The Shring twins are revisiting traditions and reinventing the bare bones of post-war German cuisine in their Michelin starred Bangkok restaurant
Nothing prepares you for this. Neither years of watching Hindi movies with double roles, nor reruns of Full House. Even watching the identical twins in photographs, working side by side, doesn’t help. When you are meeting the Sühring twins—Thomas and Mathias—in person, it is extremely disorienting trying to keep a tab on who said what and they don’t make it easy. The Berlin-born Sührings understand the confusion and, as if on cue, take out a pair of identical tweezers each with their names engraved on them, and place them on the table. A few questions down the line, they swap their tweezers. “Now they are correct," says one of them with a smile, “this is a game we like to play with people."
The twins, 41, have created a buzz with their take on German cuisine at their eponymous restaurant in Bangkok, winning a Michelin star and currently ranking 4th in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List. They were in India recently for a pop-up at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi.
“We came prepared this time. Last year in Mumbai, during our first visit to the country, we were surprised by the number of people eating vegetarian food," says Mathias. “We come from a culture where people eat a lot of meat. So to see that people were happy eating vegetables was kind of a revelation. Also, it was a challenge for us to cook with so many different kinds of vegetables. This year, we have a lot more veggie dishes in the menu we are doing."
Thomas, the elder of the two by 5 minutes, says this is in sync with the trend worldwide where more people are eating more vegetarian or vegan food these days.
For the pop-up, they used local seafood, herbs and flowers. Things like caviar, lamb and truffle were imported. “Whenever we can, we use local produce," says Thomas. “At Sühring, the split between local and imported is about 50-50. We import proteins and things like morels that don’t grow in Thailand."
Mathias says it is difficult to source quality ingredients, such as different cuts of meat, in India. “It was the same case in Bangkok about a decade ago. But it is getting better now. And looking at the growing food awareness around India, we feel the same will happen here too."
Updating German food
The twins call their food an “update on the traditional German cuisine" rather than “modern German food". “People don’t know what our food is," says Thomas. “It is much more than just beer with bread, potato, sauerkraut and pork."
They want to highlight the simplicity of German cuisine and keep the portions small. Mathias gives the example of brotzeit—a shared plate of freshly baked bread with home-made cold cuts, pickles, cured fish and condiments—that they serve at Sühring, a dish that is enough to remind any German of home. As Thomas says: “Who needs steaks?"
There is a conscious effort to keep the food simple and traditional. The twins bake their own bread and make butter using traditional German techniques. “In a world that is becoming smaller and with cultures taking inspiration from each other, you see the Japanese influence in French food and vice-versa," says Mathias. “We wanted to keep things traditional to showcase our own heritage and pass it on to the next generation."
The two brothers trained under German Michelin starred chef Sven Elverfeld, specialized in French cuisine. They cooked French and Italian food while working in Europe and continued doing so even when they moved to Bangkok in 2008. However, when it came to opening their own restaurant, they dived into their own past for inspiration. Opening a German restaurant wasn’t the first idea they had stumbled upon. In fact, says Thomas, all their friends warned them against it. “We had worked with many great chefs but all those times, we were just replicating dishes. There wasn’t much emotion involved. It wasn’t our food," says Thomas. “So we stuck with this idea."
But why is German food not as popular as other European cuisines? The biggest reason, as Mathias explains, is geography. “In the countries north of the Alps, food is just a means to live. The winters are longer and colder. You don’t have ingredients available through the year. So the emphasis is on preserving food. In the south of the Alps, in Spain, Italy and the likes, it is not so cold. They have fresh produce all year and food becomes a way to socialize," he says.
“Compare that with Thailand where people eat at least five times a day and greet each other with khun kin yang (have you eaten yet)?"
Wars were another reason. After the end of World War II in 1945, Germany was destroyed. “Pork, potatoes and cabbage was all we were left with, which is what we still eat today," says Thomas.
“That is what we are trying to change," says Mathias. “It is true that we use a lot of pork, butter and cream and that our portions are big and heavy, but we also eat a lot of chicken and river fish. And there is a reason why we use these ingredients in a certain way. We want to share those stories with our clients."
Passage to the past
For both Thomas and Mathias, food has opened a passage to their past, their grandmother’s farm, and their childhood home. The Sührings grew up in Berlin, in what was then East Germany. They spent their summer breaks, which lasted for 8-10 weeks, at their grandparents’ farm, about 100km east of Berlin, near the Polish border. Apart from playing with pigs and chicken, their favourite activity was to pick fresh, seasonal produce and see them turned into food. “We foraged before it became a cool thing," says Thomas. It was, in fact, this experience that helped the twins choose their careers. “We were still not decided on what to do and it was our parents who suggested we give cooking a shot, since they had seen how excited we would be around food at our grandparents’," says Mathias.
Nostalgia has a way of permeating in different directions and, in order to keep in touch with their roots, a homesick emigrant nurtures it, sometimes even overcompensates. Thus, standing in the heart of Bangkok, Sühring, to many people, might seem to be more authentic than some traditional restaurants in Germany itself. And the trick seems to have worked.
“More people are coming out of the shadows of the French and Italian cuisines and becoming receptive to others," says Mathias. “That is also the reason we clicked, I think."
So have they a thought about opening something in India? “There definitely is appetite. In fact, we are surprised that not many international chefs have set up shop in India," says Mathias. “One big reason could be their lack of familiarity with vegetarian food. So if Thomas can become more comfortable cooking vegetarian food and investigate a little more into the food culture here, you might see a restaurant in the time to come."