Wiener Küche: Introduction to Austrian Cuisine
Whenever I travel, I spend significant amounts of time and money on eating. I hope that this applies to you as well, since Austria has plenty to offer for gourmet tourists. Here I try to give an introduction to where Austrian or Viennese cuisine is coming from and what it is about. I hope this creates a good basis for both eating out in Austria and cooking traditional Austrian meals at home.
"Wiener Küche" as an International Standard
First of all, we need to define the term "Austrian cuisine". The problem is that in the World of international cooking, nobody uses the expression "Austrian cuisine" - however, you hear a lot about the "Wiener Küche" or "Viennese cuisine". Why is that? No good cooking outside of Vienna? In fact, the "Viennese cuisine" is not the cooking tradition of Vienna only, but rather a mix of culinary styles originating from the many ethnicities of the multinational Austrian Empire.
Influences from all the "crownlands", but most notably Hungary, Bohemia and Itlay created the basis for the Viennese cuisine at the time when Austria bloomed in baroque decadence. Culinary traditions were increasingly formalised and around the time of the Vienna Congress in 1814, the Vienna cuisine had a distinct style that was passed on (and altered over time) until today.
In that sense, the "Wiener Küche" is a "Habsburg empire cuisine" rather than the tradition of Vienna only. Aside of that, there are many meals and styles in traditional Austrian cooking that are typical for only certain regions, adding a federal element that supplements the Vienna cuisine.
Sweet Dishes as Dessert & Main Course
The Vienna cuisine is internationally most famous for its sweet tooth. Very similar to Bohemian cooking, sweet meals ("Mehlspeisen") are often served as main courses. I don′t know of any other region in the World where this is common. Sweet omelettes and soufflés, strudel with quark or fruit filling, potato dough gnocchi or dumplings with poppy seed, nut or fruit filling or sauces, Kaiserschmarrn (kind of a torn omelette), vanilla and chocolate sauces are a common base for a proper meal. Many Austrians often have soup as a savoury starter and then a sweet main course (or at least I do).
A different category are pastries, tarts and praline. I just notice that it is very difficult to translate the Austrian terminology into English - many culinary terms in English are of French origin and describe very similar, but not identical things as the distinct Austrian food. So please don′t trust my words and try everything yourself! Sweets of the dessert-like kind are generally made by a "Konditor" (confectioner); this includes the famous tarts such as the Sacher, Malakoff, Dobos, Linzer or Esterhazy tarts.
Cakes like Guglhupf and Swiss rolls (Roulade) are extremely common. Pies, on the other hand, are essentially unheard of. Tarts, cakes, pastries and rolls are of course eaten for dessert or with coffee, whereas strudel can be served both as a dessert or a main course. It is said that the origin of this sweet tradition is with Maria of Burgundy, the wife of Emperor Maximilian I. Her cooks from Burgundy are said to have introduced sugar to Vienna and its cuisine.
A special aspect of sweet pastries in Austria are Christmas cookies - they are very regional most of them are not considered to be part of the "Vienna Cuisine". Vanillekipferl and various Lebkuchen (sort of ginger bread) are two classics, but there are hundreds of varieties and in many Austrian households, several kinds are baked during advent season before Christmas.
Starters & Soups
On the savoury side, you will find whatever you wish - given that you are carnivorous. Until very recently, vegetarians had a very hard time finding food in Austria. This changes, but traditional meals of the savoury kind almost always contain at least small amounts of meat.
Classic starters are clear soups (bouillon) with solid additions, neatly floating with some chopped chives: Fritattensuppe (thinly cut crepe), Kaiserschöberlsuppe (little pieces of biscuit dough with herbs), various dumplings such as Leberknödel (liver dumpling) or strudels with savoury fillings. The king of soups is the "Wiener Suppentopf" which consists of bouillon with noodles, small pieces of stewed beef, root vegetables, peas and chopped Wiener sausage.
Savoury Main Courses
Savoury main courses include most notably the Wiener Schnitzel, a breaded piece of veal or pork that is fried and served with buttered potatoes with chopped parsley, a slice of a lemon and cranberries. This is by any means the national meal and said to originate from the Italian "Piccata Milanese", the favourite meal of General Radetzky who introduced it to Vienna after suppressing the revolution in Milan.
Stewed meats are also very popular, like the Tafelspitz: a certain piece of beef, traditionally served with horseradish in cream, parsley sauce, potatoes and young beans with dill. Various other meats, mostly beef and pork, are served with Sauerkraut and bread dumplings. Pasta is commonly used as a side or base. Chicken and turkey is prepared in a variety of ways and especially the latter one has replaced other (more unhealthy) meats in current years.
Traditionally, turkey was not used in the Wiener Küche. "Beuschl" is an interesting one: it consists mostly of trachea and lung, but also muscular blood vessels that are boiled in bouillon, cut into stripes and marinated, then served in a stew with "Serviettenknödel", a kind of bread dumpling - sounds disgusting, is delicious! A must for every visitor of Austria.
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