Everybody loves potato salad. The origin of the potato salad is disputed, but many believe that it has its roots in Germany – which is not a surprise, considering how popular the dish is here.
Actually, “popular” is an understatement. For many German citizens, the potato salad is a big deal. Potato salad is the comfort food of the nation and even considered – at least according to one friend – the unofficial cultural heritage of Germany.
Intrigued by the sheer depth of the world of potato salad, I decided to take a closer look at its importance in the culinary culture of Germany.
When a non-German like myself thinks of German cuisine, one typically imagines beer, sausages, and of course – potatoes.
And rightfully so: the average German citizen consumes nearly 60 kilograms of potatoes per year. That’s a whopping 5 kilos a month.
There are a number of ways to prepare potatoes in Germany, but one dish that exists everywhere throughout the country is the potato salad.
Potato salad is a simple dish consisting of boiled potatoes and seasoning. It’s delicious when warm and freshly seasoned, or on the next day, when the spuds have absorbed all the flavors.
But the potato salad very rarely takes center stage. They are the wingmen of the culinary world, always served alongside a main dish. But despite its sidekick status, the potato salad is a dish that carries a lot of emotional significance for many Germans.
And so I embarked on a journey to find out more about the deep and profound world of the potato salad.
Know Thy Potato
Back in the day, before I moved to Germany, I never gave a thought about what potatoes I was buying. I’d walk into a supermarket, grab whatever they had, and use it for whatever I was making.
Everything changed when I moved to Berlin.
There are approximately 200 varieties of potatoes registered at the Bundessortenamt (Federal Office of Plant Varieties), and they are sorted into 3 categories according to their starch content.
● Festkochend potatoes contain the least amount of starch and will hold their shape even after being boiled.
● Vorwiegend festkochend potatoes are medium-waxy, all-purpose potatoes that have a wide range of usage.
● Mehligkochend potatoes have the highest starch content. They are fluffy and fall apart easily.
Each type of potato has a very specific usage. The waxy varieties are great for potato salads or Bratkartoffeln (German-style pan-fried potatoes), the medium-waxy ones are great for french fries and potato pancakes, and the mealy types are best for soups and mashed potatoes.
If you want to impress your German friends with your deep knowledge of the spud, I highly recommend learning these 3 types and their usage.
On the flip side, being used to this convenient categorization system means that I feel uncertain and anxious when I have to purchase potatoes outside of Germany.
Soul Food of the Nation
Right. Back to the potato salad.
As I mentioned before, potato salads are not typically treated as main dish material. They often appear as a sidekick, often to meaty mains like sausages. Potato salad is to sausage as Robin is to Batman. You get the picture.
But what it also is, is the ultimate comfort food for many Germans.
There aren’t a lot of people who dislike potato salad, and you can count on its carby goodness to fill you up on a budget when you’re hungry. The answer to life, the universe, and everything is potato salad, according to Germans.
Maybe it’s for this crowd-pleaser quality that the potato salad is a necessity at any and every gathering. No barbeque party is complete without potato salad. It’s also a Christmas Eve staple in many households.
Even at my own wedding, my in-laws prepared literal heaps of potato salad to feed our hungry guests.
My husband’s parents aren’t exactly the most emotionally expressive people, but the fact that they spent all day boiling and peeling 7 kilos of potatoes for our wedding buffet is pretty much the loudest declaration of love you could ever receive from a German person.
So yes. In short, no rite of passage is complete without potato salad. Potato salad shall always be present, silently brightening your special day from the sidelines.
“Let me ask Mutti”
The potato salad is also one of the most nostalgia-inducing dishes for Germans.
When I reached out to friends and family about their potato salad recipes, a significant number of them instinctively mentioned their mom.
What was also fascinating was how people often described their recipe as being “just your average potato salad” or a “pretty standard recipe,” while there were no two identical recipes.
Everyone seemed to have a single true potato salad recipe in mind that differed from everyone else’s. And this appeared to cause some potato salad culture shocks on occasion, when one would encounter a potato salad that completely clashed with their personal understanding of the potato salad.
In the same way that miso soup recipes differ from region to region in Japan, potato salad recipes can vary quite a bit depending on who you talk to and where.
Endless Varieties of the Potato Salad
That being said, there is some common ground to all the recipes.
With regard to the type of potatoes, the vast majority of the people I asked said that they use the low-starch, festkochend type. It’s apparently essential that the potatoes keep their shape and firmness after being boiled.
Most also emphasized that the potatoes should be sliced, not mashed, like they often are in the Japanese potato salad. Most people I talked to seemed to agree up to this point.
But this is where the fork in the potato salad road emerges.
When it comes to seasoning the potato salad, the German nation appears to be divided into Team Vinegar and Team Mayonnaise.
If I were to make a very generalized statement (and possibly offend some people), I would say that the northern half of Germany uses mayonnaise, the southern half uses vinegar. But I’m going to need to do a bit more research before I can be entirely certain. We’re talking about a cultural-heritage-level product, after all.
What I did decide to do is to organize all the ingredients I came across in the mayo- or vinegar-based recipes that I collected from over 20 different recipes into a venn diagram.
Vinegar-based potato salads often called for vegetable or meat broth, in addition to onions and oil.
On the other hand, mayonnaise-based potato salads often included apples and pickles. Quite a range of vegetables also popped up in recipes, such as radishes and peas.
There were also quite a few personal must-haves.
It seems I’ve naively cracked open a Pandora’s box in the quest to understand the German potato salad. Just when I thought I’d started to see the regional differences, I’d find out that both mayo- and vinegar-based varieties coexist in some places, or there’d be an ingredient that totally throws me off the track.
All I can say with certainty after my initial research is: potato salad is serious business, and I know nothing.
The Quest Goes On
My innocent interest in Germany’s national dish has sent me on a wild goose chase trying to find the truth about potato salad. Oh, how naive I was.
Clearly, this is a topic that warrants further investigation and possibly a sequel – I mean, we’re dealing with the nation’s unofficial cultural heritage, after all.