Last Sausage Before the Equator
A typical Scene of Vienna on the other side of the world – an Austrian Würstelstand in the heart of Singapore
An afternoon stroll in balmy Singapore, sunshine tickling our cheeks, feet aching and hunger gnawing at our stomachs. Time for a 4 o’clock Jause. What does one eat in this exotic of pacific probity? Don’t want junk food. But something smells yummy and we follow our noses… when low and behold there stands before us the only true Viennese fast food: the Würstelstand. The smell of freshly baked whole grain bread, the sound of grilling Frankfurter, Käsekreiner and Bratwürstl on the shining silverfish grill in front of us – the sausages seemed to be waiting to jump directly into our mouths. But maybe it was the sight of Kremser Senf that tipped the scale, the perfect complement to Austria’s secret national dish. This Würstelstand seemed absurdly, but wonderfully, out of place.
At the corner of Pagoda and Sago Streets, in the middle of hundreds of shining Chinese red lanterns, among the Asian, Indian Taiwanese and Korean restaurants and numerous little stands hung with Krimskrams, we stumble over the red hawker stall of Erich Sollbock, an Austrian emigrant and passionate Würstelmann.
We are in the heart of the old city of Singapore, over 9,717,158 kilometers away from my favorite vendor on the Hohermarkt in Vienna’s 1st District. Here is the "last Würstelstand before the equator."
Staring in disbelief, (who would sell Austrian sausages in Singapore??) we soon hear a strangely familiar accent of a foreigner’s English. For sure this is a fellow countryman. My friend Julia is absolutely delighted by the sight of the multigrain Bauernbrot on offer at the small stall; after two seemingly endless weeks of at least two rice meals a day, she is grinning like a "warmer Wecken" (like a warm long loaf of bread) at promise of the taste of it.
Erich Sollbock, in Singapore for the past 14 years, opened his Würstelstand on Nov. 1 2004. "That was six years, four months, 18 days, 5 hours, 35 minutes und a boar zerquetschte," Erich calculates with lightening speed, placing his chef’s cap on his head "just for the photo." "Other cooks here in China Town just wear shirts. I wear my uniform!" he says with pride.
Munching our Eitrige, the colloquial Viennese Würstelstand expression for a Käsekrainer, a sausage with veins of melted cheese in it, we enjoy the multicultural flair of Chinatown and the chat with Erich. Three tourists from the German Ruhrgebiet come our way, smiling brightly at Erich, stating that they last visited him three years ago. Erich seems delighted. But as he puffs patiently on a cigarette, he warns that he will only sell them sausages when he is done talking to us. The tourists are fine with that and amazingly so are the Asian customers. This white man selling his sausages has a different conception of time, a 15 minute waiting time for "a Eitrige und a Krokodil" (a sausage and a pickle) is easy to accept considering the unique taste of his sausages, directly imported from a German butcher.
Oddly, Erich did not seem to be all surprised to be visited by two Austrians.
"Before the economic crisis I had 10 Austrian customers per day, after the economic crisis it is between 25 and 30 Austrians a day!" We stare with mouths wide open as he points to a map of Austria, with plenty of red marks on it. "Check if your village has already been marked. If yes, somebody from your area has already visited me." We both check instantly and quickly figure that we will be the first ones from our areas. Our chests swell with pride. Right next to the map, the entire wall is plastered with business cards from visitors. I hand him one from The Vienna Review and he gently places it right next to the map, "so that people can see it."
But he has no longing to return: This Austrian who last visited his home country in 1996 doesn’t seem to miss anything he left behind. "Was soll mir denn abgehen? What should I be missing?" placing three different kinds of Senf in front of us and with a huge smile and heart warming laughter, we soon understand that what he has right here is all he needs. And if he ever wanted to, he adds, he could always go home.
His success is unique. Based on the principle that "Respekt und Toleranz" are needed for a business in Asia, 80% of Erich’s customers are Singaporeans. Two little Indian children are already on their third round of sausages and pickles, happily munching them down, even before Erich can say "Happy working, happy eating, happy wonderful!" We guess that’s "guten Appetit" in Singlish!
After leaving Austria in 1983 to work on cruise ships, he discovered his love for the Asian continent, where he has been living since 1989. The German tourists, finally holding their snacks in their hands, are off in search of a cold refreshment. "Ich weigere mich Wasser zu verkaufen, und der Nachbar will keine Würstl verkaufen! I refuse to sell water since my neighbor refuses to sell sausages." A role for everyone.
Our tummies satisfied, it is almost time to say farewell. Waving good-bye, Erich hums the modified lyrics of an Austrian hit "Steirerman san very good, very good a ohne huat" Styrians are very good, very good even without their hat! With a fat grin on my face for this tribute to Styrians, we leave Erich’s Austrian sausage stall behind and head off into the hectic din of Singapore’s China Town. Julia and I are soon to head to Dubai for our connection flight back to where the Würstelstand is in fact at home.