Travel is often made richer through our taste buds. So, what should a hungry traveler expect when coming to Central Europe? The region’s thick soups and stews, meaty dishes and delicate flavors may surprise visitors new to the delights of Slavic or Magyar cuisine.
Walking through the historic, cobblestone-covered districts of Central Europe’s fascinating cities will probably make you hungry. Wherever you are, be it Prague, Bratislava or Budapest, you’ll be happy to find that there are plenty of street-side snacking opportunities. Outside of Europe, Polish sausages get good press for flavor and are often served at backyard barbecues. But every country in Central Europe has its own varieties of sausages. Locals enjoy them over a pint of beer in a summer beer garden or served on a half-round of brown bread purchased from a vendor along the city’s streets. Polish and Czech sausages aren’t usually piquant, but a Guide to Budapest will be able to show you where to get fantastic, spicy, Hungarian sausages that will perk up your day.
Other area snacks include pastries and other baked goods, fried cheese sandwiches, palacsinta (filled crepes), and langos (fried dough with toppings).
Central European winters are cold and often snowy with temperatures dropping below freezing. Over time, local cultures decided combatting the weather was easier with a drop or two of slivovitz and a hearty, carb-filled meal.
Dumplings made with wheat or potato flour form a solid base for dishes from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, and Austria. Often boiled or steamed and sometimes stuffed, they’re frequently served with a hearty sauce. In Poland, pierogi are a national favorite. These filled dumplings can be savory or sweet and are most often shaped like a crescent moon.
Main courses in Central Europe often feature pork or chicken, but it’s not unusual to find venison on the menu in traditional restaurants. Fish is not as prevalent on menus in these land-locked areas, but carp, trout, perch, and other freshwater fish might be served fried, or made into a Hungarian soup.
Mains are often prepared with a side of vegetables, for example, stewed red cabbage. A salad might accompany a main course but usually wouldn’t feature as a main dish.
Famous entrees to try in Central Europe include Hungarian stuffed peppers (töltött paprika), Czech pork and dumplings (vepřo-knedlo-zelo), Slovakian dumplings with sheep-milk cheese (bryndzové halušky), and Polish meat roulade (zrazy).
Wine and Beverages
To round out a fine meal in Central Europe, don’t forget the libations. Locals are understandably proud of Hungarian and Slovakian wines, Czech and Polish beers and the whole region’s range of fruit brandies.
For wine lovers, Hungary’s Tokaj region produces sweet wine so dear to the nation’s heart that it’s mentioned in the Hungarian national anthem. The signature wine produced here is the aszú, which is topaz in color. The neighboring region in Slovakia, also called Tokaj, produces Tokajské wine, also renowned for its flavor.
If you’re more of a fan of hops and barley, the Czechs say they own the world’s best beer (this, predictably, is disputed by the Germans, Belgians, and other beer-proud nations). Most cities in this region boast a brewery or two, so visitors wanting to judge quality for themselves will have plenty of opportunity. Neighboring Poland also has a lively beer culture, and is the third-largest producer of beer in Europe. The most commonly found beer there is light Euro lager.
Desserts and Sweets
Traditional desserts in this region aren’t overly sweet, but some of the newer additions, dating from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, are sugary enough to be the perfect complement to a cup of black coffee. Many of the cakes and desserts in Central Europe are made using honey, quark, poppyseeds, or forest nuts such as walnuts or hazelnuts.
For a light sugar fix, try the sweet kind of palascinta in Hungary. For a more earthy sweetness, sample Czech and Slovak medovnik, a layered torte flavored with honey and cinnamon. To indulge in a royal dessert, seek out an Austrian or Hungarian café serving Dubos Torte, a sponge cake layered with caramel, which was designed for an exposition in 1885 and tasted by Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth.
About the Author: Karl Mannes is an expert on the city of Budapest and surrounding area. He loves Hungarian sausages but he loves Dubos Torte even more.