Manner wafer biscuits: the best damn wafer biscuit in the whole world from Austria

Until I was 28 years old, I had no idea why wafer cookies/biscuits were so popular. My grandma had quite a sweet tooth, so we always had all kinds of packaged cookies at home growing up. This vast cookie selection included wafer biscuits, which I never really understood. The ones she used to buy always had a weird, cardboard-like texture, seemed semi-stale, and were rarely satisfying in the least bit. The flavor was always muted, some form of vanilla or chocolate, and I always wondered how anyone could think these things were tasty. They seemed like the kind of cookie you’d eat when you were just hungry and needed something to eat, rather than something you looked forward to eating because of how delicious it was.

Then, while in Vienna, Austria, during our European Thanksgiving trip in November 2014, my outlook of the wafer biscuit changed forever. Every market or grocery store we went into had these Manner wafer biscuits on display in this bright pink packaging that was hard to miss. The packaging was simple: bright pink with a picture of the wafer biscuits along with whole hazelnuts, along with the name “Manner” written in cursive letters, with the Vienna Rathaus in the background. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try them, so I bought a few packages. They were also super cheap — one of the few items in Austria at the time I actually thought WERE cheap.

I opened a package and took one bite… and was wowed. Each layer of the wafer biscuit was super thin, very crispy, and the hazelnut flavor was extremely distinct within the chocolate. There’s no way that if you knew what hazelnut tasted like that you wouldn’t know there was hazelnut in those thin chocolate wafers. And in that moment, I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t like wafer biscuits… it’s that I just never had the opportunity have a REALLY GOOD wafer biscuit. None of the wafer biscuits I’d had to date came even remotely close to how delicious this one was, in both taste and texture. In that moment, I’d had finally had a delicious wafer biscuit — one that I’d be loyal to forever.

Manner has several other flavors for their wafer biscuits, including lemon and coconut, but I’m an originalist with these wafers and prefer the hazelnut. Plus, I just love love all things hazelnut chocolate. I read more about Manner after I had these. While they do distribute to over 50 countries around the world, including the U.S., of course the biscuits cost more elsewhere outside of Austria. To this day, it is still a family-owned company headquartered out of Vienna with another production location in southern Austria. The company is named after Josef Manner, the founder of this delicious version of the wafer biscuit.

So when we did that six-hour side trip to Vienna from Bratislava on Friday, we saw a Manner shop, and I knew we had to go in and check it out. I picked up a few Manner biscuit packages, along with some chocolates you buy by the weight. Although it was a small purchase, it made me so, so happy. Manner made me realize how delicious a wafer biscuit could really be. And that’s really how I see most people’s perspectives on what they like and dislike with food: many times, it’s not that we don’t like X food; it’s actually that we haven’t had the best version of it. That’s my optimistic side when it comes to all things edible.

Stara Trznica – The Old Markethall in Bratislava

While we do a lot of research for our trips regarding where to see and eat, inevitably, what also happens is that planned restaurants don’t always work out because of vacation closures or no open tables, or we happen to be in a different area where we didn’t map anything for food. Other times, we stumble upon hidden or local gems just by walking around and keeping our eyes wide open. While walking in Bratislava on Friday morning, we came across the Stara Trznica, or the old market hall of Bratislava. It’s a restored market hall, originally built in 1910, that’s also used for various cultural events, that also holds a weekend farmers and local street food markets. Since the farmers market would be open the next day, we came back on Saturday morning to check it out. It was one of my favorite things that we visited and enjoyed while in Bratislava. The entire place had a real locals feel. The market hall had two levels: the main ground level had all the food and farmers vendors, while the second level had arts/crafts/music vendors, plus a large space for children’s performances and a children’s play area complete with bouncy castles and such (which Kaia loved and was mad that she couldn’t stay all day at!).

We got to enjoy both levels and sampled a lot of delicious things, including freshly made crepes (they are huge here in Bratislava! Though appearance-wise, they are typically rolled), fruit and poppyseed-filled strudel, honey wine (medovina), mulled wine, and Slovakian pastries. There was one vendor in particular I made a beeline for that had a long but quickly moving queue: Pekarenske Vyrobky, a bakery stall that had endless tantalizing pastries. I had a difficult time deciding which ones I wanted, but in the end, I chose two: a moravsky kolac and a cokoladovo. The morvasky kolac was a flat round bready pastry topped with a thick layer of plum jam, sweetened poppy seeds, and blobs of sweetened soft cheese. The cokoladovo was a huge, rounded, large-mug-shaped pastry that was twisted and croissant-like, with a very smooth, dark, not-too-sweet chocolate swirled throughout it. While I enjoyed the moravsky kolac, I was totally obsessed with the cokoladovo: I couldn’t believe how pillowy and soft the dough was, and I really, really loved the chocolate in it, which really was not sweet at all. At first, I felt a little confused and was unsure whether it was really chocolate. But I realized it was chocolate, just very dark and not as sweet as I am used to in pastries. Chris was obsessed with the entire market vibe and all the drink vendors. We were also shocked to see how cheap all the Slovakian wines were. If you wanted a glass at any of the stalls, they were no more than 1.50-2 euros for a generous pour, which many people were partaking in. A full bottle was usually around 11-12 euros, all locally sourced and made.

I loved this market so much. I loved the family-friendly vibe and all the samples and all the local foods. I loved how friendly all the vendor workers were. I even liked the bathroom setup, which was super clean, cleaned every hour, and the large, cushy changing table that I used for Pookster. I wish we could have spent more time there to eat and sample more, but alas, so much to eat and see, with so little time.

Trdelnik (aka baumkuchen or chimney cake) in Bratislava

As you can probably imagine, every time we take a trip, whether it’s to Poughkeepsie or Boston or Bratislava, I always spend a good amount of time researching what to eat and where. I want to know what local traditions and foods are and what regional specialties we can seek out and taste. One of the things that came up in both Czechia and Slovakia was trdelnik, which is a round, hollow baked cake that is wrapped around a stick, rotated and baked, then rolled in sugar, cinnamon, nuts, and other toppings. When I saw photos of trdelnik, I immediately remembered seeing it virtually at every Christmas market we’ve ever visited throughout Europe in the last ten years (in Germany and Austria, it’s called baumkuchen). I just never stopped to try one. It seemed a little touristy to get it, and I wasn’t sure how good it would actually be. But given trdelnik originates in the general Czechia/Slovakia/Hungary area, I figured that this was a good time and place to finally try it.

We ran out of time to get it in Prague, so when I saw a stall at the Bratislava main square Christmas market freshly churning them out, I knew I had to get it. Thursday was the first night of the Bratislava Christmas markets, so it was quite quiet and there weren’t any crowds. Thus, I was able to walk right up to the stall and ask for a fresh one. I got it the traditional way, simply rolled in cinnamon and sugar. When the vendor handed it to me, it was still warm from the oven. I took one bite, and I was in love: the chimney was nice and thin, super crunchy on the outside, but soft and chewy on the inside. The cinnamon sugar coating was just enough to add a bit of sweetness, but not too much. Pookster started whining immediately when she saw me eat it, so I caved in and indulged her with some. I liked it so much that on our last night in Bratislava, I waited at least 15 minutes in a long line at the same stall for one just-out-of-the-oven (on Saturday, the market was PACKED, nothing like the first night of the market on Thursday!). It was SO fresh, piping hot and steaming when the vendor handed it to me. This time, I got it with vanilla sugar, and I loved it just as much. While the line was long and moved slowly because all the trdelnik were being made to order, it was fun to watch all the workers inside the stall rolling the dough around the spits, putting them into the open oven, and periodically pulling them out to check for doneness.

Now that I know the beauty and deliciousness of trdelnik, I have a feeling I will always get it now whenever I see it being made fresh at a Christmas market. It’s fun to eat and look at, and I loved watching it be made. Plus, I have a feeling Pookster is going to want more, too.

Language and duck (!) in the Czech Republic and Slovakia

We took a 4-hour train ride from Prague to Bratislava yesterday morning. During the train ride, I thought about how interesting it was that when I was born, the Czech Republic and Slovakia did not exist; they were once a country known as Czechoslovakia; but what’s more notable is that if you ask anyone who identifies with either nationality, it was considered an “amicable split” (unfortunately, we cannot say the same for North Korea and South Korea….). And as I was studying basic words and greetings in Czech and Slovak, I thought it was also interesting that although they are two distinct languages, many words and sayings overlap. Plus, it’s similar to how if you speak Cantonese, you can also understand some Mandarin because of overlap of sounds. So even if someone is speaking Czech to someone who is speaking Slovak, both can understand each other and converse without ever properly speaking the other’s language. So, if you want to say “thank you” in Czech, it’s “dekuji,” but in Slovak, it’s “dakujem.” The sound is similar and if you say it quickly, they can almost sound the same to an untrained ear.

While researching food for both countries, I was excited to learn that duck is a popular dish eaten during this time of year as we enter the colder months. We don’t have duck very often at all, and when we do, it’s usually Chinese style from our favorite Cantonese style roastery in Manhattan Chinatown. We had our first meal at a restaurant in the Old Town of Bratislava shortly after we arrived, and to our delight, both of the seasonal specials on the menu included duck. The first was a seared duck breast served with duck au jus, pumpkin puree, and oddly enough, crumbled gingerbread. The second was fried duck pirohy (dumplings) served with two dipping sauces. We also ordered garlic soup with egg “noodles” (they were shredded omelet strips), which is a popular Slovak dish, as well. All our food was washed down with a local Slovak beer (beer is just as refreshing and delicious in Slovakia as it is in the Czech Republic!) and a hot pear “lemonade” (not lemonade at all, but a warm fizzy dink with pear juice and warming autumnal spices). The dishes were all delicious: the duck breast was perfectly cooked, though I did wish the skin was a bit crispier; the duck pirohy really blew me away. They were clearly fried in duck fat to make them even more decadent, and when you sliced one of the dumplings in half, they were stuffed to the BRIM with shredded duck. There was certainly no skimping here! Chris I both marveled over how relatively inexpensive these duck specials were at less than 20 euros per dish. In New York, we’d likely pay double what we paid here.

Kaia didn’t really eat the duck breast, but she did enjoy the duck pirohy, as well as the gingerbread. It was a delicious first meal in Bratislava, followed by a trip to the main square Christmas market, which was our first Christmas market this season!

Eating savories in Central Europe

When Chris booked our trip to Prague and Bratislava, while I was excited for the sights, Christmas markets, and the pastries/desserts, I will be honest and say that the day to day food that Central Europe is known for is not really up my alley. I love spices, heat, texture, and complexity in food. The simple meat and potatoes food culture has never really been on my top cravings list. In fact, Chris always makes fun of the other kids at Kaia’s school when we talk about the sheer variety of food we have exposed her to, from different cuisines to various spices to even chili peppers. He likes to say, “well, of course she likes / eats (insert food we feed her). She doesn’t just eat meat and potatoes like all those other kids.”

But you know what? When I’m in Prague or anywhere in Central Europe, I am happy to eat local food and try new things. I rarely have eaten potato “dumplings” made from a dumpling “loaf” sliced like bread slices and presented with goulash. Beef and pork are commonly eaten in rich stews in this part of the world, as are potatoes in many forms, whether it’s boiled or mashed and pressed into dumplings. Our first meal at a restaurant (canteen style, where you take a tray and a ticket, then go to each stall and choose what you want, then pay at the end) on our first night was beef goulash (Czech style, which is apparently different from Hungarian style according to the menu – always learning!) stew with sliced potato dumplings, along with the local favorite beer on tap, Pilsner Urquell. The goulash was pretty tasty, and the texture of the potato dumplings really surprised me. It looked dense when you peer over it, but when you cut into it with a fork and eat it, it’s actually quite fluffy and spongy.

For something sweet to end our meal, we also had knedliky for the first time, which are sweet dessert dumplings made with quark, a type of soft cheese, flour, egg, yeast, and some sugar. They are typically filled with a fruit — most commonly apricot or berries. Once you choose the fruit filling for your sweet dumplings, the server then ladles a big dollop of a warm, sweet cheese based sauce, along with a sprinkling of savory cheese. I was pleasantly surprised — it was quite satisfying! I could see how people could grow up eating knedliky and have them as a craving.

It was a hearty meal, and one that would fill us up and keep us warm at the beginning of this cold week.

My road to making good dal

Anthony Bourdain once famously said that India is likely the only country he’s ever visited where he could imagine happily enjoying life as a vegetarian. And I completely understand what he means: so many Indian dishes across its many regions treat beans so well with endless spices and seasonings that oftentimes when you are enjoying them, you forget there isn’t any meat on the table. It doesn’t matter if it’s strong spices like cumin and hing or fresh curry leaves or cardamom — the cuisine is so rich that if you want to make something seemingly bland like the humble lentil delicious, it’s really easy to do so.

Living in a rich western country, I have always had easy and affordable access to animal protein. My mom, on the other hand, living in rural, poor, Central Vietnam as a growing child, did not, and so when she came to the U.S and had easy, cheap access to meat, she obviously wanted to take advantage of it. So growing up, when I would occasionally threaten to be vegetarian after learning of animal cruelty or factory farms, she would scoff at me and say that “being vegetarian is not allowed.” She just saw it as my being spoiled: only someone extremely privileged would give up meat.

She’s kind of right. But as the world moves forward, and climate change, global warming, and the environment are becoming far more of a concern, meat consumption really does need to decrease. And so in my mind, the only way to really get tasty protein into one’s diet is to eat more beans – the South Asian way. So I started experimenting a lot more with different Indian pulses and legumes. I’ve tried endless dal recipes and spice combinations for tadka. And I’ve realized that the most flavorful dal is definitely one with a dal tadka, or a spiced oil that is added towards the end that really gives dal quite the “pizzazz.” I made this today after a while of not doing it (doing full Instant Pot dal is honestly so much easier than dealing with tadka, as there’s no splatter on the stove to clean up!), and after having a spoonful, I’ve reminded myself why I need to do this more often to eat more dal.

Dal is the future. Dal is tasty. Dal is good for the environment (I just learned on the beans episode of Gastropod that growing beans and having that be a part of crop rotation enriches the soil and land! Another win!). So we should all eat more dal.

When inflation isn’t even the excuse anymore and it’s just plain robbery

Everyone is constantly talking about inflation. You cannot have a conversation or read a news article about the price of things without inflation coming up as a topic. But what if, just if, some businesses are actually increasing their prices beyond what “inflation” actually is increasing their operating costs by, and they’re just gouging you for the sake of it and wanting to use inflation as an excuse to get as much money out of you as they can?

I felt that way after I left Ando Patisserie today. It was my day off, so after getting a cut and color at a nearby salon, I went around the East Village with Chris for a mini food crawl and to pick up some desserts from places I’d been wanting to try. When I went inside, I already felt a little weird: they didn’t have any desserts other than a handful of “models” on display. Their best-selling items were not photographed or on display, but the person at the counter told me that the oolong basque cheesecake was their best seller and was available today. He didn’t really give me much of a description at all. I looked at the price tag of $15 (before tax!) and thought it was steep, but when he said I was buying a cheesecake, I just (naively) assumed it would be a mini cheesecake that we might get multiple servings out of. That was a bad and very wrong assumption, as after I paid and got the bag, I took a peek inside and realized it was just a small SLICE of a cake that would barely be enough for both of us to share later that evening!

Prices of ingredients are obviously going up whether it’s for individual consumers or for businesses making food and buying wholesale ingredients. But this was just insane. Many other cake and pie shops that have premium items are selling cake slices for half of what this place is charging, and I’ve been fully satisfied with those purchases. Even though this cake does taste good, I’d never go back to buy it knowing how expensive it was, and I’ll always remember feeing robbed as a result of making a purchase here.

Oat milk chocolate bars at Trader Joe’s

My thoughts on food and “the way it should be” has definitely evolved over the last couple decades. I used to be firmly in the “traditional flavors and methods” camp of dishes like dim sum or banh cuon… until it suddenly hit me one day that food, just like culture, is constantly evolving, and it changes with times. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The best chefs in Hong Kong are constantly experimenting with different yum cha dishes to “touch the heart,” and those experiments then eventually reach places like Australia and the U.S., where the dishes get replicated in dim sum houses for the Chinese diaspora and those who love Cantonese food. Vietnamese people did not always have access to ovens, but when they did, they started making dishes like ga roti, or Vietnamese-style roasted chicken with Vietnamese seasonings. And it’s absolutely delicious. Is it “traditional”? Maybe it wasn’t traditional a hundred years ago, but now it’s readily accepted as Vietnamese cuisine.

I also used to freak out a little inside when people would ask me about vegan baking. Frankly, it just didn’t sit well with me. Other than health or ethical reasons (because those things, clearly, were not always enough…), why would you forgo eggs and butter? The idea of having a croissant made with vegan butter or no milk in my “milk chocolate” made me feel very, very uncomfortable for a while. But then, I finally saw the light when I started trying delicious vegan cheeses and vegan baked goods from bakeries and farmers markets stands that I enjoy, and I realized that deliciousness was, in fact, a possibility in baked goods without butter or animal products.

So that’s what led me to the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer, where I learned that they’d been selling oat milk chocolate bars for some time now. And their latest item is an oat milk chocolate bar with crispy rice and cocoa nibs. So I decided to pick up both to try. Old me never would have entertained this back in high school or college. But today’s me does and happily tossed it into my shopping cart. Are they as rich as milk chocolate? No. But they are both very tasty and and satisfying. They definitely can satiate a chocolate craving. And I’m happy these options exist for those who either are lactose-intolerant or who are just for whatever reason avoiding dairy. I don’t fit into either of those camps, but I am in the camp of trying and exploring new, potentially delicious things.