Why are so many herbs and spices traditionally used all along the Eastern European cuisine? Besides the geographical location, it is common in Eastern Europe to have ancestors with different nationalities like Hungarian, Slovakian, Czech, Serbian and Romanian. The nations were mixed during the history like you mix your spices. Let’s take a quick look at a typical Eastern European kitchen.
Herbs and spices
Poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum): Let me start with poppy seeds, which are the basic elements of delicious cakes, rolls and buns. The best part of Christmas Eve is when we taste our traditional poppy seed and walnut stuffed milk-loaf which is called horseshoe bread. If we have some left-over rolls or buns then we boil some milk with sugar, pour on the chopped rolls and add some poppy seeds. We mix together the ingredients in a skillet, bake for about 10 minutes in high flame. You can enjoy this flavorful crunchy dessert with vanilla sauce.
Chamomile tea and elderberry jam (Chamomila vulgaris, Sambucus canadensis): In my childhood I often caught the cold, had coughs and sneezed. In that case I had to take chamomile tea as inhalation. My mom covered our head with a towel and sat next to the steamy basin of chamomile tea. For the coughs I had a spoon of mouthwatering elderberry jam, from my other grandma’s garden.
Nettle, rose hip and lavender (Urtica dioica, Rosa canina et Lavandula angustifolia): If we wanted to clean all our body before a massive lent then we had nettle-tea which is also good for arthritis. For stomach problems we take rosehip-tea. Rosehip is a common bush in an average Hungarian and Eastern European garden. If we are exhausted we soak in a relaxing lavender-bath.
Dill (Anethum graveolens): We use it in pickles, cheese dishes, salad dressings, dips, fish dishes, vegetables, sauerkraut, soups, salads and sauces. We put some fresh dill in the traditional pickled cucumber and enjoy its freshness all along the summer season.
Garlic (Allium sativum): Garlic is one of the most popular spices in the world and is so popular all over the Eastern part of Europe as well. Bulgarians use it for delicious salads, in Romania and Hungary we add it to meatloaf, meatballs, roast meats etc. If you take garlic, it will affect your cholesterol level immediately.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana): It is a root, nearly always used fresh or pickled. We eat pickled horseradish at Easter with smoked ham and boiled stuffed egg.
Laurel (Laurus nobilis): Laurel (also known as bay leaf) is commonly used in Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania as well. We use this herb for bean, lentil and pea soup. At New Year’s Eve we have traditional thick lentil-soup with smoked ham. Lentil symbolizes the coins. We believe if we eat lentil we will have enough money all year round.
Paprika (Capsicum annuum): If you ask an average Hungarian woman about spices she will start with paprika. Paprika is the ground red pepper, some qualities are sweet and aromatic, and some types are fairly hot. Furthermore, paprika contains sizable amounts of vitamin C; this substance was first isolated from ripe paprika pods by the Hungarian chemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who later won the Nobel Prize for this revelation. We Hungarians put paprika in the famous gulyas and stew-like dishes.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): It is one of the basic soup herbs, used fresh or dried. However, dried leaves have little fragrance. For a traditional veggie soup we use the root of the parsley as well. It is also referred to as white carrot. It is a popular herb is Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.
Marjoram (Majorana hortensis): It tastes similar to oregano but milder. Eastern Europeans put marjoram in ground meats, roast meats. Marjoram makes an excellent sauce for pork.
I would rather say the following herbs and spices are Mediterranean; however in Eastern Europe these are also common as garden plants.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare): It is a native herb in Eastern Europe, especially in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Oregano is used in tomato soup and other tomato dishes mainly. Oregano is also referred as wild marjoram.
Caraway (Carum carvi): This strongly aromatic spice is cultivated in Eastern Europe. It is famous in Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): This strongly aromatic herb refers to some kinds of subtypes. It is popular as a garden herb in Baltic Countries, Czech Rep., Romania and Bulgaria. It is a main herb of wide ranges of soups.
Easy tip for gourmands: Try a traditional Eastern European cottage cheese cream, putting some caraway, paprika, pepper, mustard and a clove of garlic in a cup of sheep’s cottage cheese; mix well all the ingredients together and enjoy spreading it on a toast.