16 June 2011

Slovak Food

Rebecca made the astute observation that Slovak food isn’t all that much different from other heavy, mitteleuropean cuisines – but that it seems nicer because it’s dressed up a little. Though the table may groan beneath the weight of “bryndzové halušky” - Slovakia’s national dish - one can’t grumble about the presentation. It’s amazing how far a few ringlets of scallion and a carrot flower can go in the direction of prettiness.
“Halušky” are little potato flour dumplings, similar to gnocchi. Here, in the common fashion of ovine-mad Slovak chefs, they are drenched in melted sheep’s cheese and topped with bits of crisped pork fat. Bryndza is the type of sour, soft cheese that gets used and gives the dish its name. It’s a dense plate of food, and one encounter was enough to feel well acquainted with it. Certainly a pleasure, but I doubt we’ll meet again.
There are several kinds of “guláš” (goulash) in Slovak cuisine. Some are quite familiar, some are less so. This is a cabbage and gravy variety called “gulášová polievka” with some braised cut of beef swimming around in it. The accompanying “knedle” is a popular starch for soaking up things like this – boiled flour loaves that have little flavor and a spongy texture, they are extremely absorbent.
A guláš that looked more familiar, this paprika and “ram’s meat” stew was served in a little cauldron and was studded with small, toothsome noodles and new potatoes. It had a generous amount of spice, but paprika is by nature very gentle. The meat was tender and globs of melting fat clung between chunks of tissue. The name for this particular dish is “kotlíkový guláš,” a variant that takes its name from the kind of pot and that is often cooked outside over an open fire – though we have only seen it prepared that way in beer advertisements. I ate it on the packed porch of a “salas” eatery near Spiš castle – salas are simple, traditional places that tend to specialize in sheep products. The word means “shepherd’s farm,” so they are destined to be a little tacky and touristy in modernity.
There is virtually no cheese in Slovakia other than sheep cheese, and it comes in a huge number of forms. Smoked, semi-hard cheeses are popular, as are softer, farmer’s types – like the one that has been mixed with paprika on the right. Often, it makes up the only protein in a dish, and one can buy it on the roadside in little ovčí syr stands.
“Pirohy” are very similar to their polish “pierogi” cousins, and are treated in the same, greasy way as halušky. These were served at an outdoor, dusty table on the outskirts of a Roma village – part of a lunch with a bowl of soup that cost three euros. A creamy potato filling was lighter than I expected, and the sour cream on top was more flavorful and oily than typical types.
Oil-slicked, paprika-stained “rezancová polievka,” or chicken soup, is a central Slovak specialty that has a deeper flavor and a heartier broth than its American counterpart. Soups in Slovakia tend to be treated more like stews than broths, and are often served as a complete meal with a few massive slices of bread.
The food of this country is very much like this - simple and rich, but with a flavorful vein that sets it slightly apart from the Ukrainian, Polish and Germanic foods that weigh down the south, east and west. Crossing the mountains from the Czech Republic, the culinary landscape tilts toward the south and Hungary. The higher ground is more the domain of the sheep, too, which sets Slovakia apart from the mundane pork plains. It may only be a hint of spice here and there, but it's a promising, welcome tang.

1 comment:

  1. Hi guys, Lubos from slovakcooking.com here. Great article! Just a few small corrections. Gulášová polievka (goulash soup) does not have any cabbage in it. You may be thinking of segedinský guláš (segedin goulash), popular main dish consisting of sauerkraut and pork stew served with the dumpling knedľa (the recipe is here if you are interested).

    Also, non-sheep cheese is actually quite popular. One of the typical dishes served in restaurants is fried cheese. It's basically a block of Edam or similar cheese, breaded in bread crumbs, fried, and served with fries and some salad. It's one of our main "vegetarian" dishes. Meat free, sure, healthy, not so much...

    Good luck on your travels. What an awesome idea!

    ReplyDelete