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Central Europe


CENTRAL EUROPE. For the purposes of this encyclopedia, Central Europe will be defined as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Poland, although technically Austria and Germany played a critical role in the cultural development of the region. All of these countries were at one time completely or partly incorporated into the Prussian or Austro-Hungarian Empires and therefore shared in the transcultural culinary exchanges during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Central Europe is a region represented by huge ethnic diversities, a complicated political history, and a wide range of microclimates, from Poland's cold Baltic winters in the north to the mild Black Sea climate of coastal Romania in the south.

From a geographic standpoint, most of the region is drained by the Danube River. The Carpathian Mountains form a natural barrier, cutting off Poland to the north and Romania to the east. The Transylvanian Alps in central Romania divide the region even further, and the Wallachian Plain stretches south across the Danube into Bulgaria. Hungary occupies a vast windy plain roughly corresponding to the ancient Roman province of Pannonia. The southernmost parts of this region were once under the political domination of the Byzantine Empire. This was followed by nearly five hundred years of Ottoman Turk influence.

The Czech Republic's kingdoms of Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland were all at one time major political and cultural forces as well. The traditional foods of these three kingdoms were gradually incorporated into the court cuisine of the Austrian Empire, so by the nineteenth century they had become "Viennese." The Wiener schnitzel ( Viennese veal cutlet) would never have been possible without Hungarian beef; the famous Kolatschen (custard-filled pastries) of the Vienna coffeehouses would never have existed without the ancient kolace of Bohemia. As a political coequal to Austria, Hungary evolved a distinctive cuisine of its own inspired by nationalistic themes. Since Slovakia and Romanian Transylvania were once part of the Hungarian Kingdom, they experienced Hungarian influences most, but, by the same token, they gave back to Hungarian cookery added regional nuances and many specialized dishes.

While all of these countries were once unified in some manner under Austro-Hungarian rule, that unity disintegrated with the fall of the empire in 1918, after which they became independent states. At the close of World War II, and under the coercion of the occupying Soviet forces, all of the Central European nations were brought into the Soviet empire and remained within that cultural and political sphere until the fall of communism in 1989. Each of these nations became independent again with an earnest desire to rediscover the culinary past that was largely ignored for almost forty-five years. However, the communist governments of all the Central European countries took considerable interest in ethnographic research and established many open-air museums and research institutes where rural life could be studied. While the motivation was political, the end result was a body of valuable archival materials much better organized than in some Western countries.

If there is a common theme to this discussion, it would be that linguistic and religious boundaries of Central Europe do not coincide with political boundaries. There are large minority populations in each country, and before the mass expulsion of Jews during World War II and of Germans at the end of the war, the diversity of minority populations was even greater than in the twenty-first century. This diversity created a patchwork quilt of foodways and local cookeries, all of which must be considered when viewing the region from a historical perspective. Yet regardless of the ethnic diversity, there are certain universal foods common to all the Central European cuisines. These include sour cream, dried mushrooms, poppy seeds, sauerkraut, horseradish, and smoked bacon. Bacon and bacon drippings provide one of the distinctive flavors of this region. On a par with this is the generous use of dill.

During the nineteenth century, movements for national independence turned toward rural peasant culture to find a national cultural identity, and certain traditional peasant dishes became symbols of national styles of cooking. Hungarian gulyás (goulash) is a classic example. Originally it was a stew prepared by cattle drovers, herders whose occupation was essentially the same as the gaucho of Argentina and the cowboy of the American West. Their unfettered lifestyle and distinctive eating habits became a symbol of Hungarian identity; thus, the food they ate was elevated to a national icon.

This process occurred in all of the Central European countries and was in many respects random since it over-looked the fact that there were numerous ethnic groups who did not aspire to form states of their own, among them the Jews, Armenians, and gypsies. While the Central European Jews belong to the Ashkenazim, their traditional food culture represents elements of Spanish Sephardic traditions combined with South German flour-based dishes and such Slavic features as borscht or blinz.

Periodization of Culinary History

The food culture of Central Europe may be broken down into historical periods corresponding with the rest of Europe, although, in general, development has lagged behind western Europe. The medieval period lasted until about 1500, followed by a period of political upheaval and consolidation from 1500 to 1680. Ottoman invasions occupied the political stage, and the countryside experienced vast destruction and loss of populations. The era from 1680 to 1850 may be viewed as one of reconstruction and political reorganization under the Habsburg monarchy. Political unification brought with it cultural repression and an institutionalizing of German as the lingua franca of the region. In the 1780s all Jews living within the Austrian Empire were forced to Germanize their names. German became such a dominant language that in some regions, such as Bohemia, it nearly replaced the local tongue.

The foods and foodways of medieval Central Europe represent an area of research largely unexplored by scholarship, in part due to the lack of surviving records. Maria Dembińska's pioneering work on medieval Poland (1963) has pointed the way for similar studies of Bohemia and Hungary, but published research is limited. In spite of this, some generalities can be made. The kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary were powerful in the early Middle Ages, and Bohemia in particular became the epicenter for many culinary influences in the region. Likewise, the Danube River served as a conduit for new foods and dishes emanating from Byzantium. The strudel, the cucumber, and red beets moved into Central Europe by this route. The lack of written records has been addressed through medieval archeology, especially since World War II.

Meal Systems in Central Europe

The medieval meal systems of Central Europe are key to understanding meal systems of the region, even in the twenty-first century. Traces of the medieval two-meal system (a light meal in the morning about 9:00 A.M. and an evening meal about 5:00 P.M.) still survive in parts of Central Europe, and this eating pattern defines the type of foods consumed. During the summer half of the year (from spring plowing to fall plowing), field workers eat three times a day, but during the winter they revert to the medieval two-meal system. In grain-growing regions, the first meal eaten in the early hours of the day was generally bread with lard or cottage cheese, since it was easy to transport. A midday meal of hot cooked food was brought to the field hands during their break. In the crescent-shaped mountainous zone surrounding the Carpathian Basin as well as in the Carpathian areas of the Ukraine and Transylvania (Romania), the morning meal was a hot cooked dish, such as Romanian mamaliga (cornmeal mush). The midday meal consisted of remnants from the morning, while a cooked evening meal was eaten at home. It was also a general custom to eat from a common bowl. Until the late nineteenth century, children normally stood to eat at the dinner table, and men and boys ate separately from women and girls. Once children reached the age of puberty, they were given a place to sit at the farmhouse table in accordance with their status in the family. For example, younger boys of lesser rank sat lower down the table than their older brothers, who had first choice of the food after their father.

Another unifying feature of Central European cookery is the widespread use of gruels made from hulled, whole, or cracked grains. The grits can also be made from lentils, peas, fava beans, and in more recent times from New World beans. All levels of Central European society ate grits, but the proportion varied. Wealthier people consumed more meat, while the poorest individuals subsisted on an essentially vegetarian diet. In medieval Poland the inevitable gruel for king and peasant alike was millet. In modern-day Romania it is mamaliga made from maize. Rice has never played a significant role in the cookery and has always been associated with luxury foods and urban cuisine. Only the Bulgarians grew rice on a large scale, mostly for provisioning the Ottoman army. Rice did not become integrated into Bulgarian food culture until the eighteenth century.

Along with grain-based gruels, bread soup was another universal food throughout the region. This is a dish of medieval origin in which pieces of bread are soaked in hot broth, then puréed, or the broth is simply poured over a slice of bread. Nearly every country in Central Europe possesses a long list of local variations on this theme. More elegant preparations replaced the bread with roux, flour fried in lard or bacon drippings. A close relative of this soup was a dish made from small balls or crumbs of dough produced by rubbing the dough against a sieve or grater. The dough was then boiled in water, milk, meat stock, or vegetable puree until thick. The most typical dish of this kind prepared in Hungary is called tarhonya, a term borrowed from Turkish in the eighteenth century. During the Middle Ages it was called vágott étek, vagdalt étek, and gombóta, terms all referring to the shape of the dough or to the action of rubbing the flour. In mountainous areas of Slovakia, Poland, and Romania, this dish is made with buckwheat flour.

The introduction of maize via the Balkans was perhaps the most important addition to the gruel-based diet of the countryside. In most areas it was first introduced as a fodder crop, but poor farmers in mountainous areas soon adopted it as a foodstuff since it was much easier to grow than wheat. The most common method of preparing it was in the form of mush, but it was also used as a filling in sausages, as dumplings mixed with meat or vegetables, and as a stuffing in steamed cabbage leaves. The mush is known as mamaliga in Romania and puliszka in Hungary.

Shifts in Taste Preferences

In terms of general taste preferences, there have been a number of important shifts in Central European diets. Pickled vegetables (especially cabbage and root crops), vinegar preparations, and sour milk are found everywhere, especially in areas where beer is the most common beverage. The sweet-and-sour or tart and spicy foods preserved in peasant cuisine began to disappear in urban cookery during the eighteenth century in favor of more neutral tastes. This shift occurred directionally from west to east and from the upper classes to the lower ones. Sugar at one time represented a prestige food consumed only by the aristocracy and rich merchants, and it reached peasant cookery only in the nineteenth century. The preference for food highly spiced with black pepper shifted in the late eighteenth century to a widespread use of paprika. This shift began in the lower Balkans and emanated out of Bulgaria, where New World peppers had been introduced in the 1600s. The Bulgarians have always been the market gardeners of Central Europe, and it was through them that many new foods, such as beans, maize, and tomatoes, were disseminated into the Slavic regions.

Drinking Habits

Central Europe can be divided into three large zones according to the predominant drinking habits. The northeastern region, including the Czech Republic and Poland in particular, are beer-drinking countries. In the northwest, brandy and spirits predominate, while the southern area is largely wine-drinking. The centers of wine production lie in Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. The Romans introduced viticulture into these countries, and many grape varietals are peculiar to central Europe, among them the famous Tokay of Hungary.

Among the nonalcoholic beverages, buttermilk, whey, and a light beer made with birch sap (Betula pendata ) were popular in many parts of the region, as were herbal teas, especially medicinal teas made with Saint-John's-wort. Coffee drinking spread from the Balkans due to Turkish influence. Coffee is consumed with milk as an early morning beverage or is taken black after meals. The peasants first served it at the beginning of feasts and weddings and only later incorporated it into their everyday diet.


Poland's culinary history did not begin in 1364 with the famous Congress of Kings held in the ancient capital city of Cracow, but it was during that event that Poland's distinctive cuisine was showcased to the world. The host of this gathering, which included hundreds of nobles and several thousand retainers, was King Casimir III, who had positioned the kingdom as a world power and who was himself a connoisseur of Italian cooking. Present at this congress was Peter I de Lusignan of Cyprus, who brought with him Byzantine cooks, a troupe of gypsy musicians, and eating habits of the East. The culinary watershed of this event has not been studied in great detail, but after that, Polish dishes are mentioned frequently in cookery books of the 1400s and 1500s as one of the recognized "national" styles of cooking. Elements of Poland's medieval cuisine have also been preserved in the countryside, as the Polish ethnographer Zofia Szromba-Rysowa has pointed out in her study of village foodways Przy wspólnym stole (At the common table, 1988).

Poland's culinary identity may be divided into four broad regional styles: the cuisine of the mountainous south; the cookery of the Baltic coastal region; the foods of the east, principally dishes emanating from Lithuania and Russia; and the classic cookery of the great estates and urban restaurants. The influence of Germany was also pervasive, especially in the period before 1700. The first cookbook written in Polish, the Kuchmistrzostwo of 1532, was a translation of a popular German cookbook called the Kuchenmeisterei that first appeared at Nürnberg in 1485. The first truly Polish cookbook was published at Cracow in 1682 by Stanislaw Czerniecki under the Latin title Compendium Fercolorum. Czerniecki was a petty noble who served as royal secretary to King Jan III Sobieski. Parallel to the German influence was the Yiddish-speaking Jewish community, one of the largest in Europe.

When the elector of Saxony ascended the Polish throne in the early eighteenth century, he brought with him French cooks. This blend of French and Polish themes in the court cuisine of the country helped to create the Polish cookery that has survived into the twenty-first century. Poland's haute cuisine has always differed from that of other European nations in that it has drawn its inspiration from the peasantry and recreated these foods not only as symbols of Polishness but also as a political reminder that Poland's most ancient monarchs and noble families were themselves the children of peasants. These dishes include bigos (a game stew); the baba cake; sauce polonaise (a sauce originally served with boiled pike); and a host of sausages (the Polish word kielbasa simply means 'sausage'), the most famous of which are kielbasa krakowsaka ( pressed ham sausage), kasza gryczana (buckwheat kasha), and pierogi, the Polish equivalent of Spanish empanadas. Polish beer and vodka are also well-known outside the country.

The Czech Republic

Although small in size, the Czech Republic is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized of the Central European countries. It is also blessed with a rich culinary history tracing back to the early Middle Ages. The country consists of two major regions, Bohemia and Moravia, each with its distinct local cooking style. The capital, Prague, is situated on the Vlatava River, which flows north into Germany. This geographic link brought the city and its culinary culture in constant contact with German Saxony and the Baltic port city of Stettin at the mouth of the Oder. However, due to its political domination by Austria, Prague became a melding place for many exotic culinary ideas and the location of a number of well-known cooking schools and restaurants. Prior to World War I, the company of Bohuslav and Vydra was internationally known for its culinary equipment, especially gingerbread and pastry supplies. In the area of pastry, the Czech Republic is perhaps best known as the home of the layer cake (torte) and koláce (sweet buns with a variety of fillings). Both terms evolved from Latin.

Other important culinary centers in the country are Karlovy Vary (the former Karlsbad), which was a famous spa resort during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Plzen (Pilsen). Plzen is a scenic town noted for its Pilsner beer. Until 1945 the town was situated in the heartland of the Sudeten German region. After the expulsion of the Germans, the Czechs continued the famous brewery and maintained an international standard for high-quality brewing.

As a counterpoint to the heavy Germanization of the country under the Austrians, Bohemia produced Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová (17851845), a cookbook writer whose recipes were widely circulated in Czech and were translated into German. Rettigová also wrote juvenile literary fiction that championed the national language. She was followed by Bozˇena Ne˘mcová (18201862), whose semiautobiographical novel The Grandmother (1855) described the foods and daily life of Bohemia and offers a detailed look into the mind-set of a culture besieged by foreign and mostly Germanizing influences with a long list of foods the author considered typical of Czech culture. Some of this nostalgia for the past is present in Marie Rosická's Bohemian-American Cook Book first published in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1915. In print off and on since its first appearance, the book is an important culinary link to the homeland for Czech immigrants in the United States.


While Slovakia speaks the same language as the Czech Republic, it has experienced a different history. The ancient capital city of Pressburg (now Bratislava) on the Danube has oriented the country southward, and for much of its history Slovakia was a territory of the kingdom of Hungary. Like Hungary, Slovakia is a wine-growing region, thus it forms a cultural line of demarcation between the beer-drinking Slavs to the north and the wine-drinking central Europeans to the south. The country's wines are mostly white, consisting of Pinot Gris (Rulandske to Slovakians), Sylvaner, and a few others. The main wine-growing area centers around Modra, north of Bratislava.

Slovakia is also a country where fish play an important role in the diet, especially trout and carp. During the Middle Ages, Slovakian towns along the Danube were involved in an extensive fish-pickling industry, once critical to the Roman Catholic dietary calendar. Since it lay on trade routes with Poland and Bohemia, Slovakia also served as a conduit for culinary ideas flowing out of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Maize is significant in the diet, and Hungarian gulyás is prepared in myriad ways. The Carpathian Rocombole garlic, popular among American growers, came from the eastern part of this country.


Most food historians do not realize that Marcus Rumpolt, the author of Ein New Kochbuch (1581), was Hungarian by birth, not German. While his cookbook is viewed as a classic of German Renaissance printing, a number of the recipes incorporated in the book are Hungarian. The book was also translated into Hungarian. Rumpolt is just one example of the pervasive influence Hungary has had on the cookery of Central Europe. On the international level, Hungarian cookery is perhaps the best-known of all the cuisines of Central Europe, and so are its wines.

Hungary experienced the fate of being a great medieval power, only to suffer defeat and invasion by the Ottoman Turks. The medieval kings of Hungary enjoyed a long association with Italy, especially southern Italy and Sicily, thus Hungarian cookery early developed a distinctiveness best characterized as a blend of Slavic and Mediterranean Europe. The Turkish occupation of the country devastated it, and not until the 1680s were the Turks driven back, after their defeat at Buda. Through dynastic marriage, the kingdom of Hungary became part of the Habsburg Empire, but Turkish influences lingered and blended with local culinary traditions, coffee drinking among them. However, Austrian rule meant that both upper-class and middle-class cooking became heavily Germanized. Many of the foods associated with Hungarian cuisine came from the countryside, among them pörkölt casseroles, guylás, palacsubták (a type of pancake), and Liptó cheese made with goat milk.

In contrast to this, Budapest became a great center for pastry baking, in part due to the proximity of wheat-growing districts and constant contact with the Viennese court. Two of the best-known nineteenth-century cafés were Gerbaud's in Pest and Russwurm's in Buda, but the most famous of all was run by József Dobos, whose Dobos Torte is found in every cookbook devoted to elaborate cakes.

Nothing about Hungarian cuisine, however, is better known than paprika. Introduced in the eighteenth century from Bulgaria, paprika gradually made such inroads into Hungarian cookery that it became a defining element. The Hungarians have also become the unrivaled masters in pepper breeding, so in any given farm market it is possible to see vast quantities of unusually shaped peppers, both sweet and hot, piled in heaps or hanging in endless strings among braids of garlic and other local produce. Hungarians enjoy peppers with every meal, even at breakfast. One popular breakfast dish consists of hot peppers stuffed with bacon drippings. The peppers are sliced and eaten on rye bread.


Romania's borders have moved considerably throughout history. The western part of the country was once the Principality of Transylvania and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is difficult for a country that speaks a romance language to look west toward Vienna for culinary inspiration when it has the Black Sea lapping at its feet. This mixture of Slav and Latin, of Orientalism and self-conscious Francophilia, characterized the flowering of Romanian haute cuisine during the interwar period. It was the product of literati, and it was decidedly sybaritic.

This is not the Romanian cookery of modern cookbooks, yet in reality there are probably two distinct Romanian cookeries, one created exclusively in the restaurants, an important aspect of Romanian social life, and the simpler foods made at home. Much unites both of these cookeries with the Mediterranean and the Near East. Spit-roasted meats, stuffed vegetables, rice pilafs, an abundance of eggplants, and a good array of local red and white wines all work together to give the food a peculiarly Romanian character. Food is often served mezze fashion, in an array of small dishes, and there is a widespread preference for hot pepper.

Mamaliga, Romanian polenta, is well-known and has already been mentioned, but not as well-known are Romanian ghiveci (a dish resembling ratatouille), mititei sausages (garlic-flavored beef sausages), carp's roe paste (icre ), sour winter soups, and sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves). In Transylvania the cookery changes due to the presence of a large German minority that settled there in the Middle Ages and to an even larger Hungarian community. Both of these groups have distinctive local cuisines that have had an important influence on Slovakia and Hungary to the west.

See also Germany, Austria, Switzerland ; Judaism ; Middle Ages, European ; Sausage ; Stew .


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Kara Kuti

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