Labskaus: Another Hamburg Mystery

Hamburg, my love, you continue to delight, surprise and occasionally baffle me.

If you live here, you find yourself talking about local things to people. Local things include local dishes. Northern German cuisine is perhaps not as readily recognizable or identifiable as some others, but it exists, solidly and reliably. As with many things in the North, and that means Hamburg too, it needs some time to be discovered, and then you might feel like testing it out.

This is how I found myself looking at a large plate with Labskaus neatly scooped in the middle during my lunch break in the lovely Kleinhus Cafe und Weinbar. After many years of countless jokes, discussions with friends, incredulous exclamations, perusing articles online and trying to decide ja or nein, while all the time not having a clue what set Labskaus apart, the moment of truth was finally upon me.

Labskaus is a bit of an enigma for anyone who didn’t grow up here. Why? Simple. It looks like a mound of raw meat ground to mashed potato consistency with fried egg on top, and a side helping of gherkins and pickled herring fillets also known as rollmops. Something about the combination just makes some of us hesitate. Historically it was said to be a popular dish among sailors in Northern Germany, and the mashed consistency made it easy to eat since many of them had bad teeth.

Fast forward a few hundred years later to some wary diners. The meat is salted, not raw, it just looks that way in some cases, most likely due to a generous helping of beetroot and carrots. The dish might differ slightly in different restaurants. It’s warm, filling, and easy to eat. Don’t let what might look like a small-sized portion fool you, the helping is more than enough.

It all comes down to this. Labskaus by no means tastes how it looks…but it still looks the way it looks. Or some of us (me) overthink things. Guten Appetit!

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