North American Expat Germany survival guide: the pancake edition.

This is my first-ever guest post!

I met friend, fellow North American expat, Hamburg resident, photographer and blogger Indeterminacy completely by accident a while back online – a story of a mistakenly sent email that landed in his inbox instead of mine. Since then we’ve enjoyed each other’s company on many an occasion, but I still have to meet his wife and son. Maybe for breakfast one day…

If you’ve ever searched desperately in a foreign country for comfort food from back home, you can relate to this.

I’d been to Germany on vacations, but after moving here in 1987 to live, I was overwhelmed by the culture shock. It was worse at breakfast time, because breakfasts in Germany usually consisted of a slice of bread or a bread roll, with butter and jelly, or a slice of smoked ham (which I never liked). That was it. No scrambled eggs. No bacon. No hash browns. No pork sausages. No pancakes. And only three types of cereals. The best you could hope for was a soft boiled egg with your bread. Since I was staying with friends those first months, there wasn’t much I could do about it, except slowly starve to death.

Upon nearer acquaintance with German culture I found that some restaurants sold a hearty “farmer’s lunch”, consisting of a pile of fried potatoes (Bratkartoffeln) with a couple of fried eggs on top of it, and some dices of the meat that is bacon when sliced into strips, which they didn’t do in Germany. But that wasn’t the same. I wanted it for breakfast.

My mind wandered back to my life in America, working in upstate New York and the wonderful pancakes they had for breakfast in the company canteen, with all the syrup you could pour. That was on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Other days they had bacon and eggs and hash browns and sausage. But that was only a memory.

The situation was becoming intolerable. Once I got settled in, I began improvising breakfasts the best I could. French toast with powdered sugar, or scrambled eggs with half-inch slabs of bacon, which was about as thin as I could slice the even thicker slabs that were the standard fare in grocery stores.

One time I tried buying bacon directly from the butcher and asking him to slice it as thin as possible. But even that was too thick. I asked him if he could slice it thinner, and he took the slice, pounded it flat with a meat hammer, and handed it back to me.

This was going nowhere, and I was beginning to lose my cultural identity. Here I was trying to survive in a foreign country with foreign breakfasts, nothing but my ideals of all men are created equal and the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, especially at the breakfast table, to sustain me. But I did not know how to make pancakes.

This was in the days before the Internet, so I couldn’t blog about it, nor could I just google up a pancake recipe. It was my mother, that great American icon, who finally saved me by shipping off The New Pillsbury Family Cookbook – 400 pages of home, rescue and refuge in a foreign country.

Then I started making pancakes. This is the recipe:

2 eggs
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup oil
1 3/4 cups unsifted Pillsbury flour (I just use German flour)
2 tablespoons sugar or honey
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt

(mix it all up and fry it in butter)

This looks easier than it actually was. Germany didn’t have measuring cups in the English system, and those handy spoon sets from quarter teaspoons to tablespoons and a half were unknown. And no one could tell me what baking soda was. A little research and I was able to work out that one cup is 237 ml, and I found someone who told me where baking soda could be had – from pharmacies. The standard brand was “Kaiser Natron” a teaspoon with a glass of water for upset stomaches.

So now I had everything, except maple syrup. There are no half-gallon bottles of Log Cabin, and no Aunt Jemima. No maple syrup at all. I went to the tiny grocery store in the town I lived and found something that seemed like syrup. It had “Syrup” on the package, but was more like a fluid molasses, some kind of sweet syrup made from turnips. It was awful, especially on pancakes. Eventually I found that little known store in Germany called the Reformhaus. They’re very expensive, never advertise, and nobody seems to really know they exist, so I don’t know how they manage to stay in business, but there they are. They sell health foods for special diets and among their selection is 100% pure maple syrup from Canada in tiny 250 ml bottles. They cost something like 8 DM back then – a little less 4 euros.

Now I was in a position to make my own authentic pancakes. Germany has changed much since the 1980’s. There are more large-scale supermarkets that carry everything you need to make pancakes – they even sell measuring cups from Corning, with the measures in the English and metric systems. And once a year Aldi, the discount market, carries 100% pure Canadian maple syrup. I buy a crate. I won’t touch that artificial stuff anymore, although I could get it Wal-Mart if I wanted to.

Nowadays I am not a bachelor anymore, and my darling muse cooks better than I do, but on weekends it has become a tradition in our household that I whip up a batch of the best pancakes in Germany. My son’s been eating them ever since he could eat. I only have to ask him what he wants for breakfast, and he’ll answer “pancakes” – one of the few English words he’ll use.

28 Responses to “North American Expat Germany survival guide: the pancake edition.”

  1. July 16, 2008 at 3:53 am

    Ian, thank you for telling me what baking soda was in German. Last year I had a heck of a time trying to find it for two things, chocolate chip cookies I wanted to bake from my friend and a box of the stuff to put in her fridge, you know to get rid of odors. Nobody had a clue what the heck I wanted. This year when I go back at least now I know what it’s called and where to find it, again thanks…ciao

  2. July 16, 2008 at 4:52 am

    Hi rositta – glad to have cleared that up for you, though I can’t take any of the credit. It’s my first guest post! A friend wrote it.

    Took me a while to find the baking soda here too.🙂

  3. July 16, 2008 at 7:54 am

    Hey Ian, Thanks for the post by Indeterminacy. I’m going to make the pancakes. But don’t know where I’ll get Canadian maple syrup in Mumbai.🙂

  4. July 16, 2008 at 10:59 am

    I’m going to try that recipe. I used to have one using greek yoghurt but it went missing a couple of years ago. Happily I can find all the ingredients, including maple syrup, at my usual supermarket here in Seville.

  5. July 16, 2008 at 4:23 pm


    P.S. Will try out that recipe. I miss the ready-mixes we had back home.

  6. July 17, 2008 at 9:55 am

    We had the pancakes this weekend, but unfortunately I didn’t think of taking pictures – otherwise I could have given some to Ian to post. (the photo used is one of my pancakes which I scanned in!)

    It’s tricky with the baking soda. They hide things here. I still don’t know where to get chocolate chips. Usually I bring back a few packages whenever I’m in the states. But now I’m almost out again!

  7. July 17, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Cathy: in Germany one has to make almost everything (non-German) from scratch: icing, pie crusts, pies. I even made bagels, long before they were available here. Quite an experience, learning how to make things by hand.

  8. July 17, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    I think we have to try it. We just ran out of our stash of bisquik (one of the few things I still get from the U.S. on occasion.)

  9. 9 Marius Ostrowski
    July 18, 2008 at 1:28 am

    What can I say other than to sympathise entirely! As a German staying in Canada for the summer, I’m pretty much getting (almost) the reverse experience… and I have more maple syrup than I could ever want in my life…

  10. July 18, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    They do have those disgusting ready-mixes that come in a bottle…

  11. 11 Hazel
    July 19, 2008 at 2:47 am

    hey! i found a really good page where you can look up words….it’s
    well, it’s in german, but the Deutsch-Englisch option is really helpful…
    somehow mc donalds tastes different, too…
    the chocolate-milkshake that i used to have for breakfast in america on the way to school tastes like…water =( and the coke doesn’t even have ice in it! ôO
    well, germany has a lot of good sides, too… my slogan is:

    cya, hazel ! =)

  12. July 19, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Hi Hazel – welcome! That leo.de is the reason my German-English dictionary gathers dust on the shelf. I must consult it 20 times a day at work.

    Hello Marius – and welcome to you too! How about letting us all know where in Canada you’re spending the summer? Really big place as I’m sure you’ve discovered.🙂

    Thanks again to Indeterminacy for the guest post!

  13. July 24, 2008 at 4:08 am

    Thanks Indie for allowing me to meet Ian.

    All this time and I for some reason knew you were probably a pancake man.

    It is always a trial when in other nations to satisfy those common cultural needs, you seem to have made the proper accommodation.

    Now I’m hungry.

  14. July 24, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Hello John – great to have a newcomer via Indie’s blog.🙂

    When Indie sent that over for me to set up and post it made me hungry for pankakes too.

  15. July 30, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Great story of persistence, Indie. Lol to the butchr.
    When I was at Schloss Pommersfelden for a music festival, the vegetarians complained to the Count’s servants about there being no vegetarian dishes, so the servants, after giving them a look, began to take bits of venison out of the soup. . . .

  16. 16 Fritz
    August 4, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    wirklich unterhaltsame literatur scheint heute so rar gesaet wir damals der ahornsirup in deutschland:

    “One time I tried buying bacon directly from the butcher and asking him to slice it as thin as possible. But even that was too thick. I asked him if he could slice it thinner, and he took the slice, pounded it flat with a meat hammer, and handed it back to me.”

    dieser absatz alleine ist besser als jedes buch jeder Top Ten Buecherliste.

  17. 17 Christine
    January 19, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Hi Ian,
    Thank you for a touch of humour in an Ontarion´s adventurous life in Germany!
    As a new bride and a recent immigrant to Germany I am having many hilarious adventures in the grocery stores and in the kitchen. I wish I had found this earlier, as I see the post is from last summer, anyways, when does the Ahornsyrup come to Aldi?? I would LOVE to get my hands on some of that and to have a blissful Saturday morning brunch of good ol´ Canadian Pancakes for me and Hubby!! Thank you! All the best. May the Canadian baking and cooking traditions live on in foreign countries!! =)

    • January 19, 2009 at 5:29 pm

      Hi Christine,

      Welcome to Germany! Canadians desperate for that fix of the good stuff can head down to their local Reformhaus for maple syrup, or do what we do and stock up on litre jugs of the stuff whenever we’re back in Canada. One year we brought back seven, carefully taping the tops tight with duct tape just to be sure we wouldn’t have a gooey mess to haul off the luggage rack. Lasted a couple of years.🙂

      That post was written ages ago by an American friend, by the way, and merely re-printed on my blog as a guest post. He’s been here more than 20 years, so things have progressed somewhat since then.

  18. January 19, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Christine, you’ll find Ian’s a splendidly resourceful chap. I know few other men who take such delight in the sheer joy of doing cool stuff.

    Now Ian. Speck sliced as thin as a German butcher can do it by hand is, well, Canadian Bacon, isn’t it?


  19. January 19, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    You know, I never did like Canadian bacon – too chewy, never crisps up like “real” bacon. German bacon is also waaayyyy too salty, and always remains limpy-shrimpy in the pan. The bacon we buy is Belgian, and crisps up like it should. It’s available at a certain store in Hamburg which shall remain nameless and comes in whopping 2- to 3-kilo packages. I freeze it in bunches of eight slices each, and defrost when needed.

    And with pancakes, they’re always needed.🙂

  20. March 3, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Hi. Just wanted to let everyone know (if you’re in Berlin anytime) that there is a wonderful pancake shop in Pankow on Breite Str. near Rathaus Center. (I think there may be one more somewhere else in Berlin) It’s called Amarillo Pancakes and Coffee. I have to say that they are some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had, and back in North Carolina, they have some great ones. They also make pancake burgers. I had a bite of my hubby’s and it was pretty nice.

    • March 3, 2009 at 9:57 pm

      Hiya Katie – just online right now and saw your comment drop in. Welcome and thanks for leaving your comment. I’ll pass it along to indie, the one and only guest poster who was kind enough to relate his pancake survival story.
      About pancake burgers… Do you mean pancakes instead of buns, everything else the same? Maybe you could open a McIhop franchise. 🙂

  21. 23 KT in Hamburg
    March 8, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Wow…I’ve been coming here for 10 years and I just now found out about baking soda by reading this while looking for something else! Serendipity. Thanks.
    Any hints on chocolate chips or dried instant rice like Minute Rice?

    • March 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm

      Hi KT – what was that something else you were looking for? Just curious.🙂

      Oh! Just checked the dashboard. Was it american grocery and hamburg, germany perhaps?

      As for chocolate chips, I’m afraid that’s going to have to be part of your luggage for a while yet unless someone else has a tip. I’ve never looked for Minute Rice, so can’t help you there.

  22. 25 Dee
    September 19, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I just wrote an article on the ready-mixes today. I am actually thankful to live in Germany – with a new acquired taste for american cuisine. We can create almost anything from scratch because the ready-mixes cannot be found here…it just takes a little research n time.

    • September 19, 2010 at 3:51 pm

      I always laugh when I see mixes of anything – muffins, cakes, pancakes – it’s so easy to throw it all together in your kitchen. Make it fresh yourself and let the mass-produced junk go out of date on the shelf.

      So where’s that article, Dee? You’ll have to leave a return blog address or nobody will be able to read it from here.🙂

  23. November 24, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    My mom has that same cookbook. I was actually googling “old yellow pillsbury cookbook” and this is what I found. I saw it from your picture and I instantly said, “there it is!” There is a great recipe in that book for rocky road bars. I’m making them today! I just wish I had the actual cookbook here in hand! You’re fortunate to have it!

    • November 24, 2012 at 10:51 pm

      Well well, I’m always amazed what google searches will cough up this humble blog. I wish I could say I own the cookbook, but that was actually a guest post by an American fellow years ago. Rocky Road bars… never had one, you know.

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