While the pervasiveness of iconic German foods like wursts and sauerbraten may give the impression that the German diet centers on meat, fish and seafood are highly popular choices—especially given today’s focus on health and wellness. And, although Germany imports fish and seafood, such as salmon, from elsewhere in Europe, the German fishing industry contributes an impressive variety of saltwater and freshwater varieties.
Along Germany’s northern edge two stretches of coastline are bisected by the southern portion of the Jutland peninsula. On the western side is the cold and salty North Sea and on the eastern side is the Baltic Sea, a mostly inland body of water that is much less salty due to freshwater runoff. Both seacoasts are picturesque summer vacation destinations, and are also home to Germany’s small but vital coastal fishing fleet, providing kabeljau (cod), dorsch (haddock), scholle (plaice), seezunge (sole), herring, mackerel, the tiny Nordseekrabben (North Sea shrimp), and more to the country’s restaurants and households.
Lake and River Delights
Inland fisheries also supply German menus. Aquaculture provides 80 percent of the country’s freshwater fish, with trout as the top product, followed by carp. Traditional fishing on rivers like the Rhine, Elbe, and Weser brings in eel, carp, and bass among others, while further south, Lake Constance and Lake Chiemsee provide zander (walleye), hecht (pike), perch, and renke (whitefish).
As in other countries, overfishing and climate change have contributed to a dwindling supply of fish and seafood in German waters. At the same time, consumers want to know that what ends up on their plates is sustainably raised or caught. Long regarded as a leader on issues impacting the environment, the German government adopted the multimillion-dollar European Maritime, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF) program in late 2022. Forty-nine percent of the fund is dedicated to sustainable fisheries and 33 percent to sustainable aquaculture; the rest supports related initiatives. In 2023, Germany partnered with the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI) on a project titled “sustainable marine fisheries through transparency and stakeholder participation.”
A healthy choice
With high levels of Omega 3 and 5 fatty acids, iron, and other key nutrients, eating fish and seafood is an important part of a healthy eating plan. The FDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends at least eight ounces of fish and seafood a week for adults (less for children), with a focus on those that are lowest in mercury. The agency’s Best Choices chart lists many varieties common in Germany, including herring, mackerel, cod, haddock, plaice, sole, perch, shrimp, and trout.
Where to buy fish in Germany
It’s as easy to find fish and seafood in Germany as it is sausage and schnitzel. “Nordsee” fast-food fish restaurants are located all over Northern Germany, and there are 10,000 fish shops and supermarkets with full-service fish counters across the country. Open-air farmer markets (Wochenmärkte), located in the center of most small and large towns feature at least one fish or seafood vendor. And each major city has at least one star-rated restaurant focussed on fish, such as the Rive in Hamburg, Poisson in Cologne, Atlantic in Munich, and Kastenmeiers in Dresden.
What’s most popular
Because convenience is king, frozen and breaded cod or halibut, and canned herring (or mackerel, salmon, and tuna) make up about 60 percent of the fish consumed by Germans at home. Alaskan or Norwegian salmon, brook trout, and the Vietnamese pangasius are featured in most fish dishes served in restaurants. To be sure, Germany’s annual, per capita fish consumption of 14kg of is about half what the US and Canada consume. And, only about 20 percent of the fish and seafood Germans eat comes from Germany, with the remaining 80 percent imported from neighboring Poland, the Netherlands, Portugal, the US, China, and Vietnam.
The following are some of Germany’s most popular fish, and favorite ways to prepare them.
Widely enjoyed in Northern and Eastern Europe, as well as Scandinavia, herring is under-appreciated in North America, which is unfortunate, given its impressive nutritional benefits. In Germany, the silvery fish are served fried, pickled, and canned in horseradish, tomato, and other sauces. Pickled herring is also called Bismarck herring, named for Germany’s first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Matjes are young herring cured in salt, and rollmops are pickled herring rolled around a piece of pickle or onion. Labskaus is an iconic North German dish of rollmops with a hash of corned beef, beets, and potatoes, served cold.
Northern Pike (Hecht)
Found in German lakes and rivers, as well as in the brackish water of the Baltic Sea, Northern pike can grow to an especially large size. These fish are sought-after by sport fishermen because their aggressive nature makes them an exciting challenge to catch. The many small bones in Northern pike make them almost an equal challenge to filet. On German menus, you are likely to see the fish made into dumplings and served in a sauce or broth.
European Perch (Barsch)
Like the Northern Pike, the European perch lives both in fresh water and mildly salty water like that of the Baltic Sea. In Germany, it is usually prepared simply; the fish is filleted (European perch are not nearly as bony as Northern pike), then breaded and fried, sautéed in butter, baked, or grilled.
In a tradition dating from the Middle Ages, carp has been the menu centerpiece on Christmas Eve—the final day of the Advent fasting period dictated by the Catholic Church. In southern Germany, Christmas carp (Weihnachtskarpfen), is fried and served with potato salad. In northern Germany, it is marinated and/or cooked with wine and vinegar, which turns its skin a blue-ish color for a dish called Karpfen Blau, which is eaten with boiled potatoes and horseradish. Fried, braised, or stuffed and baked, carp is also enjoyed at other times of the year, notably Lent. While carp live in Germany’s freshwater lakes and rivers, much of the fish consumed there today is raised in ponds in the southeastern part of the country, with the exception of Holstein carp, which is farmed in the northern region of the same name.
North Sea Shrimp (Krabben)
Since krabbe in German means “crab” you might think that krabben means “crabs”—but you would be mistaken. Krabben are small shrimp native to the North Sea, which are known for their sweet, mild flavor. Much like other varieties of shrimp, they are served cold as a snack and in salads and soups. Rührei mit Krabben is a traditional dish of scrambled eggs and shrimp on buttered bread.
Skewered whole fish grilled over an open fire, Steckerlfish is a beloved beer garden snack that’s been on the menu at Munich’s Oktoberfest for more than 100 years. Its name comes from steckerel, which means “little stick” in Bavarian dialect, and it is said to have originated with fishermen on the Danube, who sustained themselves after a day of fishing by grilling some of their catch. They would have eaten trout or another freshwater fish, but today, Stecklerfish is made with mackerel.
Kieler Sprats (Kieler Sprotten)
Sprats are a relative of herring fished from the Baltic Sea. In this preparation, (named for the coastal town of Keil, but actually native to Eckernförde), the small fish are lightly smoked over a combination of oak, beech, and alder, which gives them a distinctive golden color and delicate smoky flavor. In Germany, they are sometimes served fresh at restaurants, but most often you will find them canned, best enjoyed with rye or whole grain bread and washed down with German beer.