Across its many borders, eastern Europe through the Balkans sees a lot of overlaps in cuisine. That is not to say that if you try one country, you have tried them all, but the region has shared a proximity of geography and culture for a very long time. Between the Ottoman Empire, the the shared misery of Communist control, and some very big border changes within the last 150 years, a culinary tradition has emerged that shows both similarity, closeness of the people and region, and perhaps illuminates the more interesting differences between them.
This is a meat and potatoes culture. The greatest and most defining dishes of this whole area are meat stews and their accompanying starches. A wide range of meats are used such as: beef, veal, pork, lamb, as well as game animals like quail, deer and pheasant. You will probably never see a larger presence and variety of sausage in the world.
And, of course, there is the ever-present tripe soup, found as a common dish in every country in the world except America. Accompanying all this heavy protein are equally hearty vegetables. We couldn’t get enough of the Hungarian Nokedli, a potato based dumpling (it’s called Spetzle further afield in Germany), or Polish and German Sauerkraut.
Pickling is common — with harsh winters, it provides a way to preserve and keep vegetables through the year. Aside from the standard gherkins, you’ll find pickled beets, celaraic, carrots, and red and green cabbage.
Many of these preserves are served as a cool side dish (Surówka) to warming meat stews; a reprieve of tang to the rich and hearty main course. If, like Jeremy, you don’t like pickled cucumbers, check your food carefully because they may be snuck in there. Poles even wrap meat around a whole pickle, as with Zrazy.
Filling dishes give energy to withstand the cold and work on the homestead, after all. Unlike in the west, the largest meal of the day is at noon, and evening sees a much smaller snack, possibly soup. These people are a hearty group, big eaters who are, more often than not, big people. True, there is the recent spread of western-style health crazes which have urbanites more worried about their waistlines, but that doesn’t stop such common indulgences as Goulash.
Commonly claimed the Hungarian hallmark, this dish is actually rather widespread: look for Gulasz in Poland, Gulasch or Gulaschsuppe in Germany, and Papricas in Romania. Even in Hungary you’ll see versions such as Gulyas or Gulyasleves (more of soup version). This stew, and its variations in each country, is emblematic of the cuisine of the region. Simple in flavor but heavily filling, the meat, potatoes and spices make this one of the ultimate comfort foods. Credit for spices such as paprika does have to be given to the Hungarians who brought them to the area.
A dish more particular to Germany, Poland and Hungary, which should not be missed is the Haxn (Germany) or Golonka (Poland), a roast pork knuckle. The hardest part of getting one of these is getting one small enough (for two to share, at least), as they are massive and sold by the kilo, but well, well worth it. Succulent, juicy meat is covered by the crackling crisp skin and fat that traps and contains so much of the flavor. Absolutely a dinner show-stopper.
Some parts, such as Romania and down through the Balkans, do show influences from the Mediterranean with stuffed vegetables, meatballs and salads. Bulgaria has such dishes as Moussaka, and Shopska & Ovcharska salads, a shepherds’ mix of feta, cucumber and tomato, which brought back a lot of Greek memories.
Yet, the food is not always perfect, and many traditions are dying. Bulgaria is showing an alarming tendency for processed food with hotdogs and processed cheese becoming an integral part of several recipes. Eating establishments like Happy appear to be frighteningly similar to TGI Friday’s. Even Poland has bent under the cost of quality, natural unprocessed food and has started to open discount markets with Hostess-style Pączki.
Even Eva’s grandfather was seeking convenience with packaged and processed cold cuts instead of his expertly sought-out fresh smoked meats.
On the other hand, compared to our visit to Poland two years ago, we found a quickly growing movement for local, farm-grown food (You might see Staro Wiejskie meaning “Old Village”), and legions of new restaurants serving Polish classics — previously, we were seeing loads of western and fad kitchens (sushi in Poland is not a good idea!). Bulgaria seems to be the only one who has not yet caught on, and the food can be rather bland, overwhelmed by the loud music and bright lights of the restaurant.
Pride in culture and classic homestyle food is growing. In Poland, the once neglected Bar Mleczny (“Milk Bar”) is having a comeback. This leftover from the communist era where the working man ate cheap, simple foods like Eva’s favorite Leniwe Pierogi (“lazy” dumplings served with butter and sugar), Kotlet Schabowy (pork cutlet) and the ever present Barszcz (a beet soup with dumplings), is again packed and popular, but as always without alcohol.
But if you visit Poland, you must promise not to leave without having some śledzie (pickled herring) and vodka. Eva’s mom calls it “Polish Sushi” and it’s pungent kick will surely be a new flavor to most. Some of the best herring we had was at the kitschy Przekąska Zakąska deco bar off Warsaw’s Nowy Swiat Avenue.
We are oversimplifying a large and much more complex culinary tradition and an even greater cultural history. However, sometimes looking for patterns, where traditions show homogeneity and contrast, is where you begin to understand not just the cuisine but the rich tapestry of other regions. From Poland’s Bigos (Sauerkraut with sausage) to Bulgaria’s Feta, the love of the food will show you the heart of the people. And if really want to learn more about Polish food, buy Eva some herring and vodka.
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