When you think of German food, you probably think of heavy, meaty dishes. Platters of sausage, crispy pork knuckle, and whole roasted suckling pig at Christmas. Complicating things further, speck (bacon) can find its way into any dish and butter and cream are used lavishly in sauces and dressings.
But that's not all German cuisine offers. There are an estimated six million vegetarians in Germany and they've gotta eat too. While you may have trouble finding options in small country villages, cities like Berlin and Hamburg are full of vegetarian and vegan options. Berlin was even named The New Vegetarian Capital of the world by Saveur in 2015. And even at the most traditional restaurants, there are options suitable for the veggie eaters among us.
Use Happy Cow to find the perfect meat-free restaurant in Germany. While its listings don't offer every vegetarian restaurant (such as veggie meals in mainstream restaurants), their user reviews provide an excellent view of available options. Alternative sites include VegGuide.
Here are the crucial terms you need to know for dining out as a vegetarian, how to cook for yourself, and some staple German foods that are vegetarian and vegan-friendly.
Terms for Vegetarian Dining
- Ich bin Vegetarier[in]. - I am a vegetarian [female vegetarian].
- Ist es vegatarisch/vegan? - Is it vegetarian/vegan?
- Ich esse kein Fleisch/Fisch/Eier/Milch/Käse. - I do not eat meat/fish/eggs/milk/cheese.
- Welches dieser Gerichte kann ich essen? - Which of these dishes could I eat?
- das Gemüse/Gemüseteller. - Vegetables/vegetable plate.
- Allergie - Allergy (sometimes better understood than vegetarian).
- Haben Sie vegetarisches/ veganes Essen? - Do you have vegetarian/vegan food?
- Words to avoid: Schwein (ham or pork), Hähnchen or Huhnfleish (chicken), Rindfleisch (beef), Kalbfleisch (veal), Puten (turkey)
Where to Shop
Germany's many grocery stores are an excellent resource for vegans and vegetarians. Mainstream chains - even discounters - have at least a small alternative foods/vegetarian section. It is common to find Bio (organic) goods and even full grocery stores.
Germany's beloved Bäckerei (bakeries) are also an excellent source of a meal. Besides delicious pastries, they usually sell sandwiches and salads that are vegetarian and vegan-friendly.
Side dishes of Kohl (cabbage, often in the form of Sauerkraut) and Kartoffeln (potatoes) aren't your only options. Here are the best vegetarian dishes in Germany.
Essentially a German form of macaroni and cheese, Spätzle is so much more. A Swabian specialty that is loved throughout the land, these egg noodles are the perfect belly-filling meal. To amp up the deliciousness, order Käsespätzle (cheese spätzle) which comes with gooey Emmenthal cheese and sweet and crispy fried onions.
A staple of festivals and restaurants alike, this is the vegetarian go-to at one of the meatiest of all Fests, Oktoberfest.
And for vegans, some restaurants specialize in vegan versions without the eggs and cheese and with the tastily fried onions.
For any vegetarian who feels like vegetables are treated as a side dish, Spargelzeit is magic time for you. The king of vegetables, white asparagus, is treated with utter reverence from March until mid-June every year. It is on every German menu and palate and the country even has to import the stuff from Spain as they can't keep up with the demand of almost 70,000 tons consumed per year.
And this is just one of the seasonal obsessions. Don't forget to try Frankfurter Grüne Sosse (green sauce) and Bärlauch (wild chives) in spring, Rote Grütze (berry compote) in summer, and Pfifferlinge (Chanterelles mushrooms) in early fall.
How can a humble potato pancake taste this good? Germans have a way with potatoes and the way they craft this shredded version into fluffy interior/crunchy exterior patties is a thing of beauty.
At most fests and markets, they are also served in sit-down restaurants. Also known as Kartoffelpfannkuchen (literally potato pancakes) or Reibekuchen in the Rheinland (Cologne area), this salty veggie dish is usually topped with Apfelmus (applesauce), but may also come with savory toppings like Leberwurst, Lachs (smoked salmon) and Frischkäse (sour cream).
The Alsatian form of pizza is impressively served on a giant wooden paddle - but have no fear. It is a fairly light dish with crispy, cracker-like crust and topped with crème fraîche, sliced onions, marjoram, and Speck (bits of bacon). Vegetarians can just leave off the speck or order one of the other million variations. Vegans can also safely eat this dish (with preferred toppings) as the crust is a simple mix of flour, water, and olive oil.
Bread & Cheese
Bread and cheese may sound like a disappointing substitute for non-meat eaters, but it isn't if it's regional favorites like good German bread and cheese such as Obatzter/Obatzda. This particular Bavarian favorite is a spreadable mix of soft cheeses, butter, and spices and is topped with onions and fresh herb. In 2015, Obatzter was even granted PGI (protected geographical indication) certification like Cologne's Kölsch Beer.
It is usually paired with Laugengebäck (baked goods with a crusty exterior) like pretzels. It is a favorite of biergartens and also fit for a light dinner at home in the tradition of abendbrot.
Clearly, this option still doesn't work for vegans. But with a few adjustments, vegans may still enjoy excellent German bread and vegetable-based spreads like Brotaufstrich mit Tomaten.
Semmelknödel mit Pilzen
Potato and bread dumplings come with many different names and formations but are a great dish for vegetarians to enjoy German cuisine. Look for Knödel, Klöße or the aforementioned Semmelknödel.
Vegans should note that they may be made with egg and milk, but there are vegan-friendly varieties. Just use the terms above to find out if the version on the menu is good enough to eat.
They also may come with a very meaty sauce, but one of Germans other favorite things offer an ideal alternative - mushrooms. Known as Pilzen or Champignon (as well as "Porcini" for Steinpilz and Chantrelles for Pfefferlinge), these sauces are usually even vegan-friendly...unless it is Rahmschwammerl which is creamed mushrooms with loads of butter and cream as well as a hefty dumpling or two.
It's not uncommon to find some carefully rolled ham slipped into your green leaf salad, but that does not mean that a delicious vegetarian salad is off-limits in Germany.
For example, Gurkensalat takes advantage of fine German cucumbers, usually lightly dressed with vinegar. On the other hand, Kartoffelsalat is usually much different than Americans are used to and another dish that Speck always seems to find its way into.
Turkish & other Ethnic Food
You might not consider Turkish food a traditional meal for Germany, but the considerable Turkish population has left a deep impact on the country and cuisine. While the omnipresent Döner on a spit catches most of the attention, Turkish restaurants are actually a haven for vegetarians and vegans. Eat your fill of Gemüse Kebab from guidebook-famous Mustafas, bulgur salads, Kumpir (Turkish baked potato), Gözleme, Kısır, Falafel, Simit...
Note that trusty vegetarian ethnic options like Italian, Thai, Mexican, and Indian are also largely available, especially in bigger cities. Hungarian Langos -- fried flatbread made of flour, yeast, salt, and water -- can be a surprise veggie option at festivals.