Kale in German Cuisine

Also Known as Gruenkohl, This Green Is Regular Restaurant Fare

Kale - Gruenkohl

Dirk Ingo Franke / Wikimedia Commons / CC by SA 2.0

Kale, "Grünkohl" in German (Brassica oleracea convar. acéphala var. sabéllica, is a type of cabbage that does not form a head. Instead, it grows very curly leaves on woody stems. Because of its shape, another German word for Kale is "Federkohl" or feather cabbage.

Originally grown in the Mediterranean by the Greeks and Romans, kale became an important food source in Germany by the Middle Ages. It provided vitamin C in the winter to the general population, is relatively easy to grow and cold tolerant to about 10 F/-15 C. Planted in June, it can be harvested throughout the winter, from October to April. Cold temperatures even enhance its taste.


While "Grünkohl" was a rich man's meal in Roman times, then a poor man's meal for a while, it has now become regular restaurant fare in recent years. In northern Germany, "Grün-" or "Braunkohl" has achieved almost cult-like status. It is also known as "Blätterkohl," "Krauskohl," "Fedekohl," "Winterkohl," "geschlitzter Kohl" and "friesische-" or "Oldenburger Palme" (leaf cabbage, curly cabbage, feather cabbage, winter cabbage, slit cabbage and Frisian or Oldenburger palm tree).

Especially in Bremen, but in many, isolated parts of Lower Saxony (Hannover to Braunschweig), "Grünkohl" is better known as "Braunkohl." There are three possible reasons for this. The first is that when you cook kale, it turns a bit brown. The second is that you are not supposed to harvest kale until the outer leaves turn brown. A third reason may be that the violet color some kale attains makes it look brownish-green.

Bremen and Oldenburg fight every year about whether the "specialty" "Grünkohl" ("Braunkohl") belongs more to one of them than the other. Bremen has the oldest proven tradition. Since 1545 they have been holding a public "Grünkohlessen" (kale dinner).

In Hereford (North Rhine-Westphalia) kale is used to decorate the Radewig church instead of pine boughs during the second week of Advent. A patron died in 1590 A.D. and left his fortune to the church, but asked that a yearly festival is held with Mass, music and a kale dinner.

Grünkohlessen (Kale Dinner Party)

In Lower Saxony, kale is most often cooked with bacon, German Kasseler (ham) and "Pinkel" or "Bregenwurst". Pinkel is a type of sausage that is only served with kale. It contains bacon, barley groats, beef tallow, pork lard, onions, salt, pepper, and allspice. The word "Pinkel" may come from the Platte German word for beef intestine, which was used as casings. "Bregenwurst" means brain sausage, although nowadays no beef brain is used in the sausage. It usually consists of pork, pork belly, onions, salt, and pepper. Both types of sausage can be smoked or just cooked. When placed on top of the kale to heat, they are usually stabbed with a fork to let the taste steep into the vegetables.

Other types of sausage are used outside of Lower Saxony. West Phalia serves smoked "Mettwurst" which is a fine or large-grind pork (but not bacon) sausage, and "Kohlwurst," a lung and pork, smoked sausage spiced with mustard seed, allspice, thyme, marjoram, and onion, as well as pork belly. Southern Germany and Austria do not have their own kale specialties or traditions. Many people like to add "Kochwurst," a generic term for sausage made from pre-cooked ingredients.

The vegetable is cooked for an hour or more, all three types of meat (bacon, ham, and sausage) are laid on top and the whole dinner is simmered for even longer. The exact amount of time varies by household and region. The "Eintopf" or one-dish meal is served with boiled potatoes and some people insist on sweet potatoes, which are regular potatoes that are boiled, peeled and cut into pieces, then fried in butter and sugar, until the outside is caramelized. 


Kohlfahrt is a group field trip to the countryside during which a heavy, kale dinner is served and several "fun" games are played, usually under the influence of alcohol. Until recently, this was a men's trip and only for the merchant class as well. Beginning in the 1800s with the labor movement, increasing numbers of "Kohlfahrten" were organized. Women did not join these trips until the 1920s and 30s, which was not always seen as positive.

"Boßeln" and "Klootschießen" are very similar games which are played while walking in the countryside. You could describe "Boßeln" as long-distance Bocce, an Italian ball-tossing game. Players pick a target in the direction they are traveling and toss a ball towards it. The first player or team to get their ball within the target area wins. Sometimes it is won by throwing the longest distance. There are many different variations of these games, on fields or paved streets.

Indoor games can include "Schweinerei" (Pass the Pigs) and other dice or card games. During the "Grünkohlfahrt" a king or royal couple is crowned. The winner is chosen by 1) a popularity vote, 2) how much weight was gained during the meal, or 3) who (may have) won the most games during the hike. The complete rules for winning are kept secret and are not to be taken too seriously. The king can also be crowned by being the last one at the table. Whoever wins the title is in charge of organizing the next year's field trip.

In some parts of Germany, where a lot of kale is farmed, the "Kohlkönig" (cabbage king) is a region-wide honor. Many politicians have won the honor, including Helmut Kohl in Bonn 1984, Otto Schilly in 1999 in Berlin and Guido Westerwelle as the 46th "Grünkohlkönig" in Oldenburg. 

Shopping for Kale

When buying kale, make sure that the leaves are dark green to violet (almost brown), curly, broad and not too large. They should feel crisp and not have any spots on them.

Using Kale

To use fresh kale, let it soak for a few minutes in water with some vinegar added. This helps loosen the dirt and any insects which may still be attached. Remove the stalks and chop the leaves into ribbons (like a chiffonade) or smaller pieces. Use raw, in salads, steamed as a quick side dish, or cooked for a longer period of time in German recipes. The longer you cook it, the more it will smell like sulfur or a bit like rotten eggs. This is because cooking frees the sulfur molecules from the sugar molecules. Some people welcome the smell, others never get used to it.

Cooked kale goes well with bacon and foods that are smoked. In the German cuisine, it is seasoned with lard, mustard, salt, and sugar. Sometimes allspice or nutmeg is added.

Kale Storage

Wash the kale, dry it and store it in the vegetable bin in your refrigerator for up to several days. Be aware that the longer you store it, the more vitamins it loses and its taste profile changes.

Freezing Kale

Blanch in saltwater for 2 minutes. Drain well before packing and freezing.

Kale is high in vitamins A and C and B6. It also has iron, phosphorus, potassium and is very high in calcium. In fact, it has double the calcium than milk, ounce per ounce 

Also known as: Kale, Brassica oleracea convar. acéphala var. sabéllica, Blätterkohl, Krauskohl, Fedekohl, Winterkohl, geschlitzter Kohl, friesische- or Oldenburger Palme (leaf cabbage, curly cabbage, feather cabbage, winter cabbage, slit cabbage and Frisian or Oldenburger palm tree), Braunkohl