Authentic Asian Dining in Vienna: Oh, Holy Basil!
The flood of ‘pan-Asian’ or ‘fusion’ restaurants in the capital is now being followed by some with a more authentic cuisine
This business of authenticity can be very elusive. Enticing the Viennese to compose their own dishes from the elements, as the Thais do, leaves many diners perplexed. But several young ventures in Asian cooking are now serving up successes with traditional tastes and techniques of the Far East, and setting in motion a new trend in every man exotic dining.
One of the most interesting is the Lam family’s By Chi, just across the Danube Canal from Schottenring, and one of the better outcomes of the 2008 financial crisis. When jobs in luxury hotels were no longer secure, the Lams took flight and set up their own business in the emporium of foreign food on the Naschmarkt. Here, the tiny restaurant was faced with Asian competitors, who dominated the scene with cooking that had long since adapted to a standardised, generic western taste.
"We had a long struggle on the Naschmarkt," says proprietor Lam Bich Chi, and so they headed for Hollandstrasse in the 2nd District.
Here, Chi has had an easier time of it. Her substantially bigger restaurant is always full – and has been from day one. Far from the madding crowds of tourists, she has found a clientele that really appreciates a Vietnamese Pho. Traditionally a breakfast food, as well as a late night snack, here it’s a favourite for brunch and by far the best in town.
"Our Pho is typical southern Vietnamese cooking, with plenty of fresh herbs and lean beef," she says. On the Naschmarkt, she initially served the noodle soup in the Vietnamese way, with all ingredients separate, broth, noodles, herbs, raw beef, lemon, fresh chillies, dark sauce. "People didn’t understand what they were supposed to do with it," Chi says. Now she serves her Pho ready-made. Only the fresh chilli, lemon, and spicy sauce are for diners to add themselves, to taste.
Fortunately, this does not spoil the taste. Chi Tan’s husband uses two different varieties of coriander for his Pho, himself preparing the broth from meat and bone. This is then properly spiced with black cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, ginger, and onions.
Another typical Vietnamese herb Tan often uses is Thai basil. It tastes much sweeter than Italian basil – and provides a better balance to the spiciness of the chillies. Genoese basil, by contrast, does not go well with the additional spiciness.
Similarly, lukewarm bun-noodle dishes are authentically Vietnamese. "We cook bun tom nuong with grilled prawns using a recipe of my grandmother, a farmer in South Vietnam," Chi says. She also uses a family recipe for ca nuong grilled fish.
And just down the street is another fine Asian eatery, Kamala, named for Prachaya Sitantrakool’s home town in Thailand. Arriving in Europe years ago, Sitantrakool worked his way up from potato-peeling and washing dishes at the fashionable Szene restaurant Chattanooga on the Graben, while running a Thai snack-bar with space for a few tables.
His sister Malai Pestl, who is married to an Austrian, is kept busy in the kitchen. She learned to cook on the streets of Thailand, and is "very strict", says Prachaya: "Anything that isn’t really fresh doesn’t get into her wok, and every dish is freshly prepared. This isn’t a fast-food joint." Malai’s speciality is steamed fish in banana leaf, marinated in red curry, on the menu every Friday.
Another specialty is Pad Thai: Thai rice noodles with a home-made tamarind sauce, made from sour Indian dates. In Malai’s kitchen there is always a big bowl of fried basil. "That is holy basil," explains Prachaya. Originally from India, Hindus use it in many religious rituals. In Kamala, it is served with Pad krapow, chopped and fried chicken or pork with fried holy basil.
"What we have to offer is based on what, in Thailand, is regular fare on the street," says Prachaya. "Simple, fresh, cheap, spicy." After some getting used to it, his clientèle is also prepared to "put up with" such spicy cooking. "They know it from holidays in Thailand."
But authenticity isn’t always successful. In the Operngasse, on Karlsplatz, there was until recently a Chinese restaurant whose cuisine included boiled pig’s ears and chicken’s feet; for many, this was too much of a good thing.
Readers in search of authentic Chinese cuisine in Vienna should try the "imperial" kitchen in the Zum Kaiserlichen Thron. With its raw vegetables carved into opulent works of art, this is worlds away from the usual chop-suey joint – even if they refrain from pig’s ears.
For this, Chinese cuisine is anything but "hearty", but rather nouvelle cuisine à la chinoise. And here the décor does without the usual dragons or silk paintings. So do By Chi and Kamala, both simply decorated with not a trace of the folkloric. Just right for their Kitsch-free cuisine.
By Chi: 2., Hollandstraße 15
0650 6682777, Mon.-Sat. 10:30 – 22:30
Kamala: 2., Hollandstraße 7
(01) 212 44 61, Mon. – Fri., 10:00 – 21:00
Zum Kaiserlichen Thron: 7., Andreasgasse 7
(01) 526 44 12, Tue. – Sun. 11:30 – 14:30 and 18:00 – 23:00, Teehaus: 10:00 – 18:00