Culinary Christmas Delights in Austria

In the Western world, Christmas time is considered to be the most wonderful time of the year and is celebrated accordingly. Even in today’s China, celebrating Christmas is getting more and more popular — at least in major cities, where the festival is basically embraced as a commercialized event.  Not aware of its religious background, the Chinese tend to associate Christmas mostly with Santa Claus, who brings presents as well as festive music and decorations. No wonder, China has been pursuing a consumption-driven economy for decades now.

As a cultural and religious holiday celebrated by Christians, Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ and in this context, shaped by many traditions.

In Austria, the Christkind prevails over Santa Claus as the gift-bringer and arrives on Christmas Eve, the 24th of December. This very evening is also a time of get-together for the whole family with the highlight being the Christmas dinner. Before embarking on describing what kind of delicious food is served on this special day, let us have a look at what is eaten during Advent, the period of weeks, especially those Sundays, before Christmas.

During the Advent season, it is a longstanding tradition in Austria to bake cookies. This quality time of baking with your family members and beloved ones creates happy atmosphere, even the smell of sweet, freshly-baked cookies hitting you pleasantly when opening the oven makes it all a worthwhile experience!

Here, top-ranked cookies include doubtlessly the most popular and classic Vanillekipferl, e.g. vanilla crescent cookies. Vanillekipferl is made of only flour, butter, grinded nuts and sugar — including vanilla sugar, giving this delicacy its name. However, there is a variety of eye-catching Christmas bakery, for instance,  Linzer Augen which is nearly as popular as Vanillekipferl.  Linzer Augen requires two additional ingredients: cranberry jam and eggs. Besides, Lebkuchen, aka gingerbread cookies, is also highly-appreciated during the Christmas season, as they contain spices that are strongly associated with this holiday. If all of this fails, one can still opt for another treat that does not require baking. Rumkugeln is very easy and quick to make. It is meanwhile the healthiest kind of delicatessen, the recipe containing only dark chocolate and a good amount of nuts.

Austrians love to bake a huge bunch of cookies and hand them as gifts to their friends.

What do you drink while nibbling on those delicious Christmas cookies? Typical drinks on a cold Christmas day are Punsch (punch) and Gluehwein (mulled wine), both hot and spicy alcoholic beverages emphasizing on the spices that bestow its special taste. The former has its origin in India and is usually made with tea and an alcoholic drink with rum. The latter is originated in Rome with white or red wine as the main ingredient. There is Kinderpunsch (literally Children’s punch) for kids, a non-alcoholic version of the drink, which is also recommended for people who do not tolerate alcohol well.

You can indeed get drunk by drinking punch and mulled wine. Chinese especially somehow. It is said that they lack a specific enzyme to metabolise alcohol and thus tend to get tipsy easily. Still, these beverages contain alcohol to warm you up in the cold, so take my tip: go for it while limiting to no more than one or two drinks.

If making these drinks is too much of an effort for you, you can always head for Christkindlmarkt, the Christmas market. There, you will find these drinks in abundance and also get into the Christmas mood:  Its special atmosphere with crowds of people cheerfully chatting under beautiful lightings is always fantastic, even surreal. At Christkindlmarkt, you can try a lot of kinds of food as well offered there. Adding food to your alcoholic drink prevents the alcohol from getting into your system too fast so that you don’t get tipsy too quickly.

Krapfen is another delicatessen you might find at Christkindlmarkt. When you are lucky, you might even find some freshly-made ones, which is basically a doughnut without the hole in the middle and instead, with a classic filling of apricot jam.

Some Christmas markets offer delicacies from other European countries as well, such as Belgian waffles or French crêpes, which always taste great for me. In addition, a winter without Maroni (roasted chestnuts) is just incomplete.  A must eat, also very healthy!

Nevertheless, if you feel like having something more filling, I would recommend Ofenkartoffel, which is an oven-baked potato cut in the middle and filled with a cheesy sauce and ham. There are actually a wide variety of options for the sauce. You won’t regret it if you try a Ofenkartoffel before the Christmas market closes, mostly on the night of 23rd leading to 24th of December.

The reason why Christkindlmarkt is closed on the 24th is that on Christmas Eve, the cultivation of tradition is of priority. As a matter of fact, Austrians stay at home to cook and celebrate this special day with their family. Going to a restaurant might be trendy but still rare, also against tradition.

What is served on Christmas Eve at a family table has been  changing minimally. Interestingly, it varies a lot from one Austrian federal state to another.

In Vienna, Austria’s capital city, fish is the favorite and most popular choice of Christmas Eve dinner – to be specific: the carp is served. This applies to other places as well, where the carp can be found, like Waldviertel region and Styria. For the rest of Austria, numerous variations of sausages are found on the festive table: Selchwurst with Sauerkraut and smoked meat in Carinthia, soup with sausage and potatoes in Salzburg, noodle soup with Frankfurter or Blutwurst in Tyrol and Bratwurst in Upper Austria. The gourmets are the Burgenlanders, who prefer Tafelspitz (boiled beef) with apple horseradish, goose with red cabbage or smoked salmon. Very different in taste are the inhabitants of Vorarlberg in the West. They love their cheese prepared in the form of  Fondue or Raclette.

For Christmas, as you can see, Austrians eat well. They love meat, fish and cheese and of course, the sweet pastries and cookies. All of these are consumed in abundance during the whole Christmas period. One might as well compare this to how Chinese celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year – a food orgy over a longer period, on which at the end everyone needs to fast in order to recover from binge eating.

When you live in Austria and happen to be health-conscious, opting for fish is by all means a good choice, as it is for sure way easier to digest!

Happy feasting and Merry Christmas!

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