When Kennedy said those famous words, every German knew what he meant. Nonetheless, there might have been some confusion in the Rhineland; there, “Berliner” also refers to a type of pastry similar to a Donut.
My mother was born near Cologne, and although my father is from Berlin, my German is much closer to the Rhineland variant of the language. Of course, a “Berliner” can be someone from Berlin, but to me, the first thing I think of when hearing that word is a piece of pastry.
Based on a donut-like dough, a “Berliner” is fried, covered in a sinful amount of sugar, and filled with jam (or very rarely cream). The final product is a ball-shaped sugar bomb, impossible to eat without making a mess and absolutely delicious. Variations of this recipe exist everywhere in Germany, including in Berlin.
There are all kinds of other names for this pastry, from “Ballen” (usually only used to refer to bales of hay) to “Krapfen” (no idea, probably untranslatable). Those have region-dependent meanings, though, so be careful. In the Rhineland, a “Krapfen” refers to relatively small, fried, dough-based foodstuffs. So, if you want the classic donut-like pastry, you should go for a “Berliner”, just to be on the safe side. Except for when you’re in Berlin. If you claim to eat “Berliners” in Berlin, you’ll receive some weird looks. You should try ordering a “Pfannkuchen” instead, that should work. But only in Berlin.
Anywhere outside of Berlin, the wonderful word “Pfannkuchen” not only literally translates to “pan cake”, but also means something quite similar to the English pancakes. The German variant is comprised mainly of flour, eggs, milk, and sugar, but it’s a lot thinner than the English ones. Also unlike those, German pancakes are not fluffy at all, and almost like a carpaccio, they’re the size of a plate. Nonetheless, they taste quite similar, and they’re usually eaten as a sweet small meal. So that’s what you’ll get if you order “Pfannkuchen” in Germany, but outside of Berlin.
But wait, there’s more. What if you want pancakes in Berlin? We’ve established that you can’t order “Berliner”, since that just means “someone from Berlin” to someone from Berlin. And ordering “Pfannkuchen” in Berlin will get you a Donut without a hole and filled with jam. If you want pancakes in Berlin, you’ll have to go with “Eierkuchen”, meaning “eggs-cake”.
As long as you’re in or around Berlin, that word means the same as the word “Pfannkuchen” would anywhere else. However, don’t try to order “Eierkuchen” outside of that area; again, you’d just be looked at weirdly. Whilst most Germans would probably guess correctly that it’s supposed to mean pancake, it’s not really a commonly used word in the vast majority of German dialects.
In the end, your safest bet would be to just briefly describe what it is you want; chances are that whoever is taking your order has a very different name for it, probably one you’ve never heard. And please, please, don’t apply any of what I’ve written to Bavaria and their dialects. I can’t understand a word they say.
See our recipe to make Berliner at home!