I’m not actually in Bavaria. I am in a Bavarian restaurant in Singapore.
What comes to mind when Bavaria is mentioned? Beer, sausages, Oktoberfest and burly men who eat a lot of meat? It would appear that these stereotypes aren’t too far from the truth. Chef Dominik Oesterreicher of Bavarian Restaurant, Brez’n, says that they pretty much describe Bavarian culture.
But that can’t be all there is to Bavaria, can it? The largest German state has a pretty distinct culture from the rest of Germany due to its traditions dating back to a thousand years, and its Catholic majority. Throughout history, Bavaria has shared linguistical, cultural and political similarities with Austria, its neighbour across the borders and ally in the Austro-Prussian war. In fact, Bavarian cuisine has more in common with Austrian cuisine than that of the rest of Germany. Meat, potatoes and bread dumplings feature heavily in the cuisines of the region, and you will often see similar – if not the same – dishes on the menus of Austrian and Bavarian restaurants.
Curious to find out more from someone who grew up around the culture and its cuisine, I sit down with Chef Dominik for a chat.
He wears many hats. Besides being the executive chef of Brez’n, he can also be seen behind the bar, serving draft beers to his customers.
The born-and-bred Austrian grew up in a big family and was always around great food prepared by his grandmother. Ah, grandma’s food, a common thread that runs through the childhood of many chefs. “My grandmother’s love for cooking, and ensuring everyone was well taken care of during large family celebrations, inspired me as a child to follow her passion for cooking and pursue my own culinary adventure,” he reveals.
In Austria and Bavaria, grandmothers – lovingly called ‘Oma’– just like any other grandma around the world, are the only ones to spoil their grandchildren with the yummiest treats – and get away with it. One of the dishes traditionally created by Omas for their grandchildren is the famous ‘emperor’s pancake’, a thick and soft as a pillow shredded pancake, dusted with heaps of icing sugar, served warm and straight from the pan. The adult version of this dish includes rum soaked raisins and makes for a delicious dessert to wrap up a meat-heavy Bavarian meal.
Bavarian Omas also prepare their dishes from scratch – a lesson which Chef Dominik considers important and one that he consistently applies to his job. His signature pork knuckle (Schweinshaxn), for instance, is marinated in a special brine for several hours to make the meat more tender and flavourful. The knuckle is then slowly roasted in the oven to develop that crispy crunchy pork crackling. The famous dish is synonymous with Bavarian cuisine. But when you’re in Germany looking for pork knuckles, note that there are two versions: The one with crispy crackling, and a pickled/salt-cured, simmered or slightly boiled version, called Eisbein. I prefer Schweinshaxn, which has a satisfying crunch to it, while Eisbein (commonly found in Berlin and Dresden) is fattier, juicier and more suitable for colder seasons.
It cannot be more obvious that Bavarian cuisine is famous for its meats and sausages. One of the dishes every child in Austria and Bavaria is exposed to from an early age is sausages, and it is Chef Dominik’s first memory of food. Grilled or poached, small or long, Regensburger, Nuernberger or Weisswurst, they are a go-to dish of every mum in Austria and Bavaria. Weisswurst, the famous poached white sausage, is traditionally eaten for breakfast in Bavaria.
Chef Dominik informs me that German food is very varied and just like any other food has greatly evolved and changed over the years. “Bavaria – which is in the South of Germany is only one German region with a specific cuisine associated with it. Every region in Germany has its own signature dishes and regional produce. The North of Germany – due to the proximity to North and Baltic Sea – is famous for its seafood dishes. The East, due to the former ties to Russia, boasts a wealth of Eastern European flavours, such as pickled dishes. The West – home to many farms – is known for its seasonal produce such as the white asparagus, harvested from April to early June each year.” Compared to the green asparagus, the white asparagus is thicker, bigger, longer, and has a more subtle flavour. It’s not as pungent or bitter as green asparagus and goes wonderfully with hollandaise sauce. But just like the green asparagus, the white one is an acquired taste – you either love it or hate it.
As we chat, Chef Dominik selects a few dishes for me to sample. He tells me that the Leberkäse, a meatloaf, is the ultimate comfort food of the Bavarian. On my palate which had never been exposed to the dish, it tastes just like luncheon meat. But unlike canned luncheon meat which is processed and full of preservatives, Bavarian meatloaf is made of fresh ground beef, pork and bacon.
“Bavarian cuisine is rich in tradition and heritage, most recipes have remained unchanged for a long time because the food just tastes great and there is no need to change anything, and many recipes are passed down from generation to generation,” he adds. “In today’s world of uncertainty and constant change, it is wonderful to come back to a warm, familiar and cozy place that offers food the way it’s been prepared for centuries.”
Besides the stereotype of big Bavarian men with their meat eating and beer drinking ways, there’s one more thing about Bavarian culture that Chef Dominik wants everyone to know: “‘Mia san mia’ (we are who we are) is a popular Bavarian proverb that best describes how Bavarians see themselves. We are who we are: no excuses needed. Love it or hate it – we celebrate our Bavarian lifestyle the way we like it. Sociable, kind hearted, sometimes a bit grumpy at first, but very warm and the best of friends once you get to know us. Occasionally a bit too loud but always fun to be around!”