Christmas shopping for food, not presents

FOOD is an essential part of Christmas in Slovakia, and how to shop for it can be just as important as how to prepare it.

Get shopping early on Christmas!
photo: ČTK/AP

FOOD is an essential part of Christmas in Slovakia, and how to shop for it can be just as important as how to prepare it.

First of all, if you're planning to shop at a supermarket, get there early, or you may find no carts or baskets left, and have to wait for someone finishing to hand you theirs.

But not so fast! Common courtesy says any elderly shopper waiting near you, no matter when they arrived, should always be offered that basket or cart first. It's survival of the speediest after that.

With your basket now in hand, you might want to start in the múka/cukor (flour/sugar) aisle, where you can find ingredients to impress everyone with a koláč (cake) or sušienky (cookies) this Christmas. Note the different kinds of flour you'll see there: hladká, the finest, is for making dense cake or bread, or thickening soup; polohrubá is for light foods, like pancakes; and hrubá can be mixed with polohrubá, or used by itself in fruit pies.

Next, go in search of koreniny (spices). I recommend reading this part carefully if you don't want to end up the way I did my first six months here - standing in supermarket aisles sniffing spice packets.

Baking the delicious Christmas treat medovník (honey cake) requires perníkové korenie, a combination of koriander (coriander), aníz (anise) and muškátový orech (nutmeg). Other common spices you might generally need are čierne korenie (black pepper), bazalka (basil), cesnak (garlic) and čili (chili).

Garlic actually plays a very important role in most Christmas dinners. Many families begin the meal by eating oblátky (wafers) or chlieb (bread) scraped with garlic and drizzled in med (honey). Some even touch a dab of honey onto their forehead.

Writing about Christmas sweets reminds me of pepermint (peppermint), a holiday staple in North America that, sadly, is uniformly disliked here, so those candy canes you found are probably cherry. And eggnog is pretty much unknown, except as eggnog latte in one chain of coffee houses, so plan instead for homemade varené víno (mulled wine), a traditional Christmas drink that mixes white or red wine with škorica (cinnamon), klinček (cloves) and sugar.

Now you're ready to move on to the meat and cheese counter. These items are always measured in grams, so say desať deka (ten decikilograms) if you want one hundred grams of šunka (ham), or dvadsať deka for two hundred, etc.

Vegetables, which you need for zemiakový šalat (potato salad), a common side dish at Christmas, or kapustnica (sour cabbage soup), must also be weighed, or there'll be trouble when you reach the cashier.

Less common vegetables you might need are jarná cibuľka (scallion), šošovica (lentil) and pór (leek). Beware of zeler (celery)! We eat the stalk in the US, but Slovaks eat the root and the leaves.

Your last stop should be to pick up the main course: freshwater fish. The traditional Christmas choice is kapor (carp), which is kept live in most grocery fish sections, or in water tanks outside the store. Shoppers line up to choose which fish they want, then have it bashed over the head with a hammer, or bring it home to swim in the bathtub until dinner. You can guess which choice the family children usually prefer.

But not everyone chooses to have carp for Christmas. Some like losos (salmon) or pstruh (trout), or abandon fish all together and go for kuracie v cestíčku (boneless fried chicken).

Now, with your cart finally full, make your way to the cash register. In all likelihood, the lines will take you a while, so occupy yourself by checking whether any nearby signs say "terminál mimo prevádzky" (card reader out of order) or "platba len v hotovosti" (cash only).

Once you're at the front, be warned that some cashiers have been known to give customers a hard time about how many plastic bags they use. No matter if you're buying truckloads of stuff, some cashiers might try to hand you just two bags. Try being polite at first by requesting ešte tašky, prosím (more bags, please). If they argue with you about it, the best tactic is to stand your ground, or scare them by asking to speak to a manažérka (manager).

Foreign Affairs is a regular column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of life in Slovakia. Please send suggestions or comments to

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