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VOICE FROM ABROAD

What Slovaks abroad crave

LAST night, my Slovak wife and I met a friend for dinner at an upscale Washington DC restaurant called Corduroy. I ate seared scallops and my wife ordered a lamb loin so tender that she could cut it with a fork. During our conversation, the friend, a self-proclaimed foodie, mentioned that she would be travelling to Central Europe shortly.

LAST night, my Slovak wife and I met a friend for dinner at an upscale Washington DC restaurant called Corduroy. I ate seared scallops and my wife ordered a lamb loin so tender that she could cut it with a fork. During our conversation, the friend, a self-proclaimed foodie, mentioned that she would be travelling to Central Europe shortly. "You're so lucky," my wife remarked with a dreamy look in her eyes. "I would trade this expensive meal in a flash for a couple of párky with real Slovak horčica."

Párky are snappy chicken/pork hotdogs and horčica is pure mustard made only from mustard seeds and ocot (vinegar), no other spices. Slovak ocot also makes a wonderful, fat free salad dressing: just mix it with paprika, salt, black pepper, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Unfortunately, American tomatoes do not compare to the luscious ones found in Slovakia, which often come from sun-drenched fields in Greece and Italy.

One of the greatest challenges I face in trying to keep my wife and Slovak friends happy in Washington DC is satisfying their Central European food desires. It is illegal to bring meat, fruit or dairy products to the United States from Europe, and, given the vigilance of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, only a fool would attempt to smuggle anything into the United States these days, including something as seemingly innocent as a Slovak klobása (sausage).

So I only bring back legal foods such as ovocný čaj (fruit tea), fidorka horká (a light cookie wafer covered in dark chocolate with hazelnut filling), študentská pečať bars (dark chocolate with raisins, peanuts, and hazelnuts), sáčková polievka (dehydrated soup in a bag), and perník (chocolate covered ginger bread with a plum filling).

In terms of drinks, many Slovaks in DC crave non-alcoholic specialties as much as creamy Slovak beer, herbal liquors or slivovica (plum brandy). They greatly miss Kofola, which tastes like Jagermeister flavoured Coca Cola, as well as mildly carbonated mineral waters such as Budiš. My mother-in-law makes homemade syrups from raspberries or red currants as flavouring for mineral water. We pay close to two dollars a bottle for a similar product in the US called Glaceau Water.

Finding substitutes in America to common Slovak delicacies demands innovation and some detective work, but with luck, many cravings can be satisfied in cities such as Washington or New York, which have large European populations.

Yearning for Slovak kyslá kapusta (sour cabbage/sauerkraut), my wife once dragged me to Whole Foods, a gourmet grocery store chain found throughout the United States. She planned to buy some cabbages, cut them up, and ferment them in the Slovak fashion. We found the cabbages, but my wife ended up walking out of the store in disgust - simple cabbages that cost only a few crowns in Slovakia were selling for $5 a head here. Instead we bought some American sauerkraut, but were disappointed. American sauerkraut is soggy and very sour; Slovak kyslá kapusta, by contrast, is sweet, crunchy, and very fresh tasting, especially when mixed with caraway seeds.

Whole Foods sells a smoked mozzarella that slightly resembles Slovak Koliba cheese. Our friend Maria likes Albanian string cheese, which is made in New Jersey and distributed to many US health food stores. She feels it tastes a bit like un-smoked korbáčiky, a specialty of the Liptov region of Slovakia.

The best substitute for Slovak mlieko (milk) is Organic Valley Milk, a product of New York farmer David Hardy's grass-fed, free-range cows. For klobása, we order Hungarian style sausages made in the US and distributed by Balkan Pearls (http://balkanbuy.com/shop/), an Internet store specializing in Eastern European food. Balkan Pearls also sells a Croatian version of Kofola called Cockta, kyslá kapusta, a Bosnian version of párky made in the US, and a popular universal seasoning called Vegeta.

Bryndzové halušky, the national dish of Slovakia, is almost impossible to make in the United States. First, American flour and potatoes make atrocious, tasteless dumplings. Second, substitute bryndza cheese made with Bulgarian style feta mixed with milk and a little salt never lives up to the real thing. The end result of all this effort is halušky that one would not even feed to a dog in Slovakia, and forget about Slovak slanina (bacon), nothing like it exists here.

Fortunately, Washington's current bread craze has simplified our task of finding a Slovak chlieb substitute. Firehook bakery's Swiss Farmer loaf bears some resemblance to common Slovak bread. For those willing to travel outside of the city, the Heidelberg bakery in Arlington Virginia (http://www.heidelbergbakery.com) makes bread from flour imported from Germany. This establishment also bakes homemade German cakes and tarts made primarily with European ingredients.

Another excellent shop for Central Europeans is the German Deli in downtown Washington. Their Mozart Torte rivals that found in Vienna. For those looking for a schnitzel or plate of European potato salad, Café Mozart (www.cafemozartgermandeli.com), the restaurant associated with the deli, will satisfy even the most discriminating European palates.

But there is no substitute for returning to Slovakia to experience real Slovak food cooked by a real Slovak grandmother.

However, with a little innovation most Slovaks can find adequate substitutes in America's more cosmopolitan cities. Internet stores and specialty restaurants, grocers, and bakeries in places like Washington, New York, Boston, and San Francisco make America infinitely more inhabitable for Europeans than in times past.

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