It’s a bright, cloudless, viciously cold February day in Maulbronn, Germany, the birthplace — well, alleged birthplace — of my favorite German food, the maultaschen. Actually, maybe “German” is overdoing it. The dish, a kind of dumpling, is found almost exclusively in an area west of Bavaria and just north of Switzerland known as Baden-Württemberg. Go too far north or east, to other parts of the country, and ask for maultaschen and nobody will know what you’re talking about.
In 2012, as a language student translating everything I came across — especially the compound words that make the German language the brunt of so many jokes — maul, I learned, means “mouth” and taschen means “little bag” or “purse,” which made the dumplings “little mouth bags,” or maybe “feed sacks.”
It’s a little south German playfulness, a little wink, a reminder that, while tradition is important, not everything has to be so serious.
Maultaschen look like oversize, overstuffed ravioli. They have a filling made of bread and meat — traditionally pork and veal — and fresh herbs. Quality maultaschen, those without too much bread, are firm against a knife cut and can taste a bit like meatballs. I usually slice, then fry them and mix in scrambled eggs, a kind of prep known as “Swiss style.” From there, I take the decidedly non-German step of splashing on a bunch of Mexican hot sauce. Add avocado and beans, close your eyes and chilaquiles are not far away.
“[Their versatility] is what makes them great,” says Karl Schempf, owner and master chef at the Klosterschmiede, a restaurant in an enormous half-timbered house set just inside the walls of the 871-year-old Maulbronn Abbey. Monks at the abbey are said to have first made maultaschen in the late Middle Ages as a way to hide meat from God during Lent. (This explains the other nickname for maultaschen, herrgottsbesc
Schempf, an 11th-generation Maulbronner, does not thumb his nose at the idea of salsa on maultaschen, but rather starts listing all the ways he’s seen them prepared: in broth, sliced and fried, even grilled. At the Klosterschmiede they do maultaschen with all kind of nontraditional fillings, like trout or mushrooms. At restaurants across the region, maultaschen start at about 10 euros ($12) a plate, but can be found cheaper in supermarkets.
Maultaschen might not seem like anything particularly unique. Every culture has a dumpling, from pierogi in Poland to wontons in China. Wrapping dough around something and then eating it is a weirdly universal human experience. It’s when you put maultaschen next to the rest of Germany’s cuisine — which is so famously insular and conservative that restaurants across the country serve the same menu, with bratwurst and schnitzel and a tall mug of Pilsner — that you start to see its special place. It’s a little south German playfulness, a little wink, a reminder that, while tradition is important, not everything has to be so serious.
“So you believe the story about the monks, then?” I ask.
Schempf laughs. “Yeah,” he says, “of course!”
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