Bagels in New York, Pho in Hanoi, Peking Duck in Beijing, Pad Thai in Bangkok - there are some cities that are synonymous with certain kinds of food and it would be silly to go to them without making the effort to try the local specialty in the land of its birth (or perhaps the land where it rose to fame... the history of food is often too complicated to trace back with much accuracy.)
So of course it seemed natural to go to Hamburg and well, try a local Hamburger. So last year while wandering around Hafen City - Hamburg's newest urban master development running just across from its beautiful old warehouse district - I thought it was definitely time to try the city's namesake dish.
I'd heard that Heimat Kuche and Bar in Hafen City's Uberseequartier did a good, big, juicy version and so without much hesitation picked it straight off the menu.
In my rush to order the Hamburger in Hamburg I committed the fundamental mistake of not checking out the rest of the menu - a departure from the norm for me. Because if I had done so I would have spotted what is the city's actual quintessential dish - Labskaus (sometimes called lapskaus) - a traditional specialty of Northern Germany and specifically the harbour town of Hamburg.
Thankfully, my dining companion did spot it and ordered it which meant I got a taste of this strange, strange dish.
Strange why, you ask? Well... let's start with the ingredients. Salted corn beef, potato, onions, gherkins, rollmop herring and a fried egg. Sounds pretty much like standard German fare you say. The answer is no. Because Labkaus is what I can only best describe as being a meat mush. The mince to potato ratio gave it a pretty strange consistency that felt like you were eating a beef-tasting potato mash. Which texturally tastes as strange as it sounds.
The dish is believed to have originated on board the many vessels that sailed out in the North Sea. As the long journeys wore on, the cooks needed to make their meagre supplies of meat stretch as long as they could. They did this by mashing up preserved meat with potatoes to bulk them out, adding whatever they could into the mix as they went along. As the sailors reached the end of their journey - and began getting closer and closer to their home port of Hamburg - the number of times Labkaus began to appear on their menu increased in frequency (often with its meat-to-potato ratio simultaneously decreasing!) But more Labkaus for dinner definitely meant one good thing for the sailors - they were getting closer to home!
While the mince and potato mash forms the main base, the gherkins and fried egg go on top with the roll mops on the side, and you eat this whole strange combination together - fish, meaty mash and pickled vegetables. We asked our waiter if he particularly liked the dish and he was honest yet diplomatic enough to say it wasn't his favourite.
Still in service to the cause of proper platetrotting, I am glad I got to taste a few spoonfuls of Hamburg's famous dish. (I have to admit that while my good ol' hamburger may have scored lower on the exotic food scale it did pretty good on the taste and satisfaction scale)
When in Hamburg
See: While primarily known as a harbour town, the city of Hamburg is immensely pretty - with lush walking and cycling tracks winding their way around the Alster Lake, the mighty Elbe (carrying mightier barges stacked high with shipping containers) flowing along at a gentle pace, and the gorgeous green copper roofed warehouses of the Speicherstadt district creating a picture postcard view in pretty much all directions.
While the Aldstadt (Old Town) with its imposing Rathaus or city hall may seem like the obvious place to start discovering the city, my favourite quarter has to be the shiny new Hafen City area with its funky and mind-bogglingly diverse architecture, and arguably Germany's best attraction of all time - Miniatur Wunderland. Yes it sounds extremely touristy (and it is!) but where else can you see a full fledged functioning miniature airport running in painstaking detail, down to planes that land from midair onto a runway, taxi to a parking bay and have tiny luggage vans ferry themselves around the tarmac. Pure German brilliance!
Drink: Hamburg has no shortage of places to drop by for a drink. From its notorious Reeperbahn red light district where The Beatles famously performed many gigs (a monument to the Liverpudlians now commemorates Hamburg's role in the band's history at the aptly named Beatles Platz), to the buzzing, studenty Schanze district where you can plonk down on wooden picnic tables and catch up over cheap beer, cocktails overlooking the Alster at the rooftop Campari Lounge or a mellow evening by the Elbe at the stylish Buddha-adorned Indochine, you will not be at a loss for choices to spend your evenings.
Stay: The Hafen City outpost of the always surprising 25Hours Hotels is definitely a good port of call, with its nautical-themed interior being less maritime kitsch and more shipping warehouse cool.
The sea blue rooms have feature walls plastered over with sailor's tattoo-like art that tell a visual story of the hotel team (their actual stories are also found in a "log book" placed in your room, a nice touch.)
Other inspirational elements are a minibar fashioned out of a traveler's trunk, a meeting room and sauna cabins created out of re-purposed shipping containers, rope ladders doubling up as clothes racks in the rooms, and giant warehouse floor markings at check in pointing you the right way.
Breakfast was at the aforementioned Heimat Kuche (I discovered the hotel on my hamburger mission last summer and just had to check it out in more detail this year. Cheers to the 25Hours team for putting me up for a night!) The morning spread featured a hearty chacuterie, cheese and bread selection and a well-stocked collection of the usual brekkie favourites, along with some unusual additions such as a moreish semolina pudding served with cherry compote. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! Definitely a great spot to drop anchor while in Hamburg.
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