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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.

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Top Ten Quintessential Slovak Foods and Drinks

It’s been a long time in coming but here, after much consideration, is my top ten of quintessential Slovak foods/drinks. I use the word quintessential to convey unique or semi-unique to Slovakia culinary delights, so these are ranked with uniqueness as well as tastiness in mind.

I am quite sure those familiar with Poland and the Czech Republic will pipe up, incensed, at a few of these being labelled Slovak foods but with this part of Europe, which has changed borders with quite a high frequency over the last few centuries, of course culinary traditions mix and merge. So the most justifiable claimant to a lot of these Eastern European specialities is the region, not any one country.

You’re not on a diet, right?🙂

10: Slivovica

Of course there has to be a top ten entry for perhaps Slovakia’s most famous food/drink export, slivovica. This plum brandy is so Slovak – you imagine the old man picking the plums and doing the home distillation as you drink a glass of this fiery brew (perfect at 52%). Whilst it’s a thing other countries including Serbia and Czech Republic can rightly claim to do as well, this is still an ultra-traditional Slovak drink. Get the home-brewed stuff: it’s almost always better than the shop brands – but also significantly stronger.

9: Makovnik

Basically: a poppy seed-filled strudel, only with a thicker pastry. Absolutely delicious. Slovaks use poppy seeds in a lot of sweet things. It’s right up there with apple as a flavour for dessert. Some of the best makovnik I had in Slovakia was actually at the spa in Piešťany.

8: Horalky

Going strong since the 1950s, the classic horalky is – well – a wafer bar. A sandwich of wafer with layers of either chocolate, hazelnuts or peanuts that for some reason Slovaks and Czechs kept to themselves for a very long time. If you’re going on a picnic, take one.

7: Kofola

This is the soft drink generations of Slovaks grew up on. Czechs have it too, but it’s Slovakia which seems to cling to kofola with the warmest nostalgia. Remember, everyone, that once Coca Cola wasn’t available here:if you wanted your carbonated drink fix kofola was it: it comes in various flavours, like cherry and looks and tastes quite similar to Coca Cola, i.e. dark, sweet and fizzy (Slovaks would say superior and they may be right – it’s got much less sugar and quite a bit more caffeine and the breadth of flavours makes the kofola world a bit more varied than the Coca Cola world). Licorice is also added to help give it that unique kofola taste.  In any case, it’s one of those soft drinks, like Inka Kola in Peru, that manages to rival Coca Cola (in terms of Czech and Slovak sales).

6: Lokše

You’ll see this as 1-Euro-a-pop snack food at almost any Slovak festival: a bargain! Lokše are basically potato pancakes stuffed with (to have it in its optimum form) goose or duck fat (goose and duck fat, by the way, would be on this list if we were doing a top fifteen or top twenty – Slovaks will often eat the fat by the spoonful with nothing else!). It can be very easy to go wrong with lokše purchasing – so look for the stall with the moistest, greasiest looking ones! (it’s something of an acquired talent – I know Slovaks who will dismiss stall after stall of lokše that all look perfectly OK to me, and then, without any warning, go “ah!” and alight upon a fix of potato and fat goodness. Well, I never claimed that typical Slovak food was healthy. A claim that’s added to by the fact that typical lokše also seem to be brushed with melted butter once they’re stuffed and rolled.

5: Demänovka

This is a complex herbal liqueur cobbled together with 14 different herbs, honey and alcohol – weighing in at 33-38% proof which is admittedly less than slivovica but actually, for me, a much richer drink, with a slightly bitter, aromatic taste. The Czechs do becherovka which is similar and equally tasty but demänovka is Slovak through and through – made near the Low Tatras town of Liptovský Mikulaš.

4: Halušky

Tragically only one type of dumpling can go on this top ten list although – in terms of the food in the average Slovak stomach – the ratio should probably be a bit higher. The obvious candidate amongst Slovakia’s many different types of dumplings are the halušky – small dumplings made out of a grated potato batter. It’s not just the bryndza (scroll further down this top ten for more on bryndza) which combines with these little gluten-rich balls of delight – oh no – that other usual suspect of Slovak cuisine, cabbage, also gets added on top to make strapačky. You can also add a meat like liver to the dough for something a little different.

Bryndza being made into the delicious spread, bryndza natierka - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bryndza being made into the delicious spread, bryndza natierka – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

3: Bryndza

For outsiders, this is the must-try: a tangy sheep’s cheese that gets used in a huge variety of traditional Slovak meals. For starters, there’s the national dish, brynzové halušky: small potato dumplings in a sauce made with bryndza and topped (as with quite a few Slovak dishes) by bacon. Another classic is the brynzové pirohy – Slovakia’s classic take on the stuffed dumpling also common in Poland. The best place to buy bryndza is NOT in a supermarket but on a salaš – a rural farm, the signs for which are found on country roads all over Western, Central and Eastern Slovakia. Our special guide to the salaš will be available soon – until then you have been warned. Here’s Englishmaninslovakia’s easy bryndza recipe.

2: Tokaj

Austro-Hungarian rulers use to bathe in tokaj (so say some legends) or drink it as medicine (so say others). If you happen to have enough of this delicious amber-coloured wine to bathe in, lucky you. This wine region is in Slovakia’s far south-east next to the border with the Hungarian wine region, Tokaji (see the difference?). There is far, far too much to say about Tokai to fit in this post, so please check out our article on the Slovak Tokaj cellars of Eastern Slovakia, but basically Tokaj has a unique sweet  taste because of a controlled rot that is allowed to part-infect the grapes. It’s one of the most singular wines you will ever try – and it’s delicious (I say, sipping a glass as I write this).

1: Kapustnica

This delicious soup shoots in at the number one spot for me. It’s got a sauerkraut base, with the taste bolstered by tomatoes, mushrooms, pork sausage (some use a spicy chorizo) and, for Slovak cooking, an incredible amount of seasonings ranging from garlic through to nutmeg and even apple sometimes. Slovaks eat this on New Year’s eve, and sometimes over the entire festive season. There is simply no other typically Slovak dish that can touch it for complexity: kapustnica is to Slovakia what mole is to Mexico! I’ve tried a similar cabbage soup in Poland and it was not anywhere nearly as tasty as those I’ve had in Slovakia (but hey – I don’t want to start a war!). Here’s a link to a good recipe.