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What Makes it Eastern European?What Makes it Eastern European?

July 1, 1999

4 Min Read
What Makes it Eastern European?

Food Product Design

What Makes it Eastern European?
1999 -- Flavor Prints  What sets one country's foods apart from those of its neighbors? To a great degree, the difference is in the seasoning - the spices and herbs used most frequently and the combinations used with various foods. The traditions and habits that characterize a national or regional cuisine are known as "flavor prints." In much the same way that fingerprints can reveal the identity of a human being, flavor prints help describe the unique qualities of a cuisine. In this series, developed in cooperation with the American Spice Trade Association, we explore the contribution of spices to flavor prints around the world as a guide and inspiration for food product designers.  Nations in Eastern Europe - including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Ukraine - are renowned for their hearty, satisfying peasant cuisine. This cuisine makes use of inexpensive cuts of meat and game, organ meats, and roots and tubers that are made tender and succulent through slow cooking. Over the centuries, these dishes have sustained inhabitants of this region through long days of hard work and cold, dreary winters.  A classic example is Hungary's gulyás, a hearty combination of beef, potatoes, onions and green peppers, simmered with caraway seeds and paprika. Another Hungarian stew is tokány, which uses a Mongolian cooking technique that allows the meat - most often beef or lamb, but sometimes veal, chicken or game - to cook gently in its own juices rather than in water or other liquid. This dish is spiced with generous amounts of black pepper; sometimes marjoram or summer savory are added as well. Another traditional tokány recipe calls for beef cooked with bacon, garlic, black pepper, bay leaves, mustard, lemon juice, vinegar and sugar, topped off with a dollop of sour cream.   In Poland, lean cuts of lamb or mutton are tenderized by a long marinade in a mixture of vinegar, onion, bay leaves, cloves and peppercorns, followed by slow cooking with onions, carrots, celery and celery root. Juniper berries are often added to marinades and sauces used on game such as venison, duck, grouse and pheasant.   Served with dumplings, a Czechoslovakian lamb recipe calls for seasoning with parsley, allspice, black pepper, bay leaves and thyme, with a tangy, vinegar-laced sauce. The ingredients of a Czech-style lamb goulash include garlic, caraway seeds, marjoram and paprika. These robust flavorings mellow, but hold their own, after a long stay in the cooking pot. Other spices suitable for slow cooking include juniper berries, allspice, black peppercorns, fennel seeds and poppy seeds.   Dill deserves special mention because its feathery green tops are found in a wide array of Eastern European recipes, from soups, such as borscht, to noodle dishes, meatballs and dumplings.  Of all the Eastern European cuisines, Hungarian cooking makes the most lavish use of paprika. Paprika is thought to have been introduced to Hungary by conquering Turks during the 16th century. As with other capsicums, the heat intensity of this ground red pepper depends upon growing conditions such as soil, climate and even the location of the pepper on the stalk. At the heart of Hungarian and much of Polish cooking, paprika of every strength is used with a free hand, adding taste, heat and color. Perhaps the best-known dish with paprika is Hungarian chicken paprikash, with its creamy, fragrant sauce.  In Eastern Europe, winter-hardy vegetables such as celery roots, beets, onions and carrots make frequent appearances at the table, either as additions to soups and stews or as separate dishes. Green peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms are also popular.   A recipe from the Ukraine calls for wrapping cabbage leaves around a savory filling of rice and ground beef, seasoned simply with salt and ground black pepper. Or, cabbage is shredded for use in caraway-studded sauerkraut. In updated versions of recipes from this region, vegetable oils are often substituted for the traditional lard, chicken fat or goose fat.  Noodle dishes are another Eastern European specialty. Egg noodles are often mixed with pot cheese, sour cream and caraway. Poppy seeds, which are also sprinkled on noodle dishes, are widely used in baked goods. They may be ground for a pastry filling or used whole, as they are in a Polish poppy-seed torte.  Aromatic spices and flavorings are essential to the rich desserts beloved by Eastern Europeans. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and vanilla - which are often combined with honey - are used generously in strudels, yeasty babkas, butter cookies, fruit-studded coffee cakes, and the delicate filled crepes called palacsinta.  So what makes a dish Eastern European? Paprika, along with garlic, onions, caraway seeds, dill, poppy seeds, marjoram, bay leaves and peppercorns - often combined with or topped by sour cream. On the sweet side, Eastern Europe's well-deserved reputation for delectable baked goods owes much to its fondness for spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger and allspice.
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