Best of the (curry)wurst
It's a chilly afternoon and I'm standing on the street in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, eating sausage from a cardboard plate.
Not any old sausage, mind you. I'm eating currywurst.
New Yorkers have the bagel, Parisians have the croissant and here in Berlin, currywurst - a bratwurst drowned in a piquant mix of tomato sauce and English curry powder - is the city's culinary emblem.
Nearly a billion are consumed in Germany each year, with 70 million in Berlin alone. Songs have been written about it.
Politicians are photographed posing with it. So deep is the love for currywurst it even has its own museum.
The hype might seem excessive, but according to Birgit Breloh, the director of the Deutsches Currywurst Museum, Berlin's famous banger is as German as lederhosen.
I've met Breloh for an unofficial tour of the sausage Disneyland, and as we stroll, I'm struggling to hide my amusement.
There's a life-size currywurst van, a sausage-shaped sofa and exhibits detailing currywurst's cameos in films and television shows.
"All this just for a sausage?" I say, gazing at a shelf weighed down with merchandise. Seeing my expression, Breloh lets out a peal of laughter. "In Germany, it's much more than a sausage," she says. "Currywurst is a way of life."
The cult of currywurst can be traced back to postwar Berlin in 1949, when a woman named Herta Heuwer searched for ways to spice up her cooking.
The canny housewife swapped bottles of booze with British soldiers for English curry powder, later adding it to a sauce of stewed tomatoes and bratwurst. In such bleak culinary times, the sauce-slathered sausage was an instant hit.
Heuwer is honoured with a plaque at the site of her old sausage stand in Charlottenburg, and today, there are 200 street vendors across Berlin, each peddling currywurst with an individual spin.
A hefty dollop of mayonnaise, a touch of chilli, a pinch of mustard powder - even a splash of Coca-Cola. There's such variety, no two Berliners can seem to agree on the perfect version, with opinions as divided as the city itself once was. The curried sauce creates the most arguments, but not even the sausage is safe.
Some prefer it with the skin fried crispy, others like their sausage in the buff.
Either way, currywurst is spectacularly popular. At cult street-side vendor Curry 36 in Kreuzberg, a reported 800 to 1000 are sold every day.
It's one o'clock on a weekday when I visit and the queue is already taking up most of the sidewalk. Shuffling forward, I wait a good 10 minutes to order, then watch as my sausage is roughly chopped, plonked atop a small mountain of fries and squirted mercilessly with sauce.
Cardboard plate in hand, plastic fork in the other, it's time to test out the fabled wurst, standing shoulder to shoulder with Berliners at outdoor tables. As our elbows bump, greetings are exchanged and I'm reminded of something Breloh said: "It's a snack that brings very different people together, where a top manager and a worker can eat and talk together."
It's true. We might be strangers stabbing at bits of sausage smothered in a tangy tomato-curry sauce, but there's a sense of camaraderie, and I'm soon chatting away with a group of local advertising workers who have ducked out for lunch.
"I eat it a few days each week," admits one of the men, his tie loosened, beer in hand. Mid-mouthful, he grins rapturously. "It's the best food in Berlin."
Not everyone agrees, however. Local chefs regularly bemoan currywurst's popularity. Berlin food journalist Tommy Tannock says: "Every time I've forced myself, I have left feeling slightly nauseated."
After only one greasy serving, I too, am craving a Rennie tablet and a lie down, but I press on with my wurst journey, taking the escalators up to the food hall at Berlin's glamorous department store Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe).
Here, among the champagne bars and gourmet groceries, the currywurst is more fancypants than its streetside counterparts, drenched in a spicy, house-made sauce, showered with crunchy matchstick fries and served - shock horror - on a real plate.
But nothing is as authentic as eating it from soggy cardboard, and on any currywurst binge it would be remiss to not visit Konnopke's Imbiss, arguably Berlin's most famous - and oldest - sausage stand.
Due to leave Berlin the following day, my only option is a currywurst breakfast. Alighting at Eberswalde Strasse station, I make my way beneath the underpass. It's not even 10.30am, yet there's already a queue of devotees waiting patiently for their wurst.
At Konnopke's, the fries are crispy and the curry powder added after the sauce. I order a serving laden liberally with mayonnaise, and stand in the brisk morning air, harpooning pieces of sausage as the U-Bahn trundles overhead.
Looking back, my stomach groans, but however regrettable, currywurst is an unmissable street food experience; modest, cheap and authentically Berlin.
The Weinmeister has spacious rooms starting from €109 ($176.5), for a rooftop terrace overlooking the city. It is centrally located in Mitte, close to galleries, bars and boutiques. See theweinmeister.com.
Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe), Tauentzienstraße 21-24, see Kadewe.de.
Konnopke's Imbiss, Schonhauser Allee 44B, see konnopke-imbiss.de.