These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

When in Slovakia...

Slovaks tend to eat the day's main meal at around noon, although in cities (or town hotels) it's easy to find dinner.

A proper Slovak meal opens with a soup (polievka), although a purist might claim that meals actually opens with a shot of slivovica (plum brandy). Kapustnica (cabbage soup) is probably the Slovak soup par excellence. Enriched with smoked pork and often with mushrooms and cream (and sometimes plums), this is a Christmas-time specialty which is found on menus year-round. Equally ubiquitous is fazuľová polievka, a rich, flavourful bean soup that is also often enlivened with smoked pork. This is one to order on a cold night.

But the soup I became addicted to while travelling through Slovakia in winter was cesnaková polievka, or garlic soup. It isn't found on all menus, but it appears reliably in the northern mountain regions. There are two dominant styles of Slovak garlic soup. The first is similar to the Spanish version: a hearty chicken broth, heavily spiked with garlic, enriched with melted cheese and croutons (or, less commonly, an egg). The other version, which sometimes comes in a small, hollowed-out bread loaf (bosniak), is a cream-based garlic infusion garnished with parsley. For garlic lovers, both are sublime.

Finally, for offal fanciers, there's držková polievka - pieces of tripe in a spicy broth.

For salads (šaláty), the best bet is often šalát z červenej kapusty (red cabbage salad). Because of cabbage's ubiquity in all seasons, you can be almost sure of its freshness. Dishes such as hlávkový šalát s paradajkami (lettuce salad with tomatoes) too often deliver limp lettuce and flavourless tomatoes, especially in winter.

Slovak cooking is so robust that appetizers (predjedlá) are rarely necessary. But for the extra-peckish, there's šunková rolka s chrenovou penou, a slice of ham rolled around horseradish cream. Bryndza, the delicious fresh sheep cheese, appears on some appetizer menus as a simple bread (chlieb) spread.

For main dishes (hlavné jedlá), the best choice is probably to go for one of the regional specialties. Vienna's famous schnitzel is known here as rezeň. It consists of meat, sometimes veal but typically pork, flattened, coated with egg and breadcrumbs, and fried. When it's done with care, rezeň is delicious.

From Hungary, Slovakia inherited goulash (guláš), a hearty stew with meat (pork, beef, or both) and potatoes napped in a tomato-based sauce spiked with onions, paprika, and garlic. This is one of the great dishes of Central Europe.

The dish that most defines Slovak cuisine though is probably bryndzové halušky, which defies direct translation. A proper bryndzové halušky consists of tender potato dumplings topped with bryndza (the wonderful fresh sheep's cheese), small cubes of fried bacon, and bacon fat. To add a bit of zing, try halušky s kapustou, which adds sauerkraut (kyslá kapusta) to the brydzové halušky mix - although it does, unfortunately, omit the bryndza. On an ice-cold Slovak winter night, there's nothing quite like a well-made halušky.

For another take on the potato/bacon/bryndza theme, try bryndzové pirohy. This dish is a kind of Slovak ravioli. Potato-based pasta dough is rolled out thin, cut into smallish pieces and then stuffed with a mixture of more potatoes and bryndza. The little packets are then boiled till tender and then topped with sour cream and chunks of bacon. This is another remarkably satisfying dish.

A note on what to drink with halušky is in order. To someone coming from Western Europe or the United States, beer might seem the logical accompaniment. I strongly advise against it. Halušky is an extremely starchy dish; combiniing it with a barley-based beverage is overkill. Wine cuts through the fat of the bacon, but it can overwhelm the subtle flavours of halušky a bit.

The answer, interestingly, is acidofilné mlieko. Literally "sour milk," acidofilné mlieko is, essentially, yoghurt with a consistency that's thin enough to drink. This is what Slovaks traditionally serve with halušky - and it works. Its sour flavour finds a nice echo in the bryndza, and it isn't too filling.

Slovak main dishes tend to be heavily based on meat (mäso). Pork (bravčové) typically leads the way. It comes in chops (karé or rezy), ribs (rebierko), or steak (roštenka). Any of these can be stuffed with ham (šunka) and or cheese (syr). Some restaurants feature a delicacy called bravčové koleno, or knee of pork. Don't be put off. This large cut, usually slow-braised, is delicious.

Poultry, typically chicken (kurča), comes fried (vyprážané), skewered and grilled (na špíze), or baked (pečené). Turkey (morka) has become increasingly popular. One common - and quite filling - preparation is fried turkey breast stuffed with ham and cheese (vyprážané morčacie prsia plnené syrom a šunkou). It can also be shredded and served in a spicy sauce (morčacie soté).

Beef (hovädzie) appears on many menus, at prices significantly higher than pork or poultry. Visitors should know that there have been recent cases of mad cow disease in Slovakia. Sirloin with fried onions (viedenská roštenka) is a common dish, as is beefsoté, slices of beef sautéed with sour cream.

Seafood appears on menus; unless you're eating at a very high-quality (and expensive) restaurant, it's best to stick with the freshwater fish such as carp (kapor) and trout (pstruh). But even these fish tend to be pretty expensive. Menus usually list a base price for 150 grams, plus an additional amount for every 10 grams that exceeds the base. The final amount is unpredictable, as it's based on the raw piece of fish chosen by the chef.

Carp, a traditional Christmas Eve dish throughout the Slav world, can be simply fried (vyprážaný), baked (na rošte), or served with nuts (s orechami), garlic (s cesnakom), or coated in batter and fried (na masle).

Once you've chosen a main course, you'll be expected to choose a side dish (príloha), usually potatoes (zemiaky) or rice (ryža). Slovak restaurants charge extra for side dishes, and waiters are bewildered when foreigners choose not to order one. But the Slovak kitchen has a nice way with potatoes, so it's usually worth ordering a side. Potatoes come mashed (zemiaková kaša), baked (zapekané zemiaky), cubed and fried (opekané zemiaky), and boiled (varené zemiaky). In better restaurants, potato croquettes (zemiakové krokety) are a great bet. When they're good, they're light and fluffy; when they're bad, they're leaden. French fries (hranolky) are ubiquitous.

The star of dessert (dezert) menus is almost always the crepes (palacinky). The most simple and awesome preparation is palacinky s čokoládou - crepes in chocolate sauce. They can also come stuffed with jam (s džemom) or a ricotta-like farmer's cheese (s tvarohom). Noodles (rezance), sweetened and dressed up with poppy seeds and melted butter, makes a unique dessert.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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