So I haven’t actually been to Central or Eastern Europe (or CEE for my poor keyboard). Although a trip Poland has come up in conversation an awful lot lately. The primary reason for that is our recent love for all food Polish. Well, the stuff we’ve eaten anyway.
It’s not just Polish food specifically that we fell in love with, although pierogi has been a revelation this year. I’m in both parts incredibly grateful and a teeny bit bitter towards the person who introduced me to them. Delicious, yes. Healthy… well, it depends on your definition of the word. Anyway, as I was saying, my family has always had a soft spot for borscht, a dish claimed by many CEE countries. The recipe we’re familiar with is apparently of a Ukrainian disposition.
But this year in particular, we’ve been trying out more and more foods from this region of Europe, constantly finding something new that we love. As we’ve dived deeper into this cuisine, I’ve found myself constantly surprised by just how ignored it is. A few things are a little more well known, but it’s got nothing on the more popular and ‘fashionable’ cuisines (a concept that will always baffle me but whatever). Which is a little sad. Sure, the foods we’ve tried aren’t for everyone, but you can’t blow off an entire cuisine. Even if bigos isn’t your cup of tea, that doesn’t mean you won’t like pierogi. I mean, that’s just sticking with Poland, CEE as a whole is a pretty big place. Russia alone is comically massive, even if most of it is technically Asia. It could just be where I live, Italian food has just barely broken out of the ‘exotic’ box here (seriously, I know people who think black pepper is spicy and garlic is foreign muck). Although I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s not the case. But I don’t want to talk about why people haven’t latched onto this cuisine as much as some others, because I don’t want to and this is my article and I have all the power here. I want to talk about why I like it.
First things first, in case everyone has forgotten, I’m English. British food and some foods from Central and Eastern Europe (at least what I’ve eaten so far) share some similarities. Both cuisines heavily feature complex carbs and salty meats, you may recognise these as hallmarks of ‘stodge’. The more well known foods from both cuisines are seemingly simple and rustic affairs, with slow cooked stews made with ‘less prime’ cuts of meat and vegetables (potato, cabbage and root vegetables) playing a large role. Delicate and light they are not. Now, these are just sweeping statements which are just from my limited personal experience. I say this so that the combined populations of all of these countries won’t hunt me down to tell me how wrong I am.
Of course, the two cuisines are not identical. But they tick the same boxes and fulfil the same cravings, and have some fantastic dishes for living on a cold, damp excuse of an island. Of course, there are some significant differences. Some of my favourite Polish dishes in particular have a focus on including fermented, tangy flavours. Specifically, that of sauerkraut. I am planning on a different post about preserved and fermented foods, but I feel a little diversion won’t hurt. Sauerkraut is a simply made food, but it brings a really interesting flavour to the party. Honestly, it took me a little while to decide if I even liked the stuff, it’s so different from what I usually eat. But, good news. I like it. I liked it so much, that it’s become something I’m constantly making sure we have in stock. Sauerkraut is something I will recommend everyone tries to make at some point, it’s a bit of an acquired taste but can help round out a dish or improve a sandwich (Have I convinced anyone I plan these things yet?).
A proper recipe can be found online, but the process is simple. All you need is a cabbage, a jar and salt (not table salt, sea salt or rock salt is good). You want to very finely shred some your cabbage, then scrunch it with some salt. I generally go by texture, you want the cabbage to be leeching liquid and denaturing somewhat. I like to put some caraway seeds in with the cabbage as well, it adds a lovely flavour. At this point, stick it in your clean jar and press it down, keeping the cabbage underneath what liquid forms. After 5 days or so, with regular checks and burping, this will have turned into sauerkraut. You can fridge it now, or let it go longer if you like. It’s cheap and easy and works really well with a lot of things, pork is a great example, but I’d recommend you play around with it.
So, I like foods from CEE because it’s a comfort food. It fits in with some of my established tastes and adds something extra in the form of some interesting tangy fermented flavours. Also, it’s something that for the past year I’ve been able to explore. Let’s be honest, we’ve had a bit of an injection of spare time this year. I personally have spent that time making pierogi at the behest of a friend of mine, and I haven’t looked back. For the uninitiated, pierogi is a polish dumpling which is filled with potato, cottage cheese (quark or tvorog is highly recommended), onion and other delicious things. I commonly put bacon in, or sauerkraut and mushroom, or just everything. The dumpling is then boiled while you pray the thing stays intact, then it’s fried in butter before being served with (also fried) onions and possibly sour cream. Health food, this is not. Delicious, this is. Honestly, the whole process of making them is just… lovely. It takes a while, but it’s not irritatingly fiddly or difficult. It’s probably something the whole family can help with, if you have that kind of family. Even better, you can blanch and freeze them to enjoy later.
I know that I’ve mostly stuck with Polish food here, but I say CEE as a whole because we’ve also been trying out Russian, Hungarian and Ukrainian foods, as well as dishes that are shared by multiple countries. The thing is, I’ve not got much further than dipping my toe into these cuisines, but what I have tried has been both familiar and unlike anything else I’ve eaten. Like syrniki, a Russian sweet pancake that is mostly cheese. It’s almost offputtingly light and fluffy on the inside, while having a shatteringly crisp exterior. It’s not overly sweet, but that absolutely works for me. Also, it’s not Polish, so now my choice of title is vindicated. Well, mostly. I missed out the ‘Central’ bit because I’m just lazy.
I’ve noticed that this post has slowly descended into me just… describing food and giving incredibly undetailed guides on how to make it. But to me, that’s the best way to get inspired. You look at something you’ve never made or eaten before, and think “I want to try that”. Then you find it’s delicious, and start to wonder what else you haven’t tried. Because here’s something that I want to stress: every cuisine has something for everyone. Every country has some kind of national dish that you will find delicious. Find this hard to believe? Well, I don’t really like fish, watery soups or noodles. You might look at that and think “that’s Japanese food out”. You would be wrong. Because while that’s the kind of food Japan is famous for, it’s certainly not all there is. Yes, I don’t cook a lot of Japanese food, but that’s mainly because I’m too busy making pierogi.