Beyond sauerkraut: the renaissance of Eastern European cuisine

Ditch images of dense dumplings and swap the stodge for something much more refined, because, we find, Eastern European cuisine is having its moment

Armenian pickles

"I'm writing an article about how Eastern European food is having a resurgence in Britain, now that people are starting to realise it isn't all stodge and sauerkraut." My friends waited for the punchline. None came. "But it is," they all eventually exclaimed, launching into grim tales of the hefty dumplings atop grey stews of indeterminate meat and glistening lumps of fat they experienced while interRailing, "I've been there!" And that, as far as they were concerned, was the end of it.

Had the conversation not then moved on, I would have pointed out the following signs of change: one of the most talked about cookbooks of 2015 was Mamushka by Olia Hercules, a Ukrainian chef and food writer who's been making heads turn and mouths water among food lovers across Britain; one of the favourites for Time Out's much coveted Love London awards was the Eastern and Central European restaurant and bar Baltic; pickling expert Nick Vadasz, whose family emigrated from Hungary in the 1950s, has a fistful of Great Taste Awards; head north to Camden Market around lunchtime, and the queue for Pierogi, a stall sizzling with smoked sausages and Polish dumplings, will be 20 deep – Rafael, its Polish proprietor, is a market stalwart. "I've been here since 2008," he says. "It used to be that people didn't know what to ask for, what we were selling. Now they even order using the Polish names."

Pierogi, the eponymous dumpling, is a case in point. Small, thin, with frilled edges and stuffed with a variety of fillings, it's a far cry from the suet-laden cannonball you might associate with the idea of dumplings.

"It's more like a gyoza, really," a British regular remarks, ordering pierogi z kapusta i grzybami – pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut and wild forest mushrooms – with familiar ease. "People think that Polish food is all heavy and fattening. Some is," shrugs Rafael unapologetically, "We're a cold, northern country – we'll never be Lebanon or Turkey. But it doesn't have to be, and something like dumplings vary according to the fillings and which country they are from."

One of the most fundamental mistakes people make is to view Eastern European countries as a single entity

One of the most fundamental mistakes people make is to either consciously or subconsciously view Eastern European countries as a single entity – a view which stems from decades of being hidden behind the Iron Curtain. This has led to various assumptions about its cuisine.

We forget that famously harsh winters are followed, in the southern counties at least, by scorching summers full to bursting with ripe fruit and vegetables of all varieties. We underestimate the differences that lay between the cities, where most lived in communal flats and relied on the meager offerings of shops, and the countryside, where people like Hercules's grandmother had kept livestock for milk and grew fresh cucumbers, ruby red tomatoes, fennel and "watermelons weighing up to 28 kg, which we'd pickle or reduce into a sugary syrup, like molasses," she recalls.

Coming to England at the age of 18, she was embarrassed by the poor reputation her country's food had garnered. "I thought, if you could just come to my grandmother's, you'd see it so differently. In the end a group of my friends came and visited, and they were totally blown away."

Nevertheless, Hercules concedes some of our assumptions are well-founded. "We produced some very bad things in the time of the USSR," she tells me. "They suppressed the individuality of a country and there was little fresh produce widely available, particularly in restaurants."

If indeed such a word can be used to describe the 1984-style canteens that defined the Soviet era. Even as recently as the 1990s, there has been a latent fear of communism "beating out enterprise and creativity," recalls Jan Woroniecki, executive chef of Eastern European restaurants Baltic and Ognisko. "The cuisine became stunted and static. Food is like anything – part tradition, part fashion, it has to adapt to the demands of the day to endure and evolve."

Instead, the region's cuisine was left in the hands of the canteens making food en masse, and the grandmothers at home keeping traditions alive. Techniques such as fermenting, baking and cheesemaking missed a whole generation during the time of Soviet rule.

"Most customers I talk to tell the same story," explains Nick Vadasz of Vadasz Deli, "that during the communist era, the women who would have made sauerkraut and suchlike at home went out to work, and had to buy it instead. Everything became very generic for the sake of expediency.

"Yet the stuff sold in the big jars in shops is pasteurized and filled with sodium. It isn't the same as homemade versions, which are made to unique recipes from local produce, and continue to ferment after jarring."

When Vadasz first set up in Borough and Brockley markets back in 2011, he doubted Eastern Europeans would buy from him. "I thought I could never compete with the Polish and Lithuanian delis when it comes to price," he modestly explains. He needn't have worried. When word got out that a Hungarian man in Brockley was making pickles and sauerkraut from scratch, "like their grandmother would have done", customers came in their droves.

"They don't come to me just because they want sauerkraut. They come because they want a taste of home and they don't know how to make it." Only recently, among young foodies here and elsewhere in Europe, has the idea of making food from scratch and rediscovering the ways of your grandparents come back into vogue.

I try his new greens sours – made according to his grandmother's recipe; sharp, satisfyingly astringent, and sour like nothing I've ever tasted – it's nice, but I can't help pulling a face, and Vadasz grins. "We don't really have the sour taste in our head here in the UK. Everything has to be sweet – and if it's sour you eat it when you are pregnant, or once a year with some cheese. But that sour thing is in the culture of those countries, and in the diet from a very young age."

It's one of the reasons he believes this country, historically speaking, has found the cuisine difficult to embrace fully. Yet with continuous migration and the assimilation of those Eastern Europeans who arrived in the early noughties, this attitude is starting to change. It's been more than a decade since Poland, Lithuania and Hungary joined the EU: early immigrants now speak English, have British friends and colleagues, and have children who are integrating into the community.

Our food is about having good produce, and needing to store it for winter

"In East London, where I'm from, you have young women from those countries having children, mixing with other women in their PCT groups and nurseries, and sharing food and ideas from their respective cultures," Vadasz explains. Even if they're not pregnant (and pickle-craving pregnant women do form an extraordinarily large part of his customer base, I'm told), young British women are increasingly interested in pickling and fermentation, thanks to their links to 'good bacteria' and the 'clean-eating' trend.

The irony of 'clean eating' being associated with a cuisine that has historically been better known for its potatoes and pork fat is not lost on me – not least because, as both Vadasz and Hercules are at pains to explain, health doesn't traditionally come into it. "Our food is about having good produce, and needing to store it for winter. We don't preserve things for the health benefits involved," says Hercules.

In a land of long winters, during which little grows, pickling and potting the summer glut of fruit and vegetables was just what you did. "It was hammered into us from a young age," Hercules continues. She chuckles at the idea of the clean-eating brigade giving forth on ferments like they're a new thing. "They are steeped in tradition. When ferments and broths suddenly became fashionable, I remember thinking, 'Hang on a second – I grew up on that stuff.'" Her own take on food, outlined in Mamushka and in her regular contributions to The Guardian's 'Cook' section, could not be further-removed.

Inspired by her grandmother and her travels round Ukraine and beyond, it is, she tells me, "real food, that you can stick your face in, to be made at home." Vibrant, grainy salads, lemony lamb marinades and cool, pink beetroot soups abound in a book whose personal style and luscious imagery bears the hallmark of her many months spent working under Yotam Ottolenghi. It does for Ukrainian food what he did for Middle Eastern: it "mixes it up a bit; makes it relevant. Don't get me wrong, traditions are great – but to make them work here, we need to assimilate – to accommodate the ingredients and the tastes of elsewhere in the world."

Thus Mamushka, which features not just the food of Hercules's birthplace but of the various neighboring countries covered by her sprawling Eurasian family, embraces local produce, Middle Eastern spices, Thai herbs and other influences. She adapts her recipes to make them lighter, and accommodates British seasonality.

Notably, there are only two potato dishes in the whole book – and she welcomes creativity: "When I was shooting a fennel and tomato relish for the book, the publisher tried it and said it would be a great tomato sauce for burgers – and then the photographer said, 'Oh my god, imagine this with oysters.' I loved that! Taking food out of context, putting something different with it – that's how things develop."

The variety of the cuisine, brought to life so vividly in Mamushka, is another reason for its resurgence in London. "As people here have come to understand that there is a difference between, say, Greek and Cypriot food, so they are starting to appreciate the variety within Eastern European cuisines," explains Woroniecki. A simple glance at the last five years of British food shows that our tastebuds have become far more eager to accommodate flavours we would previously have dismissed simply as 'foreign'.

Vibrant, grainy salads, lemony lamb marinades and cool, pink beetroot soups abound in Mamushka

At the same time, he continues, Eastern European chefs have made more of an effort to assimilate: "Of course they conformed to the stereotype when they first arrived here," he argues. The migrants wanted comfort food." A Pole or Hungarian, miles away from home in a foreign city, he explains, hankered for stew and potatoes "in the same way that a Brit might crave fish and chips when living in Moscow. That doesn't mean it is representative of the cuisine."

He cites his own experience, serving the food of the Balkan states at a time when fine dining and Balkan food seemed polar opposites. "In 2000, when we first set up, Baltic was pretty much at the forefront of trying to modernise Eastern European cuisine. People were surprised by the quality of food on offer, and while at first we really tried to bridge the gap between western and eastern flavours, we were soon able to introduce more interesting dishes."

Now, he finds customers demanding authenticity in the same way as with Asian food: tripe, ancient grains and jellied meats seem like plausible menu items; clear, nourishing soups with fluffy, yeasty doughballs a point of genuine interest. If the grey stew of yesteryear is the equivalent of a cheap tikka masala in the 1990s, then Baltic's sautéed guinea fowl with butternut squash, walnuts, saffron and pomegranate is today's chole bhatura from Dishoom.

"People understand it more," Woroniecki muses. "They understand the merits. I think people like Jeremy and Chris Corbin, behind the Wolseley, Delauney and Fischer's, have helped." After all, the food of Mittleurope, as the Corbins' restaurants represent, is really like entry-level Eastern European cuisine.

"There is so much crossover. Poland has been part of Germany, part of Austria, part of Russia – for the last 100 years or more the borders of these countries have been so fluid and people have travelled extensively." Herring, smoked sausages, pickles and goulash: you'll find them all at Fischers and the Wolseley – and if you like that, you'll love the food of Woroniecki and co.

The truth is, you've probably already had a taste of Eastern Europe even without having known it: a pickle atop a hot dog, or a gherkin alongside a salt-beef sandwich. "Quality American street-food restaurants are a big market for me," Nick Vadasz explains. "Two of my main restaurant customers are Hawksmoor and BrewDog. Americans always say 'this is a proper dill pickle' when they try mine at the stall," he grins.

Given the preponderance of stalls selling smoked Polish sausages, meanwhile, you could quite easily have eaten Polish at one of London's many street-food markets: Pierogi in Camden Market is joined by Polish Kitchen in Bloomsbury Square and various temporary pop-ups such as Topoloski in Waterloo.

Hercules lets on that she is thinking of trialling a bakery that serves sourdough bread made with a natural yeast from the Ukraine, alongside a kitchen dishing up nourishing, tantalising bowls of soup you can "cup your hands around and breathe in".

Olia Hercules

She, like most Eastern European foodies I speak to, feels that the restaurant scene has some catching up to do as far as their cuisine is concerned. Beyond Baltic and Ognisko, genuinely innovative eateries serving that kind of grub are few and far between. Vadasz rates the Rosemary Tree, a recent opening in New Cross Gate: "It's an organic Hungarian café-restaurant, run by young, hip foodies. It's good, actually." Little Georgia in Hackney is popular, and another excellent entry-level benchmark for the less adventurous eater. Yet for Hercules and Woroniecki, this place, while lovely, is still not quite "the real deal".

"We still have really far to go," Hercules continues. "I really hope this moment carries on and develops into something bigger – because it has a place here. We need more restaurants to open that cater to people other than resident Eastern Europeans," Woroniecki acknowledges. The key is quality produce: the defining trait of this cuisine, which, at heart, he says, is "good, country cooking, dependent on farmland and seasonality."

"You can't get away with poor ingredients in Eastern European cooking in the same way you can with some other cuisines," Hercules agrees. "You can't mask it. You have to have good ingredients, and you have to put effort in. We've struggled in Ukraine, and it's food with soul, heart and energy."

Between them, they list the flavours and ingredients that are the hallmark of their region's rich cornucopia: piquant marjoram; syrupy watermelon; sweet, earthy beetroot; billowing flatbreads stuffed with eggs and herbs; hot paprika; the use of cherries and plums to zest up stews; kefir and curds. It's a bounty of which we have had just the merest mouthful.

Prejudices run deep – yet, as Rafael passionately predicts, "once you get it, you'll go crazy for it". Forget InterRailing – grab a tube map, a copy of Mamushka and your nearest Eastern European friend. You've half a continent on your doorstep to re-explore. ■