When you talk about Eastern European cuisine, most people think of rich comfort foods, hearty stews, like the Hungarian Goulash, stuffed cabbage rolls, Polish Kielbasa, smoked meats and pickles. But as is the case with many other cuisines, even the Eastern Europeans have a few “skeletons” hidden in their pantry.
Believe it or not, they don’t try their best to come up with the weirdest combinations or ingredients you can think of. While nose-to-tail eating might be a foreign concept for the Western countries, these recipes are hundreds of years old and were created out of necessity. Food was scarce, meat was not always available, so whenever an animal was slaughtered, people had to come up with a way to use almost every part of it. And before you get all judgy, keep in mind that no matter where you come from, there is a chance your ancestors used to eat some of these unusual ingredients.
Food culture has changed a lot over the past few years. Millennials travel around the world with the intent of discovering new foods and trying unusual recipes, like the famous chef Andrew Zimmern, whose slogan is “If it looks good, eat it.” He must have broken his own rule when he tried number 1 on our list.
15. Boiled sheep’s head (or lamb’s head)
The habit of cooking the animal’s head is very common in many African countries, but not strange to some European countries, like Iceland, where Svið is a traditional dish consisting of a sheep’s head cut in half and then boiled. Although not as common in Eastern European countries, you can still find households where sheep or lamb head is boiled or oven-roasted. Adding onions, carrots and different herbs will give a great flavor. The eyes are considered a delicacy and that is why they are offered to the guest of honor. Those brave enough to try it claim to have experienced a unique creamy, yet gelatinous texture and a potpourri of flavors. If eyeballs are not your cup of tea, you can try brain, tongue or the meat from inside the cheeks, which is supposed to be particularly tasty.
14. Jellied pig’s feet
If you have ever tried the pickled pig feet found in American grocery stores, this recipe might not sound very odd to you. And if you ask me, pickled sounds worse than jellied.
Jellied pig’s feet is a recipe found in many Eastern European countries: Hungary, Poland, Romania, just to name a few. There is also a Jewish recipe, Petchah, that is similar, but uses calf’s feet.
The feet are cooked for hours along with other pieces of meat (ears, tails, head), onions, carrots, garlic, herbs. The resulting broth is strained, mixed with meat (picked off the bones and diced), carrots and some gelatin and then poured into molds and refrigerated overnight. The final product is basically a meat jelly that tastes like pork and vegetables. Can you picture patients in American hospitals being served pork jelly instead of the colorful Jello? Me neither, although one is way healthier than the other.
13. Head cheese
If you’ve never heard of it, you might think it’s some variety of fancy cheese. Truth is, it has nothing to do with cheese and everything to do with the head. The pig’s head, that is.
This might seem like a variation of the previous dish, but it’s considered a cold cut. The recipe goes back to the Middle Ages, when the animal’s head (minus eyes and brains) was simmered into a stock that congealed when cooled. This food is now found in many countries around the world, although there are still a lot of people who cringe when they see it.
Depending on the country, the recipe can contain different pig parts: kidneys, heart, head, skin, fat, all stuffed inside the pig’s stomach. Head cheese is unique for its variety of textures: from crunchy ears, to savory gelatin and creamy pig fat.
12. Tripe soup
While some find it scary and others fascinating, tripe is just one of those foods that you might never want to try because of the way it looks… weird.
Beef tripe refers to the muscle wall of the first three chambers of a cow’s stomach: the rumen, the reticulum and the omasum. Each of them has a different texture, but they are equally unpleasant looking. Although the reticulum, that looks like a honeycomb, could surely get the first prize.
One of the most off-putting things about tripe and tripe soup preparation (other than the way it looks, of course) is the smell it releases while it’s being cooked. That is why it’s supposed to be cleaned thoroughly and then simmered for hours, until tender. The Romanian recipe contains garlic, is thickened with egg yolks and sour cream and served with vinegar. When cooked properly, the soup shouldn’t have any funky smells.
Before you dismiss it altogether, you might want to keep in mind that this soup is considered a very efficient hangover cure. And hey, if you’re hungover when you eat it, you probably won’t remember the next day, so you really have nothing to lose.
11. Blood soup
This sounds like something Dracula would have enjoyed for lunch and a dish that people suffering from blood phobia should avoid.
Blood is used in food recipes all over the world, from Asia to Africa to South America. The most well-known recipe is probably Black Pudding, which is a traditional British recipe for blood sausage. It can also be used in pancakes or even consumed raw in some cultures, for (supposedly) health benefits (do not try this at home!).
Duck or goose blood soup (Czernina) is a Polish favorite, but can also be prepared with hen, rabbit or pig blood. The soup has a sweet and sour taste given by sugar (or different types of fruit: cherries, plums) and vinegar and is usually served with noodles or dumplings.
10. Lamb Drob or Easter Drob
Is a traditional Romanian dish, similar to the Scottish Haggis, served at Easter. As many probably know, it is common in Eastern European countries to sacrifice a lamb for Easter. While the animal itself can be cooked in various ways, roasted, over a camp fire, soup etc, the organs are used for Drob.
The recipe contains a mix of organs: livers, heart, lungs, kidneys, spleen, along with white and green onions, parsley and dill and sometimes whole boiled eggs. The mix is then covered in prapur (Peritoneum – the serous membrane that covers most of the intra-abdominal organs) and baked. The final result might look like the much-loved American meatloaf, but it tastes nothing like it. The organs give a very strong taste and fragrance. If you are used to eating liver, this isn’t too bad. Besides, think of all the health benefits of eating organ meats.
9. Deep fried brains
This one is pretty self-explanatory. You take the brain, you deep fry it, you eat it. Why would someone want to do such a thing, you might ask? To become smarter, of course. If it only it was that easy…
They say Americans like to deep fry everything, but I don’t remember seeing brains on any menu. The most common and tastiest recipe is made with calf brains, but pig or lamb brains can be used as well. While the outside is nice and crispy, the inside has a very creamy-fatty texture, which is not surprising, since the brain is primarily composed of fat.
This can be found in many Eastern European countries (Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Hungary) and it is cured slabs of fatback. It can be salted or fermented in brine, treated with condiments or smoked (the best kind). It isn’t uncommon for tourists from the North-American continent traveling through Eastern Europe to appear confused when they are served raw bacon for breakfast. While Salo can be cooked if necessary, unlike bacon, it is mostly fat, so at the end, you get a small piece of fried fat.
There are certain situations when frying Salo is a better idea than having it raw. Fishermen or people going camping will take a slab with them and cook it over an open fire and serve it with fresh bread, tomatoes and onions. It might sound disgusting, but it smells and tastes really good.
Salo can be served with or without skin. Just a heads up, if it has the skin on, it probably still has lots of bristle left. While the skin does taste delicious when it’s tender, the hair is kind of a turn off.
In some countries, Salo is served as an appetizer, along with vodka or plum brandy. Some people claim that if you keep eating Salo while drinking, you can have as much vodka as you want and you will never get drunk. That’s because you’ll probably have a heart attack first.
Okroshka or Russian summer soup is a dish made from kefir or kvass (a fermented non-alcoholic beverage made from rye bread), raw vegetables and herbs (cucumbers, scallions, radishes, dill), boiled potatoes and boiled eggs. Some recipes will include cooked meat or bologna. It is always served cold and considered a perfect way to fight the summer heat, although in most cultures when you get hot, you reach for a big glass of ice water (or Coke).
This recipe goes back as far as the 11th century and its name means “to crumble or break into small pieces”. Some might associate this with the traditional Russian salads, where every ingredient is chopped into small, almost equal pieces.
6. Shuba or Fur Coat Salad
Also known as Herring Under A Fur Coat (or Dressed Herring), this is a Russian salad consisting of several layers of diced pickled herring, cooked vegetables (potatoes, carrots), covered in a coat of grated beets mixed with mayonnaise.
Some recipes also contain boiled eggs, raw red onions, grated apple. So many unusual layers, right? It’s like tuna salad meets potato salad meets house salad meets “have some beets, they’re good for you”. If you ever have to eat pickled herring, you can pretty much say you found yourself in a pickle.
5. Caraway seed soup
Commonly found in Slovak and Hungarian cuisines, this is a dish that requires very few ingredients: water or chicken broth, caraway seeds and flour. Hungarians also add their signature spice, paprika. It is the perfect example of a meal born out of necessity, when there was nothing else to put on the table. You can probably make this soup for less than $1 if you use water instead of chicken broth. It can be served with croutons or dumplings.
For those not familiar with caraway (also known as meridian fennel), it is that pungent spice found in rye bread. It is strong tasting, so a soup that has caraway as a base ingredient is quite a challenge for most people.
Is the Jewish name for the unhatched eggs found inside just-slaughtered chickens. Although it is one of those foods nobody talks about anymore, it was once something common in the households of Romanian country people.
Children would gather in the kitchen around the table, while their mother removes the insides of the bird and looks for “hidden treasures” or chicken caviar, as some might call them. They have a beautiful orange color and the average size is that of a cherry tomato. They can be fried or added to soups and have a slightly stronger flavor than any other cooked egg yolks and a very silky texture. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
3. Pickled fruit
Eastern Europeans like to pickle any vegetable they can get their hands on. They love pickles so much, that once they were done with vegetables, they decided to use fruit. From cucumbers, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, cauliflower, herbs to pickled apples, plums, grapes and even watermelon, they are usually served with stews or other meat dishes.
Unlike the American ones, preserved in vinegar, most Eastern European pickles are lacto-fermented. This technique is one of the best ways to preserve food naturally and it only requires salt and water. Salt kills the bad bacteria, but allows good bacteria (Lactobacillus) to grow and preserve the food. If you follow the health trends, you probably know that a lot more people are starting to use this pickling method because of the health benefits of fermented vegetables: maintain a healthy gut flora, aid digestion, help manage weight, improve immunity etc.
If you are not familiar with them, you might be put off by the strong smell and think that they’ve gone bad. But if you are one of the brave ones, or you want to lose weight and detoxify your body, you should drink the “juice” that results from pickling certain vegetables, like cabbage. Care for some sauerkraut juice with those fries?
2. Sweet poppy seed pasta
Pasta is one of those dishes that are always savory and almost never associated with dessert. However, in Eastern Europe there are several recipes that have turned pasta into a sweet dish. This Hungarian recipe is very simple: pasta, butter, lots of poppy seeds and sugar. But hey, if you fail that drug test, don’t blame it on the poppy seeds.
If you don’t like poppy seeds, Hungarians have a similar recipe that uses ground walnuts instead of poppy seeds. Supposedly, it tastes even better if you add some homemade apricot jam to it.
Jewish cuisine has its own sweet pasta recipe, Sweet Kugel, that consists of noodles, eggs, cheese (usually cottage cheese and farmer’s cheese), sugar and raisins. The whole mix is baked into a delicious casserole. A similar recipe can be found in the Romanian cuisine.
1. Fried milt
If you thought some of the above dishes were a bit nasty, wait until you hear about this one.
Milt is the semen of a male fish. Yep, we’re talking fried sperm.
Milt looks a lot like brains and has the same “creamy” texture. It is very common in the Japanese cuisine, which shouldn’t surprise us because Asians have always been more adventurous when it comes to food, but it’s not something you expect your old Eastern European grandmother to cook for you.
If you think you can stomach this, deep-fried is the way to go. You get to enjoy the nice crunchy breading and the inside doesn’t look as weird, either. It can also be steamed, but only if you can get past that weird texture.
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