Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Slavonian culinary experience


Zarko, me, Pete and Ozana at the end of a long day, celebrating with the local sljivovitz

Croatia – or the Slavonia region of the country – is Paradise for non-vegetarians. If you're an Indian non-vegetarian, the Slavonian cuisine will come as a pleasant surprise because it's fairly spicy from the paprika. In fact, Slavonian food is way, way spicier than anywhere else in Croatia and it owes a lot to Hungarian influences.

Talking about paprika, I have to say I'm quite confused now about what exactly paprika is. My friend Ozana called everything paprika – and that included bell peppers, long thin red chillies, long green chillies (which I consider typically Indian) and what looked like light green, long Mediterranean sweet peppers… but they were HOT when bitten into raw! And paprika also referred to the red powder that's famously from Hungary but is a staple in Croatia too.

Anyway, a typical meal that we had in Osijek started with a large platter of appetisers – slices of kulen (a spicy sausage flavoured with – yes, paprika), dry cured bacon, ham and 2-3 types of cheese, along with a cottage-cheese-and-chopped onion "salad", green olives (sometimes stuffed with – yes, ham) and thick slices of granary, black and white breads. No butter or oil involved at any point. I did try a bit of the kulen (it smelt spicy) and the flavour was pretty good, but too strange for my taste-buds to manage more than a slice, really. I drew the line quite firmly at the ham.

(I guess I'm a somewhat strange herbivore in that I was brought up in a strictly vegetarian environment, but as an adult I'm vegetarian by taste. If it tastes, smells and looks good, I will eat it. If it makes me feel queasy to look at it, I don't eat it. It's a simple policy but works well.)

Anyway, back to the cuisine. Kulen is only one of the varieties of sausage available there, and it is the most common. A lot of people make their own kulen at home, and every individual recipe is probably treasured and kept within the family! And because these sausages are made at home, for family consumption, they are of the highest quality - the best cuts of meat, hardly any fat in them and definitely no artificial preservatives. Pete couldnt stop enthusing over how wonderful the kulen tasted, so chock-full of flavour.

We ate out a couple of times in a local family-run restaurant - no frills or fancies, just good food served in large amounts. I'm not even sure that they had menus, because I didnt see any on the table. Or maybe Zarko and Ozana had ordered the dish in advance. I didnt try it but I was told that it was
lamb layered with vegetables and cooked till tender in a massive casserole dish, which was brought straight to the table. No fancy table ware either - everybody just took out portions to put on their plates. I had a bowl of beans in paprika-tomato sauce. It sounds boring but it was absolutely delicious... and it also is a pretty renowned side dish anyway!

Another famous dish in the area is simply known as "fish". It probably has a more formal name but Ozana and Zarko only ever referred to it as "fish". Or rather, "feesh" :D
Basically it's a stew served with flat wide noodles on the side or, again, with chunks of different kinds of bread. I asked about the recipe a couple of times and was told that it's very simple – and indeed it did sound simple when Ozana described it. Something on the lines of "different kinds of fresh water fish, some onions, tomatoes, wine, and paprika and boil it in a large cauldron over a fire till it is cooked".

The aroma of the stew/soup was absolutely amazing – it did not have that fishy smell that puts me off all seafood, and that encouraged me to try the soup. Even more amazingly, it tasted as gorgeous as it smelt… not the slightest hint of fishiness – and believe me, if it had tasted or smelt at all fishy, I would have registered it. (Pete says my nose ought to be insured!) It might have been a simple recipe, and certainly the ingredients were minimal, but I don't think "fish" is easy to make, all the same. The thinness or thickness of the soup, the varieties of fish used, the length of time the stew is simmered, the amount of paprika and tomatoes used – all these have a HUGE effect on the outcome and taste. I’m not saying that it would be bad, because there is no one way to make “fish”… but it would definitely be different.

In fact, "fish" is such a popular dish that there are actual competitions in making the stew. We were lucky enough to be at the semi-final cook-out in Osijek, where there were a dozen chefs, all with
large cauldrons bubbling away over brisk fires. There were also loads of little tables with the usual appetizers in trays, wine to taste, rakija (the local cherry or plum brandy) to drink – and all free. The people in charge were generous in inviting us two foreigners over to try everything they had, and I felt rather bad to have to mostly fake my way out of eating the sausages (I gave them to Pete). And not just the appetizers, in fact even the fish stew was free for everybody to have, once the entries had been judged.

It was at the competition that I realised how different each stew tastes, depending on how it has been handled by its chef. I tried the soup from two or three different cauldrons, and my goodness they were nothing like the same! None of them tasted fishy, luckily – I thought perhaps that the first “fish” we’d tasted was an anomaly – but within that definition, HOW the flavours differed! The soups were just delicious.

I cant believe that I’ve just written an entire page about fish soup… normally there’s nobody who dislikes seafood, or anything derived from seafood, more than I do. It was THAT good.

Another thing I noted about Osijek was the surprising number of bakeries – those folks really like their bread and rolls, with the latter mostly containing savoury ham or sausage as filling. I’d also read that Croatian pizzas are better than the Italian ones, and I was eager to check that out for myself. And today, folks, I am here to tell you that Croatian pizzas are fantastic! I haven’t had better pizza even in Rome. The marmalade doughnuts we tried from a local bakery were scrummy too.

An open “local” market that we went to had lots of little stalls selling pastries, buns, sweets and biscuits. Of course I wanted to try some, so Zarko went and got a plateful of what I thought were sweet buns.
Nope, they were savoury, with little sausages and pork meat as fillings. What I’d thought was sugar icing turned out to be salty! The Slavonians don’t waste a single part of the pigs they use for food – which in my opinion is a good thing because if you must kill an animal, at least make full use of it! Some of the “pastries” were cooked with rendered animal fat – not very healthy I suppose, but since I saw hardly any fat Slavonians, they probably don’t eat those things all the time! I also loved the little flaky biscuits with sesame seeds or poppy seeds covering the top thickly – those were really nice.

One really cool pastry (although Ozana called it a “cookie”) I tried was mildly sweet – but its attraction was that
it was barbecued! Yes, really! The dough strips were wound around what looked like a rolling pin, brushed down with sugar syrup (and maybe egg white, I dunno) and then barbecued. The heat from the coals cooked the pastry to a lovely golden brown and the sugar syrup became a gorgeous glaze – yum! Especially when eaten hot. However, Ozana informed me that this was a Hungarian speciality. Hungarian, Slavonian, whatever. Barbecued “cookies” – wow!

One of the things I sampled from a bakery was called “burek”. It’s basically a quite heavy pastry (kind of like laccha paratha dough – flaky but heavy) with a filling of goat’s cheese or meat. I tried the goat’s cheese version and found it way too salty. I couldn’t eat all of my burek, try as I would. And because it was only salty and didn’t have any other contrasting flavours, I couldn’t help wondering why the Croatians didn’t venture into using paprika – powdered or in vegetable form – in things like burek, so as to get some heat and flavour in there! I guess everybody does what they’re used to doing and it’s difficult to get out of that mindset. They’ve never heard of molaga bajji, for instance… but I’m sure it would be a big hit, if only they knew about it. They have the chillies (molaga) available everywhere, it’s just a question of educating them, I guess. (Osijek hasn’t seen many Indians, and there isn’t a single Indian restaurant in the entire region – amazing or what!).

I’ve no complaints about their pancakes though. Palacinke (pala-chink-eh), as the pancakes are called, are gorgeous. At the restaurant we went to, they came smothered in a wicked, wicked,
WICKED wine cream sauce and they were to die for. If I had known they were that good, I would have foregone the dinner and headed straight for the dessert. I told Ozana as much, and she said that if she’d known the palacinke were going to be quite that exceptional, she would have foregone the dinner too!

Oh and did I mention the coffee? Slavonian coffee can make a zombie come alive after one sniff of the aroma. It’s such strong espresso that it has to be drunk black – milk doesn’t begin to register until you have more milk in it than coffee… and by then it isn’t authentic anyway. Even Pete couldn’t drink coffee that strong all the time, so we went for cappuccinos, which were excellent. And cheap. About 70 pence (in English money) for a cuppa, where it costs like £2.20 for a cup of slop in the UK. I drank more coffee in a week in Osijek than I’ve done this entire year, I think! And all of it good coffee, too.

I think Slavonians aren’t that crazy about sweets – at least, the traditional sweets I tried weren’t the sugar-filled bombs that make me feel slightly ill. In fact, they were rather nice. Sweet bread (it wasn’t really a cake) with a poppy seed or walnut filling was something I really liked. At Zarko and Ozana’s house we had what was essentially a very thick caramel custard (I've now been informed that it's called "krempita" - thanks Z & O) – except without the caramel part. It was only mildly sweet but that made it ideal for me… I have to say that Pete was very brave and very polite to even try it, because egg and milk based desserts make him go green in the gills. He ate about a fourth of it, and I’ve never been more impressed. Or more amused... I wish I had taken a photo of his face while he was swallowing his first mouthful!

I also tried another dessert at a restaurant that we went to – unfortunately I cant remember the name of the dessert (something beginning with a K, I think). What I DO remember is that it came hot and bubbling, and tasted a lot like pasta cooked with hot milk/cream and added forest berries – from what I could deconstruct, anyway. It was very mildly sweet and in fact Ozana has had versions that aren’t sweet at all. Dessert items that aren’t sweet – now there’s a concept!

I guess the main thing is that we saw (and ate) things that were totally new to us and experienced a way of life that was just as new. If nothing else, Osijek is not yet geared towards tourists, really, and the food that was available was what everybody ate - there was nothing that catered specially to the well-travelled tastebuds. (Yes, there is one Szechwan Chinese restaurant in Osijek, but Zarko said that it was not even within light years of authentic.) All in all, Croatia is a country that we'll be visiting again - not just because we have friends there but because there's lots more that the different regions have to offer in the way of culture and cuisine, not to mention scenic views, seascapes, mountainscapes and lots of other goodies. I cant wait to experience more.

*************************

Some updates (and corrections) from Zarko, in the interests of accuracy:

- Yes, restorants have menus :) Yes, we did preorder .. just to be sure we don't have to sit and wait for 45-60 minutes.

- It's "Slavonija" NOT "Slovenija". Slovenija is a former YUG country west to Croatia bordering with Austria. (oops, that was my mistake - but I thought I'd corrected it!)

- Olives are not stuffed with ham .. but with .. guess... paprika. :) (I stand corrected again. Now I wish I'd had some more olives! Will make up next time...)

- "Burek" originates from Bosnia. We have them filled with cheese, meat, aples, cherries ...

13 comments:

Nupur said...

What a fascinating post, Shammi! It was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative read :) I love the concept of barbecued cookies (can't see the picture though) and non-sweet desserts: LOVE that idea :) I'm glad you had a wonderful time, and it is nice to see you back! Did you get asked lots of questions about India?
My only experience in Eastern Europe is 2-3 weeks in a small town in the Czech republic. I lived on boiled potatoes and boiled pasta :) but they did have one street food (called smazheny syr) consisting of fried cheese sandwiched in bread with a generous slathering of mayo :o :D

Shyam said...

Nupur: Thank you for your lovely comments, and thanks again for pointing out the missing link! :) I've rectified it - barbecued cookie now on show! Talking about cheese, though... I think I've had my fill of it for now :D

Anonymous said...

You know, Shyam - throw in a very little mild adventure and you have the basic Enid Blyton Famous 5 or Secret 7 book in hand *heheh*

As always, it all sounds yummy - wish I could be there too.

- Radha

Linda said...

Shammi I haven't had a moment's time to read a post in a couple of weeks, but I was waiting for you to get back! I will be here tomorrow to read it all, but had to stop now and say you guys look like you're having so much fun and you have such a sweet smile! You and Pete must come to Boston someday ;)

sra said...

Now I'm green with envy! And after such a culinary odyssey of a post, what am I gonna do? Have meals at the canteen, sob!

Asha said...

Hungarian Paprika is easily available here and I add it to all my North Indian dishes for a great color! Love it and it is mild too!:))
Glad you enjoyed your break.

meerkat said...

looks like you had a great time in croatia. indeed it surprised me when you mentioned slovenia.

but aiaiyo what is this? eating panni? ;-)

that is the main problem i had when i visited the czech republic. had a restricted diet and ate a lot of generic fast food like pizzas

look forward to your travel blog

meera

Linda said...

Ok, I am back as promised and now have read the whole travel-food-logue. Sounds and LOOKS just delicious, right down to the "feesh". And I'm with Nupur on my favorite -- the bbq cookies look amazing. So glad you had a wonderful visit to a non-tourist town, and thanks for sharing the adventure, Shammi :)

shyam said...

Radi: Ha, this is just the FOOD post! Wait till you see the entire travelogue! :)

Linda: Thanks, I'll take that as an invitation to visit you in Boston! :D

Sra: Canteen food? The Hindu canteen food??? :O

Asha: You get hot paprika too - it's almost like chilli powder :)

Meera: I only ate a very leeeeeetle bit of panni, on coercion :D You shd go to Croatia, if you havent been. It's lovely.

Priyamvada_K said...

Shyamala,
That's a very entertaining travelogue, and with pictures too.

Palacinke sounds delicious! Don't know if I can go all the way to Croatia for that, but I'll google for a recipe.

Priya.

AUGUSTBORN said...

Boy!!! That was quite a post. I was salivating at the end.

When you get here, there all 134 different types of cuisines waiting for you...So be ready !!!

kiwilax said...

hey, didn't quite recognise you in the pic, i looked at it once and wondered, where is she, maybe she's not in the pic coz she's behind the camera!!!! then looked again and did a double take.gosh, u look pretty damn stunning, girl!!!

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading your post.......my late mother was from Osijek and when I visited there in 1980 I also found the food just yummy so say the yeast & not to mention the hospitality of the people.
Reading your article revived a very happy experience, Thanks, Beki- Australia