10 German Dishes and How to Pronounce Them

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Nealey Dozier)

The German language is full of potential pitfalls and missteps, some more innocuous than others. J.F.K. might have said “Ich bin ein Berliner,” but no one really thought he was a jelly donut. In fact, in Berlin, a donut is actually a Pfannkuchen, which translates as “pancake,” and if you order a Pfannkuchen in Bonn, you’ll get a crepe. In the rest of Germany, a jelly donut is indeed a Berliner — unless you’re in Bavaria, in which case it’s a Krapfen.

White bread rolls pose a similar dilemma: While you can get the same crunchy-outside-soft-inside roll using the textbook Brötchen around the country, regional names for the simple roll vary. In Berlin, you will order a Schrippe; in Stuttgart, a Weck; a little further South, the diminutive Weckerle; and in the heart of Bavaria, Semmel.

A few hours’ drive can mean a whole different dialect — and even when the name stays the same regardless of where in Germany you are, German words are notoriously difficult to pronounce. Do you know how to say Schweinskopfsülze? We didn’t think so.

But some German foods are so delicious, it’s worth figuring out how to pronounce them. Here are 10 to get you started.

Umlauts can be a little tricky to pronounce, but they’re actually sweeter than regular (harsh) vowels. Ä is like eh or the ay in say. Once you’ve got that down, it’s just about splitting the word into smaller words.

Here, käse (cheese) meets spätzle (short, free-form, fresh egg noodles). Not so scary, right? Basically we’re talking about mac and cheese — except German-style, with pasta made on-site and absolutely covered with fried onions and chopped fresh herbs.

2. Zwetschgenknödel (ZWETSCHgen KNoerdel)

Yes, okay, it’s words like this that give the German language a bad rap. I tried to break it down phonetically, but actually, Zwetschgenknödel is pronounced as written — the ö is like the e in her. While the name is intimidating, these sweet plum dumplings rolled in cinnamon-sugar breadcrumbs are exactly what I want to be eating as summer turns to fall.

3. Königsberger Klopse (KOERNIGSberger KLOPsuh)

This dish requires not only knowledge of German pronunciation, but also history. These meatballs (Klopse) come from the Prussian city Königsberg. Don’t try to find it on the map: The city has been Kaliningrad in the small, geographically detached pocket of Russia between Lithuania and Poland since 1945. While the region’s history might be divisive, this dish is not. After all, everyone loves meatballs in a mild, creamy caper sauce.

4. Tote Oma (TOEtuh OHmah)

It’s a little disturbing to see Tote Oma on a menu; it translates to “Dead Grandma.” In reality, it’s a basic black pudding fry-up, East-German style: fried blood sausage, sauerkraut, and boiled potatoes. It’s less and less popular these days, but still brings a sinister smile.

5. Apfelkuchen (APfell KOOchen)

You know, the German “ch” gets a bad reputation — but in most of Germany, it’s somewhere between sh and ck. Here, it’s the same impossible-to-describe sound as in Loch Ness. In any event, when someone offers you Apfelkuchen, say yes. “Apple cake” might mean an everyday single-layer cake or a bundt, but it’s also the word for apple pie (gedeckter Apfelkuchen being a glazed apple slab pie — my favorite!).

6. Wiener Schnitzel (VEENer SHNITzel)

OK, schnitzel is Viennese, but it doesn’t stop it from being a big hit in Germany. The Wiener tips you off that it’s properly elegant, thinly pounded veal (served with potato salad, cucumber salad, and a slice of lemon: perfect!) — not a breaded pork cutlet ready for a sandwich.

7. Dickmilch (Dick Milsh)

Oh boy. Literally “thick milk,” Dickmilch is one of Germany’s many untranslatable dairy products. It’s cultured milk, made sour by lactic acid fermentation. It’s like a thicker version of cultured buttermilk? Or like a thinner sour cream? Like a lumpier, lower-fat crème fraîche? Not quite yogurt? Like cottage cheese before it becomes cheese? Buy it for a laugh; mix it with whipped cream because it’s delicious.

8. Spargel (SHPAHR gull)

Why is it so important to be able to pronounce the German word for asparagus? Because during asparagus season, you will see asparagus everywhere. On roadside stands, in big supermarket displays, on restaurants advertising their specialized Spargelmenü of various asparagus dishes. Enjoy the asparagus fever while it lasts because when it’s gone, it’s gone.

9. Gewürzspekulatius (GEHwuertz SPECKulatius)

Gewürzspekulatius — as much fun to eat as it is to say. These are crispy, thin spice cookies (think Biscoff cookies from the airlines). In Belgium and the Netherlands, spekulatius are standard cookies, but in Germany, they are a seasonal Christmastime treat, stamped with either Christmassy images of St. Nick or vaguely Dutch themes like windmills and ships.

10. Grünkohl (GRUEn kohl)

Kale obsession looks very different in Bremen than it does in Los Angeles. In Germany, kale (literally green cabbage in German) is wintertime-only, served either in a bowl with a big Pinkel sausage or on a plate with boiled potatoes. A few shots of schnaps, some outdoor lawn games, and maybe even the election of a “kale king” round out a kale-themed winter party called a Grünkohlessen or Kohlfahrt. No smoothies allowed!