An American Vegetarian in Germany

07/23/2010 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A family reunion took me to Germany recently, specifically to Berlin and Bremen. I'd been to Berlin before and remember fondly, if a bit foggily, the food.

Returning now, seven years later with my husband, I looked forward to the food and was particularly interested in exploring what it meant to be a vegetarian (dining out) in Germany. Our eating aimed at delicious, and we didn't take any specific steps to find what might be called "traditional" German food. For one thing, it doesn't have the reputation of being particularly vegetarian friendly. But also, much of my husband's family is from Germany and he grew up (and I now enjoy) eating his family's interpretation of traditional German food, without the meat, of course.

Where we did verge on the traditional was breakfast. The breakfasts served at the reunion mirrored the diverse morning spreads we've eaten with my in-laws: yogurts; brötchen (small, crusty rolls); fruit; cheeses, including brie and a pepper cheese made with actual cracked black peppercorns (so, so good); butter; jams; nutella; terrific, strong, brewed coffee; hard and soft boiled eggs, each with a slightly sinister smiling face drawn on the shell for reasons still unclear; juices; and on and on. There was meat on offer as well -- mostly sliced, like cold cuts, though I'd guess better tasting that than image would suggest -- but I barely noticed it amid the bounty of options available to me.

The best lunch we had was at the Sarah Wiener Cafe inside the also fantastic Hamburger Bahnhof Museum. It was not a vegetarian restaurant but, like other "regular" restaurants we visited, we had no trouble finding a terrific meal to eat. We shared a beet spaghetti with chanterelles in a frothy cream sauce and a bright, lightly dressed salad of greens, carrots, cucumbers, pine nuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. Olive oil and a hunk of crusty bread were served too, alongside pink sea salt and a pepper grinder with corns of many colors.

The pasta was the highlight, possibly the best pasta I've ever eaten. And you should know that when I say beet spaghetti, I mean the beets were in the spaghetti. Not stuffed, not alongside, or shredded, or paired with. The dough was made with beets. It was a magenta -- a color you might not naturally imagine when you think of pasta -- and beautiful. The long strands of spaghetti felt slightly heavy on the fork but not at all dense or tough to the bite. The chanterelles were mild, earthy, and multiple. Slightly gritty still (something I found strangely enjoyable) and positively buoyant in the sauce.

Among our dinners, we visited two professedly vegetarian restaurants in Berlin: the Hans Wurst Vegan Cafe and Manna Restaurant. Both were terrific and at both we ordered a combination of burger and stew-approximation. Manna Restaurant's burger was more memorable, if mostly because of its bun, which was crusty with sesame seeds and, at once, soft enough for the burger and sturdy enough for my taste. But my favorite thing: seitan steaks over a sort-of-stew of baby potatoes and a tangy red currant sauce that I could eat on everything, forever, from Hans Wurst Cafe. That was our first dinner in Germany; we were "fresh" from the delirium of two days' travel. I could barely keep my head up at the restaurant but that red currant sauce was fortifying. At least, I'll attribute the fortification to the sauce, not the simple fact of eating non-airplane food or being able to sit or stand or stretch my legs as I pleased. Yes, definitely the sauce.

In addition to meals, we ate and drank lots of other delicious things. Like beer, naturally. Pilseners were our favorite beers in Germany. Neither my husband, nor I, go much for weissbier (unfortunately for us as it abounded). I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I generally find weissbier too sweet. I must say, though, that the ones I tried in Germany were less sweet than the Belgian-style varieties I've tasted in the US. We liked the pilseners we tried, pale and refreshing in the unseasonable heat we were greeted with upon our arrival. And while there, I was interested to learn that Germany had a longstanding beer purity law which permitted only water, barley, and hops to be used in the beer-making process (when they made the law, yeast was there, but they didn't know it). From what I saw, this tradition was still relatively intact. The beers were straightforward and, though I wasn't really searching for them, I did not come across any micro-brew-style pumpkin (for example) incorporating brews.

As for other drinks, coffee featured prominently, and in all the forms you might find here, with one notable addition. Everywhere we went we saw eiskaffee. It sounds like iced coffee, but is not. It is coffee with ice cream, and often whipped cream (unsweetened when I tried it), floating gently in it. This, and the tradition of eating beautiful, fruit-laden cakes in the afternoon are some practices I could really get behind. Those cakes, by the way. Those cakes were amazing: fruit centered; angel food or white, from what I tried; often with a custard or creamy layer, and/or a crisp, sugary glaze on top. I'll leave you with that.