Let’s be honest: Eastern Europe isn’t generally known for its food… or at least, not in a good light. This is largely due to its history as a predominantly Communist area in which food was closely rationed and heavily regulated, meaning both home cooks and chefs were incredibly restricted in the ingredients they were able to get. Let’s a brief look at traditional Eastern European cuisine, and the steps modern chefs are taking to bring it up to date.
The basics of Eastern European food stayed pretty much the same for hundreds of years because they were based on a limited choice of ingredients such as grains like barley, rye, wheat and buckwheat. Of these, rye is still in common use today to make dark, heavy bread. Because Eastern Europe is surrounded by a vast amount of lakes and other bodies of water, fish is often used in Eastern European recipes and traditional dishes. People are often surprised to find out that traditional Eastern European cuisine was significantly influenced by those of almost all other areas of Europe, leading to dishes often involving pancakes, breads, and berries that you might expect to find elsewhere.
Cold and hot soups are also vital dishes, such as Goulash from Hungary, Polish pierogi, and Russia’s borscht are just a few of the native soups that might be familiar. In this part of the world alcohol also comes with its own traditions, with each nation having at least one traditional spirit, and often more than one. For example in the Czech Republic, each area will have its own take on the traditional plum liqueur Slivovitz – it has a medicinal aftertaste and will be drunk among friends as a bonding ritual. You’ll also find Absinthe, though this is more of a specialty in Prague than the rest of the country.
These days, chefs in Eastern Europe are starting to bring the traditional cuisine bang up to date, and producing some incredible fine dining options to rival the rest of the world. Although perhaps outsiders will always harbor a soft spot for the more regularly exported (and diluted) cuisines of Spain, Italy, and France, a new vanguard of restaurants featuring Eastern European menus are seizing a spotlight once reserved exclusively for Mediterranean-influenced fare. Chefs throughout the major cities of Eastern Europe are transforming traditionally heavy fare including meat and potatoes into lighter dishes, adding a contemporary spin and emphasizing local ingredients. You’ll also find in the capitals of Eastern Europe that there are an increasing number of restaurants featuring more exotic food, such as Indian restaurants and sushi bars – so these days there really is something to suit every palate.