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On the Slovaks and Their Soups: A Tastebud-Tingling Intro

You do not have to linger long in Slovakia before the importance – and indeed, the bubbling aroma – of soup hits you. Hailed as a starter and gracing menus the country over in a dazzling array of flavours and forms, soup is up there as a key fixture of Slovak cuisine. Naomi Hužovičová, a Canadian cook and author living in Slovakia, has just brought out a book dedicated to the wonders of the country’s soups and stews… 

THE HIRED BAND had already packed up after playing at fašiangy, the celebration before the beginning of Lent. Young musicians had taken over for the after party; the number of songs they knew was impressive. Everyone over the age of 30 was starting to look rather lethargic, but the young people played on. Even my own love of music wasn’t holding up to the late hour.

The accordion player, who looked to be in his mid-twenties, pulled out his phone to check the time. 3:30 am. “Ej,” he said, “who’s going to wake up to make soup tomorrow?”

Sunday soup IS a weekly tradition so ingrained in Slovak culture that a young man thinks of it while merry making in the wee hours of the morning. Sunday lunch starts with this soup, as well as any celebration involving a sit-down meal – weddings, birthdays, Christmas, Easter.

Festival time - everyone hungry for soup! ©Naomi Hužovičová

Festival time – everyone hungry for soup! ©Naomi Hužovičová

Bones of any kind (but often chicken) are slowly simmered with vegetables for at least three hours (hence needing to wake up early) to produce a sweetish clear broth, served with thin egg noodles and soft carrots. A smattering of Vegeta, dried vegetable seasoning, and parsley adds to the characteristic taste.

Sunday soup is just one example of the Slovak obsession with flavour-rich hot broths. In fact, every lunch meal begins with soup, whether in school cafeterias, restaurants, or at home. The type of soup varies – creamy soups, ‘clear’ vegetable soups, or legume soups to list a few- but the majority precede the main meal.

I have a number of theories of why soup is such an important part of Slovak food culture.

Soup made with stock from bones gets the gastric juices going and actually helps digestion of the lunch that follows. In fact, bone broth has been in the limelight recently for its healing properties, from helping fix leaky gut to healthy smooth skin. And, to boot, it makes any soup taste amazing.

When most of your food comes from your backyard, as was true in Slovakia until recently, you use every single part, including the bones and organs, to get the most nourishment out of the animal you worked hard to raise.

Soup is also a cheap way to fill up. Between two world wars and communism during the last century in Slovakia, food was often scarce. When I asked my mother in law what a classic Slovak soup was, she immediately thought of egg drop and caraway soup, and I got the impression that this was a good soup to fill up on when there wasn’t much else.

Slovak soups are vibrant in their colours and flavours ©Naomi Hužovičová

Slovak soups are vibrant in their colours and flavours ©Naomi Hužovičová

Then there are the meal soups and stews. These hearty dishes are perfect for feeding a large group of people, much like one might cook chili or beef stew to feed a crowd. Goulash, while originally Hungarian, is a staple in Slovakia and can be seen around the country simmering in large cauldrons outside. There are even goulash cooking competitions.

Another favourite is kapustinca, sauerkraut soup with different kinds of meat, or segedínsky guláš, a creamy paprika stew made with sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, fermented with salt, was a way to eat vegetables through the winter; it’s an amazing source of probiotics and contains even more vitamin C than fresh cabbage!

Curious about the Slovak soup culture, I set out to gather soup and stew recipes, which resulted in the ebook A Bowl of Comfort: Slovak Soups & Stews.

Part of it is a cookbook, with a total of 26 recipes for both starter soups and meal soups. Part of it is a travelogue, with pictures and explanations behind some of the food culture, like salaš, sheep farms, and the resulting product bryndza for bryndza soup. It addresses how the ultimate in batch cooking, i.e. preserving food in traditional ways, influenced the resulting cuisine (sauerkraut and klobasa are good examples). It looks at how the time-honoured rituals of cooking certain foods, like Sunday soup on Sundays or vegetable soup with dumplings on Fridays, cuts out the last minute panic of “what are we going to eat?”

Included are “normal” recipes, like cream of garlic soup and barley and ham soup, and more adventurous ones, like beef tripe soup and whey soup. There is also a whole chapter devoted to the amazing properties of bone broth! Recipes for some basics, like homemade Vegeta and a couple kinds of soup dumplings. And, on top of that, all the recipes are gluten-free or have gluten-free alternatives.

In the book, you can get a peak into everyday Slovak life through soups, something most Slovaks take for granted but miss when it’s gone. But there’s something else too. The book whets your appetite not just for tasting proper, tradition-steeped Slovak food, but for getting away from the big cities out into the countryside: where Slovakia’s heart surely lies.

Naomi Hužovičová writes about life in Slovakia as a Canadian on her blog, Almost Bananas, especially the food, culture, and places.

Bryndza natierka - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

An Easy Bryndza Recipe

Bryndza, the tart, tangy sheep’s cheese that forms one of the backbones of Slovak cuisine, can be used in a variety of dishes – most famously, of course, in the national dish Bryndzové Halušky (potato dumplings with sheep’s cheese, to be featured in another post, because actually getting those dumplings right is an art many non-Slovaks can’t grasp). But just about the easiest thing to do with bryndza other than eat it straight is to make it into a tasty spread (natierka) which could also be used as a dip – perfect for a dinner party extra whether you’re in Slovakia or out of it.

Bryndza Natierka Ingeredients

– Bryndza – one good-sized piece (it’s sold now at a lot of Polish delicatessans, as well as Czech and Slovak delicatessans across Europe but THE place to get this cheese is in the Slovak mountains and the area around Liptovský Miklauš is famous for producing the very best. Stalls sell it at the roadside in that area.)

– Butter

– Half a red onion

– Cumin

– Powdered sweet red pepper (this is used more for colour than for taste. You could also use paprika for this, which will be the nearest widely-available thing in the UK – but then it would be more feisty).

NB: No specific quantities are given because there is no correct measure of ingredients for this recipe. Ignore, to a large extent, any bryndza natierka recipe which gives you specific measures for the ingredients. It’s all about what feels and tastes right for you. Be more organic about it. As a yardstick, I used, with a ball of about 200g of bryndza, maybe just under a quarter of a normal block of butter. That gives the spread a pretty creamy taste. Oh, and SOFTEN THE BUTTER for an hour or so outside the fridge before you use it. Otherwise it’s Hell to work with🙂

Bryndza Natierka Method:

OK: here’s the method:

1: Mash the ball of bryndza down on a plate, like so:

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2: Cream in the pre-softened butter, having cut the butter into small knobs. Cream until the mixture has a smooth consistency.

3: Thoroughly mix in the sweet red pepper powder or paprika, as in the pic below. Note how the colour slowly changes to a vibrant salmon pink.

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4: Again, being quite liberal, mix in the cumin (try a teaspoon full for starters):

5: Mix in about half a finely chopped red onion. Chop it really fine: it improves the taste.

6: Eat! I personally like bryndza natierka a little soft and spreadable – in which case leave it out a half hour or so before serving. It’s good with crackers or bread – or you can have it as a dip if you’re making a buffet. Celery dipped in bryndza? Mmmm