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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.

A Taste of Slovakia is one of the first books on Slovak cuisine available in English. Image by Jarmila Hlavková

Spotlight On: Jarmila Hlavková, Author of the First Slovak Recipe Book to be Published in the English Language

Slovakia is a land-locked country surrounded by five other bigger and historically more influential nations – the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine and Poland – and as in other respects, this has moulded the country’s culinary development. But whilst Slovak food may feature the pickled Czech cheese, Austrian schnitzel and Hungarian goulash, circumstances have conspired to foster a very distinctive array of food enjoyed within its borders… the problem being Slovakian cuisine never really had a mouthpiece – before now. Jarmila Hlavková has recently written one of the first cookbooks ever to focus solely on Slovakian cuisine available in English: A Taste of Slovakia. The importance of this should not be under-estimated: a nation is after all defined by its food, and the international perception of it, more than anything else. Now, an international audience can get to grips with dumplings, sheep’s cheese and a huge variety of Slovak cuisine’s lesser-known treats. Englishman in Slovakia recently caught up with Jarmila to talk about Slovak gastronomy…

1) First-off, can you give us an introduction to Slovak cuisine: what is special about it and what your favourite traditional dish is (and where you would eat it in Slovakia)?

The best introduction to Slovak cuisine is through our national dish, and that’s Halušky s bryndzou or Halušky with Bryndza Cheese. Bryndza cheese is a truly Slovak invention whose origins and name are protected by the EU. As for the Halušky – it’s a special type of pasta (similar but by no means exactly the same as a dumpling) that can be easily made at home if you have the right equipment. Halušky have several variations and they feature in a number of other Slovak dishes.

The best place to eat Halušky s bryndzou is at what we call in Slovak a Salaš. Salaš is a Slovak name for a shepherds’ house – a wooden cottage usually located close to the pastures. Quite a few also have an adjacent restaurant, where you can savour traditional Slovak food and enjoy the beauty of the Slovak countryside at the same time.

My favourite salaš is one in Zázrivá, about 10km east of Terchová in the Malá Fatra region (www.salaszazriva.sk), where they prepare a wonderful selection of Slovak dishes from fresh, locally made ingredients. What’s special about the place is that you can see traditional Slovak cheeses being made on the premises, as well as watch sheep, goats, horses and other farm animals grazing the lush pastures around.

For those with a sweet tooth like me, I would definitely recommend to try our strudels. The Detvian strudel I wrote about in my blog is something to die for. The family business based in a small village near Detva, in Central Slovakia near Banská Bystrica, is barely managing to keep up with the high demand. They deliver their delicious strudels to local deli shops, cafes and hotels around the Podpoľanie region.

Bryndzové Halušky - image by Jarmila Hlavková

Bryndzové Halušky – image by Jarmila Hlavková

2) What inspired you to write a book on Slovak cooking?

My love of cooking and writing in English. When I got a huge Culinaria of Europe for Christmas more than ten years ago, I saw that Slovakia was given only a marginal mention – a couple of paragraphs about sheep’s milk cheese and Halušky. There were a few factual errors in the text, so I took it as a challenge and decided to write a book devoted entirely to Slovak cuisine.

3) People think of Slovak food as quite heavy. What are some ‘surprising’ dishes which do not fit into this category?

Slovak food is only as heavy as you want to make or have it – it’s about the choice of ingredients, the amount of fat or sugar in the dish, the portion size, and perhaps the extras. That said, you can find quite a few nutritious and healthy Slovak dishes on some restaurant menus, but you can definitely control things when you make the meal yourself. I’m not a health freak but I do like simple, nourishing food and that affected the choice of recipes for ‘A Taste of Slovakia’. There’s a good balance of soups, mains, desserts, snacks and a whole chapter on preserving garden produce, which is what the Slovaks love to do in the summer, and are very good at. So contrary to popular belief, you’ll find dishes like Baked Buckwheat Kasha, Bryndza Cheese Sticks, Scrambled Eggs with Forest Mushrooms, or Hot Plums with Ice-cream and Mead in the book.

4) What is your advice for people who wish to travel to Slovakia to experience genuine, really good traditional Slovak food but don’t know how or where?

Contact websites like yours or mine, get in touch with local people, be nice and respectful, and you’re very likely to make friends and be invited to their homes. We love having guests, sharing food and drink with our visitors, and make them feel at home.

5) What is it about your book that makes it interesting to readers in your opinion?

‘A Taste of Slovakia’ is much more than a collection of traditional Slovak recipes. It’s a journey into this small country’s culture (folk stories), the customs that evolve around cooking and eating (Celebrating summer harvest), the lifestyle (Goulash parties), as well as history of some typical ingredients (bryndza cheese, forest mushrooms, mead etc.). And for those who delve deeper into the text, there is an added bonus… but I’m not going to disclose more here – you need to buy the book for that!

A refreshing cup of countryside drink žinčica, a tart and tasty by-product of sheep's cheese - image by Jarmila Hlavková

A refreshing cup of countryside drink žinčica, a tart and tasty by-product of sheep’s cheese – image by Jarmila Hlavková

6) Did you have to travel around Slovakia sourcing the best recipes for this book? Did you have any interesting experiences on the research?

Before I even started writing, I’d read through that tome of European Culinaria to understand what makes our cuisine different from others, and what we could contribute to the European or world’s table. Then I got myself lots of Slovak books, ancient and more contemporary, and did a thorough research. But the most enjoyable part of the project was definitely travelling around Slovakia, meeting people, listening to their stories, collecting ideas, taking pictures and discovering hidden gems of our countryside. Originally, the plan was to write a single book that would map our eating habits throughout the four seasons of the Slovak year, but I soon realized there would be plenty of material to fill four books. And that’s how I took it on. The first book is about summer in a Slovak kitchen.

Interesting experiences? There were quite a few, especially when I was taken for a reporter or a professional photographer on a number of occasions, which sometimes won me a prominent place in the queue or opened the doors that were normally shut for the public. Nobody found out I was a self-taught photographer learning on the way and experimenting, often in one-time situations. Fortunately, most of the photos came out well, though I have to say I have raised my standards and become much more finicky on the way.

7) Where can people buy your book?

Through my website www.cookslovak.com, my e-mail address cookslovak@gmail.com, or in one of the bookshops in Slovakia. At the moment, A Taste of Slovakia is selling at Artforum Bookshop in Zilina and Bratislava, Oxford Bookshop at Laurinska 9, Bratislava and some other venues like Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, Vcelco Smolenice s.r.o., and Podpolianske muzeum Detva. I’m about to strike a selling contract with Halusky shop in London.

I’m also actively looking for reliable partners to help me sell the book in the USA, Canada and Australia where there is quite a large Slovak diaspora, though I believe A Taste of Slovakia could make a good read for anyone interested in food.