Herta Heuwer: The roots of currywurst
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
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
Many Germans consider the German capital to be a "gastronomic desert" because its cuisine is so sparse and basic; a reputation that Berliners have had fun cultivating out of pride or disinterest. The development of a very promising new cuisine and vegan alternatives is gradually transforming the local culinary profile.
The Western lifestyle is also pushing for more and more flexibility, and encourages fast food and meals on the go. One of the institutions of this phenomenon in Berlin is still the famous Currywurst. It is a sausage that is cooked and then grilled, cut into pieces and covered with a more or less spicy tomato sauce and sprinkled with curry. The dish can be served with a simple white bread or a tray of fries.
In Berlin, more than 150 snack bars throughout the city offer Currywurst to consumers. These establishments are part of the urban landscape. Some of them are just oversized kiosks where people can eat standing up, while others have a real restaurant setting. Although it is probably rightly regarded as "junk food", Currywurst is nevertheless an important economic factor and an essential cultural object.
Germany Year Zero
The idea of Currywurst is set in the post-war context and follows the major dates in German history during the Cold War. In 1948, the Soviets began a blockade of West Berlin, blocking all land routes linking the Allied enclave to the rest of western Germany.
The supply of the city depended mainly on the success of Operation Vittles, a huge airlift that mobilised fantastic logistics for a year. By refusing to submit to Soviet pressure, West Berlin chose abnormal normality and affirmed its attachment to the Western Bloc. However, daily life was based on multiple restrictions and favoured innovations to compensate for the lack.
The invention of the Currywurst
Herta Heuwer is a German woman of her time. Trained as a cook and saleswoman, she began working in 1936 at KaDeWe, the largest department stores' in Charlottenburg. After the defeat, she was mobilised to clear the heaps of debris left by the destruction of the war and volunteered to help with the soup kitchen.
During the Soviet blockade, she lived in the British sector and discovered some oriental spices from the Commonwealth. By dint of hard work and experimentation, in 1949 she made a new sauce to accompany a cooked sausage. At the age of 36, she bought an old car for DM 35 and opened her snack stand in Charlottenburg. It was an immediate success. Heuwer soon hired staff to assist her and in 1959 she finally patented her recipe.
Currywurst became a social phenomenon and many people tried to find out the secret of the famous spicy sauce or at least imitate it. In both West and East Berlin, Currywurst was emulated, and everyone came up with a little innovation. In the East, the sausage was sold without the casings, less crunchy but like the sausage chosen by Heuwer. Others offer sauces with spices or apple pieces.
A simple and ordinary woman
For her part, Heuwer became an iconic figure in the popular Berlin scene. A motherly and somewhat authoritative figure that Berliners enjoyed seeing on television or in the local press. A figure of uprightness and simplicity too.
The success of the famous spicy sauce had attracted the interest of large food groups who wanted to market it on a large scale. Heuwer refused to sell her recipe to anyone, and railed against those who improvised an imitation based on ketchup. As a result, she didn't take advantage of her fortune and preferred to stay at work, talking to her customers. This secret she will take with her in 1999.
Ode to Currywurst
Currywurst is a fascinating historical object because it is a unifying symbol. In 1949, Berlin was disfigured 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 to which all those who no longer dared to speak of identity in post-war Germany would converge.
Faced to migration, economic and social crises, it is relevant to note that even today, Currywurst snack bars remain refuges for old Berliners or younger people raised in this spirit. Nevertheless, competition from Asian dishes and even more so from the Döner Kebap is threatening its existence in some immigrant-oriented neighbourhoods. After all, Currywurst is made from pork.
More than just a dish, it is becoming a brand image of the city. In 2019, Berlin is minting a medal of honour in the image of Herta Heuwer to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the sauce. Currywurst is a cultural object that is available in many different ways; some luxury restaurants even offer refined versions.
Above all, Heuwer had succeeded in recreating a social connection. Crowds flocked to his products and his shop became a place to meet and talk. This is a phenomenon that can still be seen in some of the shops, such as the Bratpfanne in Steglitz or the Konnopke in Prenzlauer Berg. The fact that Currywurst has never been exported is proof of its deep roots.