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Ruthenian Lenten Fare

There is more to Eastern European food than sausage and cabbage

text by Jacqueline Ruyak
photographs by Cody Christopulos


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There were many reasons I was looking forward to my first visit to eastern Czechoslovakia in 1991, but the cuisine was not one of them. Coming from a Slovenian-Slovak background, I was familiar with the region’s food, the wide variety of sausages, the predominance of pork. I am not knocking the food, but I was pretty sure of some of its limitations.

I am a vegetarian. For years I have lived in Japan, a country of ample culinary delights even for those, like me, who eschew meat.

I would not be so lucky in Eastern Europe, or so I thought.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Not long after I arrived, I came across byrndza, a rich sheep cheese. It is commonly served with halusky, potato dumplings not unlike Italian gnocchi. On another day, I was treated to bite-size perohy, pockets of dough commonly stuffed with potato and cheese, sauerkraut or even fruit or jam. Better known as peroghi, they are popular in my home state of Pennsylvania. One summer in high school, I worked for a local peroghi producer, but the varieties I discovered in Eastern Europe were unlike any I had ever tasted.

Over the years, I have made many more trips to the region, primarily to Slovakia (the eastern half of the former Czechoslovakia). Along with the previously described treats, I have happily subsisted on soups, potatoes and cabbage, the “king of vegetables,” according to the French who are said to know something about food.

One of my most memorable visits, on assignment for this magazine in the late 1990’s, was to Tichy Potok, a small Ruthenian village in the hardscrabble hinterlands of eastern Slovakia. The Ruthenians are Slavs, typically Greek Catholic, from the southern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

It was Good Friday, a day of fasting for this predominantly Greek Catholic village. All week, many of the villagers had fasted, most alternating days of meatless meals with days of only bread and water. But there were some exempted from the fast: the sick, nursing mothers, travelers (like me) and men chopping wood in the forests.

For my visit, Tichy Potok’s mayor, Lubica Dzuna, had arranged a lunch. One particularly devout older woman, Anna Kiktava, had only bread and water, while the rest of us enjoyed an excellent, and meatless, meal of onion soup, potato pancakes, walnut cookies and mint tea.

In fact, there is little use of meat in Ruthenian traditional cuisine. Meat is expensive and the Ruthenians, for the most part, have never been wealthy. Because of the harsh climate and short growing season, there is little access to exotic fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, noodles and dumplings are the most common fare. When meat is served, it is typically pork. Most families have a pig, which they slaughter before Christmas and consume throughout the following year.

On another Easter visit to Tichy Potok I found myself in Maria Dodova-Basistova’s tidy kitchen learning to make peroghi. “Everyone likes peroghi,” she said.

Traditionally, women made peroghi early in the morning to take to the men working the fields and forests for their midday meal. It is a time-consuming dish to prepare, so these days they are made on special occasions.

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Tags: Carpatho-Rusyn Cuisine Central Europe