Eastern European Cuisine

Eastern Europe is in a region of world that has historically been defined by ever-changing political boundaries, poverty, and harsh weather. The basics of Eastern European cuisine, however, has stayed pretty much the same through all its never-ending political upheaval. All the counties of Eastern Europe developed their own unique cuisine based on the same limited access to ingredients and short growing seasons.

A focus on dairy farming has led to many dishes that include butter, yogurt, sour cream, and cheese. Fertile farmlands produce an abundance of hearty grains like rye, barley, wheat, buckwheat to make the breads, dumplings, and pastries. Because the region is surrounded by a vast amount of lakes and other bodies of water, fish is frequently used in Eastern European dishes. Because they are inexpensive to raise, chickens are the other main source of protein, especially the meat, eggs (i.e. dumplings and pastries), and bones (for soups). Root vegetables dominate, especially cabbage, onion, carrot, celery, and beets that were stored in cold storage or pickled for the long winter. Fruits like cherries, plums, pears, and raspberries are used for desserts along with a variety of liquors.

Each country in the region has its own amazing cuisine and unique dishes. A few of the those cuisines are well recognized around the world, especially as political upheaval forced large numbers of immigrants to other countries. Among those cuisines, four countries stand out: Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary, and the Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine that crosses over into each of the others.

Russian Cuisine

Russia is huge country with a diverse cuisine that shares the influences of Northern and Eastern Europe, Caucasia, Central Asia and Siberia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate with a combination of plentiful fish, pork, poultry, caviar, mushrooms, berries, and honey. The royalty of the 16th through 18th centuries brought more refined culinary techniques. It was during this time period that smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, chocolate, ice cream, wine, and juice were imported from abroad.

Notable Dishes Olivier Salad (pickled potato salad), Caviar (sturgeon eggs), Beef Stroganoff (sliced beef filet, onions, and mushroom in wine-sour cream sauce), Solyanka Soup (sweet & sour soup with fresh and cured meats), Blini (crepe-like pancakes filled with fruits or cheeses), Pozharsky Kotleti (minced chicken and onion, breaded and fried), Napoleon Cake (layered crêpe and custard cake), Medovik (pastry-layered honey cake).

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Polish Cuisine

Polish cuisine has evolved over the centuries to become very eclectic due to Poland’s history and its many similarities with neighboring German, Czech, Slovak and Jewish culinary traditions. Polish cuisine is rich in meat, especially pork, chicken and beef, in addition to a wide range of vegetables, spices, and herbs. It is also notable for its use of different kinds of noodles, cereals, and grains. In general, Polish cuisine is hearty and heavy in its use of butter, cream, eggs and extensive seasonings.

Notable Dishes – Bagels (Circle of boiled and baked yeast bread), Pierogi (cream cheese dumplings), Kielbasa (beef sausage), Kotlet Schabowy (breaded pork cutlet), Bigos (kielbasa, mushroom, and cabbage “hunter’s stew” stew), Zrazy (beef rolls stuffed with various fillings), Golanka (pork knuckles), Zupa Ogórkowa (sour cucumber soup), Zupa Grzybowa (sour rye soup), Kolaches (sweet, fruit-filled pastry), Tort Bezowy (meringue cake with whipped cream and fresh berries), Placek z Kruszonka (coffee cake), Kremówka Papieska (“Papal Cream Cake”flaky puff pastry filled with sugary egg custard).

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Ukrainian Cuisine

This cuisine is heavily influenced by the rich dark soil from which its ingredients come and often involves many components. Often referred to as the “Breadbasket of Europe,” Ukrainian cuisine emphasizes the importance of wheat and grain to the Ukrainian people. The majority of Ukrainian dishes descend from ancient peasant dishes based on plentiful grain resources such as rye, and staple vegetables such as potato, cabbages, mushrooms and beetroots. Ukrainian dishes incorporate a variety of different food branches meats, fats, fruits and vegetables due to the large size of the country and an abundance of edible resources. Traditional Ukrainian dishes often require a complex heating process where they are first fried or boiled, and then stewed or baked. This is probably the defining feature of Ukrainian cuisine.

Notable Dishes – Borscht (hot or cold beet soup with sour cream), Kovbasa (mixed meats plate), Vinigret (cooked salad of shredded beets, sauerkraut, misc. root vegetables), Babkaq (sweet dough bread with raisins), Pampushky (soft, fluffy bread), Pyrizhky (buns stuffed with ground meat, liver, eggs, bacon, or cherries), Guliash (meat stew), Kotlety po-kievski (“Chicken Kiev-butter and ham-filled chicken breasts), Zhele (jellied fruits).

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Hungarian Cuisine

Paprika is the heart of Hungarian cuisine. The traditions of this cuisine go all the way back to the first Hungarians, and some of the dishes have been cooked the same way for hundreds of years. Traditional Hungarian food is mostly based on chicken and pork, seasonal vegetables, dairy products, and cheese. Soups and stews are important parts of the Hungarian kitchen, and every region has its own specialties. Hungary is known for its inexpensive pork salamis and sausages. Bread is perhaps the most important and basic part of the Hungarian diet and is eaten with most meals.

Notable Dishes Paprika Csirke (“Chicken Paprikash”-chicken in a creamy paprika sauce), Töltött Paprika (bell peppers stuffed with meat, rice, and vegetables), Gulyás (“Hungarian Goulash” – beef, potatoes, vegetables and paprika stew), Meggyleves (cold sour cherry soup), Töltött Káposzta (pickled cabbage leaves filled with meat and rice with sour cream), Rakott Krumpli (potato casserole with bacon, eggs, and sausage), Nokedli (Spätzle noodles), Halászlé (fish soup with a paprika-spiced broth and thick cuts of fish), Langos (deep-fried bread topped with sour cream and cheese), Eszterházy Torta (buttercream spiced layer cake with cognac or vanilla between almond meringue), Beigli (pastry roll filled with walnuts, sugar, cinnamon), Zserbó Szelet (“Hungarian Gerbeaud Cake”- layered yeast cake with apricot-walnut filling, covered in chocolate glaze), Kiffles (walnut cookies).

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Jewish Cuisine

Much of the culinary tradition of Ashkenazi Jews springs from Central and Eastern Europe. After having been expelled from Western Europe in the Middle Ages, Jews were forced to live in poverty and thus limited in terms of ingredients. Dishes were made with fewer components; they were not heavily spiced, and ingredients that were more flavorful had to be used sparingly. Ingredients which were perceived to be less desirable, such as brisket, chicken liver, and artichokes, were used creatively. As Ashkenazi Jews were typically forbidden to grow crops in their European countries, their cuisine reflects less vegetable-focused dishes when compared to the dishes of their Sephardic counterparts. The rules for eating a Kosher diet, such as no pork or shellfish and not using the same plate for meat and dairy, added even more limitations. Braised meats such as brisket feature heavily as does chicken. Root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and parsnips are used in dishes such as latkes, matzo ball soup, and tzimmes. Cooked, stuffed, and baked vegetables like stuffed cabbage are central to the cuisine. Due to the lack of availability of olive oil and other oils, the fat from leftover chicken and goose skins called schmaltz was traditionally used in meat dishes, while butter was traditionally used in dairy dishes.

Notable Dishes – Gefilte Fish (minced whitefish “quenelles”), Knish (baked grain, potato or meat filled dough), Chicken Soup mit Kreplach (“Jewish Penicillin,” matzo ball soup),  Kraut (cabbage borscht), Chopped Liver (minced chicken livers, smaltz, onion,and eggs), gribenes (crisp chicken skins), Smaltz (rendered chicken fat), Challah (braided egg bread), Braised Brisket (slow-cooked beef brisket), Holishkes (stuffed cabbage leaves filled with rice and ground meat), mehren tzimes (cooked chopped carrots), Latkes (potato pancakes), Kasha Varnishkes (“bow tie” noodles with buckwheat groats), Sweet or Savory Kugel (baked noodles or potatoes and cheese), Hamentosh (triangular turnover filled with fruit preserves), Macaroons (Sweet egg and almond/coconut cookies), Mandelbrot (Hard, twice-baked almond bread).

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Eastern European Table

A traditional dinner in Eastern Europe consists of three courses beginning with a soup, then followed by the main course which usually includes a serving of meat with a vegetable salad and a side dish of boiled potato or rice. At restaurants, the soups are followed by an appetizer such as herring or other cured meats and vegetable salads. Meals often conclude with a sweet dessert. Meals are served three times a day, starting with a hearty breakfast, light lunch, and main meal around 8:00 pm. Meals are eaten at a table and utensils are always kept in the same hand.

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