans tend to eat with a knife and fork, unless you’re eating food that is designed to be eaten with your hands, like a burger. Otherwise, use your cutlery and try to keep both of them in your hands throughout the meal.
In my experience, it’s more common for people to eat just two courses – usually a starter and a main – but it’s not unusual to have all three, or a dessert instead of a starter. If you’re hungry, just keep eating! It’s also polite to stay seated until the last person has finished their meal.
You’ll also find that Germans like to order a Schnaps after their main meal. This is a small glass of alcohol and could be anything from a whiskey or rum through to a Jägermeister or a limoncello. My girlfriend’s father tells me it’s supposed to aid digestion, but I’m waiting for a doctor to back that up.
5 Traditional German Foods You Have To Try
Traditional German food is simple, warming, heavy and delicious. It’s more in the direction of Grandma’s kitchen than French or Italian high cuisine. But that’s a good thing!
It’s winter food that tastes good all year round. And you just have to try these five foods while you’re in the country.
Flammkuchen is a really thin and crispy rectangular pizza. Traditionally it’s topped with creme fraiche, onions and bits of bacon, and melts in your mouth when you take a bite.
The French often argue that they invented this, and the Germans adopted it, but many Germans would tell you the exact opposite. All I know is that it goes great with a lunchtime beer!
Schnitzel, although technically Austrian, is a flattened and fried piece of meat served throughout Germany.
You can get it in a few different styles. There is the traditional Wiener Schnitzel from Vienna, which is served with veal and potatoes. You can also get it Jäger Art (hunter’s style) which is served with pork. Or, if you’re a vegetarian like Benny, some places even do a cheese version!
Käsespätzle is a German-style pasta covered in cheese, with a little seasoning on top. It’s quite a substantial dish, but it’s a pleasant break from the meat-heavy dishes that usually fill the menu.
It’s especially lovely on a cold day, or if you’re walking outside on somewhere like the Christmas Markets.
The first time my girlfriend’s family gave me Weißwurst-Frühstück, I was a little surprised. The ingredients are:
- Two boiled sausages
- One large pretzel
- As much sweet mustard as you want
- One pint of beer to wash it down
Safe to say it’s not what I expected at 09:30. But it was delicious. And if you’re in Bayern (Bavaria), I highly recommend you indulge.
Maultaschen are a classic food from the Swabia region of Germany.
They’re balls of flour that are usually filled with mincemeat and vegetables that are then fried and served in gravy or stock. Like Spätzle, they’re a German style of pasta, but they’re a world away from their Italian cousins.
Most Popular German Foods
German foods vary in popularity depending on the season. Each season brings its own speciality that both restaurants and home-cooks alike serve at their tables.
In late spring it’s Spargel (asparagus) season, which the Germans go absolutely wild for. In fact, they have a designated period of the year known as Spargelzeit (asparagus time), from the middle of April to the 24th June. They even crown asparagus queens to mark the start of the season.
Specifically, Germans want to eat white asparagus that only grows at this time of year. It’s often served boiled, with butter or hollandaise sauce, as an accompaniment to meat.
As the spring gets into flow and summer approaches, you’ll see lots of fruits gain popularity as well. Rhubarb, cherries and peaches all begin to become active ingredients in the German kitchen.
Once the coldness of winter sets in, and especially around Weihnachten (Christmas) you’ll begin to see people preparing goose to eat with their families. I’m yet to try it, but there’s always a buzz when the restaurants start serving it.
German Food Facts
Want some cool stuff to talk about over dinner? These German food facts are for you!
I mentioned at the start of this article that Germans are proud of their bread. And, there’s a lot to be proud of. There are over 3000 types of German bread to choose from, and they’ve even applied for UNESCO recognition as a protected part of their culture. There is even an official bread institute with its own bread sommeliers and registered bakers.
In Bayern (Bavaria) beer is widely considered more of a basic food than a drink.
When John F. Kennedy made his speech before the Berlin wall in 1963, he proudly proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner” which translates to I am a Berliner, but a Berliner is also a type of food, so JFK could also have been saying, “I am a jelly doughnut”.
A German woman, Martina Servaty, holds the world record for juice extracted from treading grapes in one minute at 8.6 litres (1.89 gallons).
What’s The Wurst That Could Happen?
Phew! That article was longer and heavier than most German meals. But, you made it all the way through it.
By now you should have a clear idea of German culture, eating habits, traditional foods, and the key vocabulary and phrases you need for your time in Germany.
If there’s anything I’ve missed, or that you’d like to have seen included, please let me know in the comments! I’m open to learning about any and all German foods I’m yet to try.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.