The cuisine of Eastern Europe is a blend of hearty peasant dishes—groaning bowls of steaming dumplings, sauerkraut perfuming the air, beet soup striking a colorful pose—alongside elegant gourmet offerings like precious little appetizers and fancy tortes.
In both comfort foods and more complex dishes, the ingredients are always simple. It's the preparation and sauces that set them apart.
The Influence of Geography
Eastern European cuisine has been forged by the natural resources of the region that find their way into many recipes.
Fish and seafood are plentiful from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The unique flavor of the native juniper wood lends itself to smoking hams and sausages. And an abundance of sour cream and cream cheese are the natural byproducts of a thriving dairy industry.
Mushrooms abound in the many forests that are also home to wild game that finds its way into dishes like hunter's stew and venison goulash.
Fertile farmlands produce grains to create the staggering varieties of bread, noodles and dumplings, vodka, and to serve as feed for the pigs, ducks, and lambs that end up in so many recipes.
And the seemingly ever-present home gardens yield up harvests of potatoes, cucumbers, kohlrabi, sweet and hot peppers, and dill.
The Influence of Many Cultures
There is such a crossover of regional influences, sometimes it's hard to say which dish originated in which country. Certainly, there are many variations on a theme, as in the case of stuffed cabbage and kołaczki cookies, also spelled kolache, kolacky and many other ways.
To make matters more interesting, marriages of the nobility centuries ago brought the flavors of Italian, French, Turkish, Russian, Jewish and German foods to mingle with those of Eastern Europe. The result is a delightful culinary stew.
Queen Bona Sforza Puts Her Stamp on Polish Food
Vegetables other than cabbage and root vegetables were virtually unknown in Poland until 1518 when Queen Bona Sforza, an Italian princess who married the widowed Polish King Sigismund I (Zygmunt), also known as Sigismund the Old, and introduced them to her new homeland.
Many Polish words for vegetables, in fact, are taken directly from Italian -- kalafiory (cauliflower), pomidory (tomatoes) and sałata (lettuce), for example. To this day, soup greens are known as włoszczyzna or "Italian stuff," włoski being the Polish word for "Italian."
A Hospitable Cuisine
For many people, food is just nourishment. For Eastern Europeans, it's a cause for celebration, for sharing, for honoring age-old traditions.
There is always room for a guest at an Eastern European table. The people are as welcoming as the food.
Eastern European House Blessing
It is traditional in Eastern Europe (and probably the world over) to take a gift of bread, salt and wine to a new home or to greet guests at one's own door in this manner. It is also traditional for the parents of newly married couples to greet them at their new home with this gift.
The bread in this symbolic gift signifies the wish that the family should never know hunger. The salt symbolizes both the wish that their lives should always have flavor and a reminder that life might be difficult at times and they must learn to cope with life's struggles. The wine symbolized the parents' hope that the couple would never know thirst and enjoy a life of good health and cheer in the company of many good friends.