“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.