Always good recipes and only good books: Curry sauce and a spy thriller
By Christina Stock
Usually, I read a book and based on this book, I get inspired into creating or sharing a favorite recipe.
This time, it’s the other way around, which is a fun way finding a new favorite author and book.
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About a week ago, I found my old recipe for German bratwurst curry sauce. Anybody who has been to Germany from the 1950s to the 1980s, especially anybody who had visited Berlin, knows that the favorite fast food of Germans was, at the time, white bratwurst with curry sauce and “Fritten” — German slang for fries.
Just like bread and other specialties, there was no chance for me to get it in Roswell in 1999 when I moved here, but a friend did me a favor and sent me the recipe. He used to be a cook in one of the German fast food booths at the Christmas market.
When I found the recipe again, I was wondering how this recipe ever got popular in Germany. After all, we only had very few people from India, as India used to be a colony of Great Britain. (Since 1834, the British began exporting bonded labor from India to Mauritius and its other colonies. The politically correct word at the time for slavery — and almost forgotten.) In 1947, India finally achieved independence from the United Kingdom. However, any citizens born before 1947 had been British subjects. While the new government was getting established, Indian citizens were accepted — no matter where they had been sent — as Commonwealth citizens or British subjects with Commonwealth citizenship. They could keep their British passport. Many who were not happy with the change moved to the United Kingdom.
So what does this have to do with curry sauce in Germany? As any good story, there are many legends; here is my favorite:
The story goes that the creator of the curry wurst was the savvy housewife, Herta Heuwer, from the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. In 1949, she allegedly traded illegal homemade spirits for ketchup (some sources say Worcestershire sauce) and curry powder with British soldiers stationed there after the war. After many experiments, she was happy with one and the resulting sauce was poured over grilled pork sausages. Welcome to the world — curry wurst.
Heuwer began selling it as a low-cost street snack and it did not take long for it to become a success. Remember, at the time, Germans only seasoned with salt, pepper, bay leaf, nutmeg, mustard, horseradish and dill — that’s how my German Oma (grandmother) Else told me her grandmother cooked as well. The curry sauce was a new exotic condiment and with the bratwurst, it was particularly loved by the construction workers that were rebuilding the city because it was an inexpensive protein-laden meal.
Today, fans of the dish even have their own holiday: Day of the Currywurst (German spelling) on Sept. 4. Berlin gave the dish its own museum.
The original recipe was lost to history, and every cook and fast food chef had a little different version, some include a pinch of cinnamon. This is my friend’s:
2 cups of strained canned tomatoes
1 stalk green onion, chopped finely
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar
2.5 oz orange juice
3 tsp paprika powder
2 tsp curry powder
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
4 Tbsp beef broth
2 Tbsp water
2 Tbsp vegetable oil (sunflower or peanut oil)
salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a deep pot and add the green onions. Stir until they get translucent. Next, add the tomato paste and the seasonings, including sugar. Stir on medium flame until the spices look roasted.
Add the orange juice and the tomatoes and stir. Let it cook on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Check the taste and adjust it. You can freeze the sauce or fill it into bottles the same way you would make jam. That way it keeps for a year.
I usually fry my bratwurst by cutting it first once lengthwise and several times horizontal — careful don’t cut too deep. I fry it with a little oil on each side until it browns. The cuts will make the sausage fold out, almost like an origami figure.
At the end, I put the sauce on it and top it with Madras curry powder.
Traditionally, you serve it with fries, but you can add rice or vegetables to it instead. In my case, I took advantage of having planted tomatoes. My tomato, sweet corn and onion salad worked well with a vinaigrette sauce.
Now to the book:
I found a fascinating and exciting book that takes place in postwar Berlin — perfect for the recipe. “Then We Take Berlin: A Novel” by John Lawton — a spy thriller. I couldn’t resist reading it because the author quotes American novelist and educator Kay Boyle (1902-1992) and it reflects what my grandparents told me about how Germany was just after World War II:
“The warriors are dead. The warriors died in two world wars. Those who remain are the barterers. They know the price of coffee and cocoa and sugar and flour in a defeated country.”
The book starts in May 1963 when the female lead, Nell, is working on the arrangements of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin. At the same time, John Wilfrid Holderness — his girlfriends called him Wilderness — is flying to New York after his friend Frank Spolato calls him at night.
From there the plot thickens.
The writing style of Lawton is very British, hilariously so. Even the small details how he sees his wife and his background is a rare look behind the scenes.
The background of Wilderness and Spolato gets explained by Wilderness meeting others who ask questions. In my opinion, nothing is worse than hopping back and forth in timelines and the author avoids it this way elegantly. Wilderness had crisscrossed war-torn Europe as an MI6 agent working with the CIA. Spolato was his American CIA counterpart. He asks him to help him one more time and smuggle a vulnerable woman out of East Berlin crossing the Iron Curtain.
Arriving in Germany, Wilderness soon discovers he’s being played as a pawn in a deadly game of atomic proportions. To survive, he must follow a serpentine trail through his own past, into the confidence of an unexpected lover, and go dangerously deep into a black market scam, the likes of which Berlin has never seen.
In opposite to many English-writing authors, Lawton avoids peppering the pages with German words, next to obvious locations. He sets the ambiance meticulously describing the atmosphere and the people. The plot unravels in a genius way that feels real. This may be the case because Lawton is also a producer and director in television who has spent much of his time interpreting American English to British English and occasionally vice versa. Lawton spent most of the ‘90s in New York — among other things attending the writers’ sessions at The Actors’ Studio under Norman Mailer — and has visited or worked in more than half the 50 states — since 2000 he has lived in the high, wet hills of Derbyshire, England, with frequent excursions into the high, dry hills of Arizona and Italy.
He is the author of “1963,” a social and political history of the Kennedy-Macmillan years, six thrillers in his Inspector Troy series and a stand-alone novel, “Sweet Sunday.” In 1995, the first Troy novel, “Black Out,” won the WH Smith Fresh Talent Award. In 2006, Columbia Pictures bought the fourth Troy novel “Riptide.” In 2007, “A Little White Death” was a New York Times notable. In 2008, he was one of only half a dozen living English writers to be named in the London Daily Telegraph’s “50 Crime Writers to Read before You Die.” He has also edited the poetry of D.H. Lawrence and the stories of Joseph Conrad.
The book “Then We Take Berlin: A Novel” is available as hardcover, as ebook and on Audible.