Global trends aside, a city’s culinary scene is always defined first and foremost by the needs and preferences of its people. After all, they are the ones who determine what is eaten — in their own homes or in canteens, supermarkets and restaurants. At the end of the day, it is supply and demand that sets the menu. As Cologne is conveniently located on the Rhine and between the north and south, this city has always been an attractive destination for immigration, which means that its bill of fare is permanently changing.
When Cologne was founded by Empress Agrippina, the Romans brought their eating habits to this settlement and turned it into a wine city. Its Dutch merchant neighbours — bound by the “staple right” to offer their wares to local traders for a given period before they could continue on their way — imported herrings and cheese to Cologne, both of which are still firm favourites here to this day. While the French occupying troops and the affiliation to Prussia left barely a mark on the culinary landscape, post-war Cologne, as the western centre of Germany, inevitably also became more open-minded with regard to food.
In September 1964, Armando Rodrigues de Sá was officially welcomed at Cologne-Deutz train station as the millionth immigrant worker. His fellow Portuguese compatriots, like other migrant groups too, introduced popular traditions from their country by setting up various restaurants, cafés, pubs, bakeries, butchers and grocery stores. The Portuguese community remained in the area around the slaughterhouse in Neu-Ehrenfeld, the Italians in Kalk and Ehrenfeld, and the Turks in Mülheim and on Weidengasse.
But like everywhere in Germany, it was mainly Italian cuisine that quickly became part of the everyday diet in Cologne. Most Greek restaurants, on the other hand, have since disappeared — as have those from the former Yugoslavia. These days, there’s only the odd place serving Croatian food.
And then there are other national cuisines that are suddenly all the rage. Like Korean, for example. Even though Korean women have been working as nurses in Germany since the sixties, their traditional specialities never really caught on. In fact, it took a concerted publicity campaign by the South Korean government for the first restaurants to establish themselves here. An exciting new discovery for the people of Cologne, who have slowly but surely had their fill of the much-hyped Thai and, more recently, Vietnamese cuisine.
Mexican food, on the other hand, has never really taken off here for some reason. So far, the only attempts have included a handful of less than authentic restaurants and a few taco stalls at various street food markets.
But people from all over the world are still coming to us and bringing their food cultures with them. The growing number of Syrian restaurants springing up in Cologne is testament to the success of the city’s integration efforts. Like after the Lebanese Civil War, people have made a home for themselves here. Once mutual trust has been established, they will combine food from their homeland with innovative entrepreneurship and culinary naturalisation will take its course once again.
(by Johannes J. Arens)