Slovakia is a country that has deep agricultural roots, and has always been farming and herding throughout its entire history. Even today I see my neighbors out in their gardens and hear my students talk about a local pig roast they had with their family. This attraction to nature and a dedication to family has created unique foods that simply make the eater feel loved and full.
Every day I look out my kitchen windows, and see my neighbors working in their gardens, tending to their vegetables while enjoying the company of their family and friends. Almost every family has a garden in Slovakia, whether it’s a row of plotted plants on their apartment balcony, a thin strip of land in their backyard, or a huge farm that spreads for acres and acres. Slovaks use the food they harvest throughout the year, and in the fall many people pickle and jar their harvest vegetables. There aren’t very many different kinds of vegetables in Slovakia and most people eat carrots, tomatoes, cabbage and garlic with their various meats. Yet, it’s amazing as I walk up the stairs to my apartment every day to smell what my neighbors are cooking with such basic ingredients. Pickled vegetables have a very unique smell to them and when fried up in butter they produce an acrid or bitter smell that does not do the dish’s flavor justice.
What food did I try? The national dish of Slovakia is bryndzové halušky. This is a very simple dish that is made from gnocchi-like potato pasta, sheep cheese and bacon. It’s a very creamy and filling dish that is also very salty. Sometimes people will put pickled cabbage in the halušky and green onions or chives. It’s traditionally served on a wooden-trough that’s been hand-carved and eaten with a wooden spoon. This is a very important food to Slovaks because it uses sheep cheese, and herding sheep is a very important cultural practice in Slovakia. If you drive along the roads you will see people in wooden huts selling bryndzové or sheep cheese, and all kinds of it too! There are strings of it that people will braid and knot, there are blocks of it that people will smoke, and there are vats of curd that people will drink out of wooden cups. I drank some yesterday, and I didn’t care for it, there’s something off-putting about having to chew something you’re drinking.
How did I feel when I ate it? I have had bryndzové halušky a number of times in Slovakia and each time I eat it, I tell myself that’s the last time I will eat it. When the dish is brought out to you there is a film of bacon fat on top of the creamy cheese and onions. I know it can’t be healthy for me, but by goodness I eat everything! After eating bryndzové halušky I always want to fall asleep, because I’m simply full and comfortable. It’s a wonderful food to eat in the wintertime because it is ‘stick to your sides’ good.
How is this food prepared? To make the gnocchi-like potato dumplings, you have the shred potatoes really thin and then mix them with flour, hot water and salt. The gnocchi pasta is rolled into thumb-sized cylinders that are white in color. The pasta is then boiled in water, making it really soft and chewy. While the pasta is cooking, the bacon for the garnish should be cut into cubes and fried up until it is crispy and hot. The sheep cheese, or bryndzové, is already in a curd-like, semi-solid state, so all you have to do it put it in a sauce-pan and heat it up. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and enjoy!
Is this food connected to the local environment? How?
All of the ingredients in bryndzové halušky are found in the gardens of Slovakia. All of the traditional foods in Slovakia are easily made and require few ingredients. I think this is because of the agricultural culture is so strong. People prefer to eat local foods, rather than expensive imports. Everyone farms and everyone buys sheep cheese from their favorite vendor. It’s amazing to talk to Slovaks and hear how close they are to their culture. When I ask for a recipe for various dishes, my friends and colleagues tell me, “I don’t know, just come over and I’ll show you how to cook it.” I love how oral tradition and education is still very much alive and used in Slovakia. It brings me back to cooking with my grandma when I was a little kid.
Preparing smoked cheese
Sheep cheese curd
Local man is making sheep cheese