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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Herta Heuwer: The Roots of Currywurst

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

A symbol of the German capital, Herta Heuwer is said to have invented the famous curry sausage, which today is part of the national gastronomic pantheon.

Currywurst in Berlin

Currywurst is a German speciality.

Many Germans consider their capital to be a 'gastronomic desert' due to its sparse and basic cuisine; a reputation that Berliners have cultivated with either pride or indifference. However, the emergence of a promising new cuisine, alongside vegan alternatives, is gradually transforming the local culinary landscape.

The Western lifestyle increasingly values flexibility, encouraging fast food and on-the-go meals. A staple of this phenomenon in Berlin is the famous Currywurst. This dish features a sausage that is cooked, then grilled, sliced into pieces, and topped with a more or less spicy tomato sauce, sprinkled with curry. The meal can be served with a simple white bread or a plate of fries.

In Berlin, over 150 snack bars throughout the city offer Currywurst. These establishments form part of the urban landscape. Some are simply oversized kiosks where people can eat standing up, while others provide a true restaurant setting. Although it is often regarded as 'junk food', Currywurst is nevertheless an important economic factor and an essential cultural symbol.

Germany Year Zero

The concept of Currywurst is rooted in the post-war era, echoing significant dates in German history during the Cold War. In 1948, the Soviets initiated a blockade of West Berlin, blocking all land routes linking the Allied enclave to the rest of Western Germany.

The city's survival largely depended on the success of Operation Vittles, a massive airlift that deployed extensive logistics for a year. By resisting Soviet pressure, West Berlin chose a peculiar form of normality and confirmed its allegiance to the Western Bloc. However, daily life was marked by multiple restrictions and favored innovations to compensate for scarcity.

The Invention of the Currywurst

Herta Heuwer is known in Berlin for having invented the special curry sauce.

Herta Heuwer is celebrated in Berlin for inventing the special curry sauce. Trained as a cook and saleswoman, she started working in 1936 at KaDeWe, the largest department store in Charlottenburg. After the war, she was mobilized to clear the heaps of debris left by the destruction and volunteered to assist at the soup kitchen.

During the Soviet blockade, she lived in the British sector and discovered oriental spices from the Commonwealth. After much work and experimentation, in 1949 she concocted a new sauce to accompany a cooked sausage. At 36, she bought an old car for DM 35 and opened her snack stand in Charlottenburg, achieving immediate success. Heuwer soon hired staff to help her, and in 1959 she finally patented her recipe.

Currywurst became a social phenomenon, and many sought to uncover the secret of the famous spicy sauce or at least to imitate it. In both West and East Berlin, Currywurst was copied, with everyone introducing slight innovations. In the East, the sausage was sold without the casing, less crunchy but similar to the sausage chosen by Heuwer. Others offered sauces with spices or apple pieces.

A Simple and Ordinary Woman

Heuwer became an iconic figure in the popular Berlin scene. A motherly and somewhat authoritative figure, Berliners enjoyed seeing her on television or in the local press. She was seen as a figure of uprightness and simplicity.

The success of her famous spicy sauce attracted the interest of large food groups who wanted to market it on a large scale. However, Heuwer refused to sell her recipe to anyone and railed against those who improvised imitations based on ketchup. As a result, she didn't capitalize on her fortune and chose to stay at work, talking to her customers. This secret she took with her when she passed away in 1999.

Ode to Currywurst

At Witty, the products are organic.

Currywurst is a fascinating historical object because it is a unifying symbol. In 1949, Berlin was scarred by destruction, militarily occupied by foreign powers, and reviled as the former capital of Hitler's Reich. The Currywurst represented a newfound pride and a strong identity refuge, attracting all those in post-war Germany who hesitated to speak of identity.

In response to migration, economic and social crises, it is noteworthy that even today, Currywurst snack bars remain havens for both old Berliners and younger generations raised in this spirit. However, competition from Asian dishes and particularly Döner Kebap threatens its presence in some immigrant-oriented neighborhoods. After all, Currywurst is made from pork.

More than just a dish, Currywurst is becoming a symbol of the city. In 2019, Berlin minted a commemorative medal in honor of Herta Heuwer on the 70th anniversary of the sauce's invention. Currywurst is a cultural object that takes on many forms; some luxury restaurants even offer refined versions.

Above all, Heuwer succeeded in creating a social connection. Crowds flocked to her products, and her shop became a place of social interaction. This phenomenon can still be seen in some shops, like Bratpfanne in Steglitz or Konnopke in Prenzlauer Berg. The fact that Currywurst has never been widely exported is testament to its deep roots.

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