Originally created 06/02/04

Across ex-communist central Europe, a radical change in once-bland kitchens



BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Grilled salmon with strawberry sauce. Sea salt and fresh basil and thyme. Sun-ripened avocados and fine chardonnay.

Fifteen years after shaking off communism, eastern Europe is engulfed in a food revolution, with people no longer content to shovel down meat, boiled potatoes and stick-to-your-ribs-all-day dumplings.

From Bratislava to Budapest, eating habits and tastes are radically changing. It's a stark shift from 15 years ago, when classic spaghetti in Slovakia meant ketchup and shredded cheese atop limp, overcooked noodles.

"People were used to eating only pork, poultry or beef," said Vojtech Artz, a chef who co-hosted a popular TV cooking show in Slovakia, which threw off communist rule in 1989 and joined the European Union in May.

"Now there are all kinds of fish, various seafood - even such things as kangaroo meat," he said.

Just a few years ago, something as simple as an avocado caused a nationwide stir.

"People had no clue what to do with it," Artz recalled. "We once made a salad with it, and then got calls from supermarkets which said everyone was buying them."

Avocados aren't the only exotic foods that locals have had to learn to use and eat. Under communism, vegetables such as broccoli or asparagus were virtually unknown.

Today, virtually everything is available, and in quantities that would have been inconceivable during communism.

No more waiting in line to get the basics, or fresh pineapple or mandarin oranges for a special Christmas treat. These and other fruits can now be bought year-round.

Tastes are fuller and more combined.

Ethnic eateries have helped persuade people that mixing meat with fruit isn't a crazy idea. Italian restaurants have shown that pizza shouldn't be a thick yeast cake topped with vegetables and ketchup.

"As the markets have opened, people have started to learn to use freshly grounded spices: Sea salt, fresh herbs like basil, thyme," Artz said. "We did not have that before, and even if they were somewhere, people didn't know how to use them."

The older generation's spices used to fit into one small box. Nowadays, they take up cabinets or huge containers.

"I think I could not even cook the old way anymore," said Artz, who gets stopped by people on the street asking him for new recipes and tips.

In the neighboring Czech Republic, taste buds are changing at the same pace.

"When I remember how it was before the revolution, I have to say that these days it's a pleasure to cook," said Martina Gruberova, a 43-year-old housewife. "Our family likes salads a lot, and it's great what choices we have. Before we could only dream of such things."

Although most ingredients are affordable, cod is pricier than pork sirloin, and it's an out-of-reach luxury for some Slovaks, whose average monthly income is $440.

Alzbeta Bederova, a Bratislava dietitian, says people are more conscious of healthy alternatives. Rather than stuffing themselves with old favorites like schnitzel or fried cheese with mayonnaise, they're using olive oil and eating salads.

Drinks have moved from beer and cheap, mixed-variety wines to chilled chardonnay, muscatel, and trendy iced beverages like daiquiris.

Magazines are peppered with recipes, and bookstores carry dozens of titles ranging from "Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver's cookbooks to tomes on Thai food.

But the rapidly changing tastes also are bringing out a bit of nostalgia for the past.

In Hungary, some contend the food market since the end of communism has sacrificed taste on the altar of variety and availability.

"Chicken used to taste like chicken, but now it tastes like fish," complained Valeria Varnai, 68. "Quality just isn't the same."

And the choices can be dizzying for those who grew up under communism.

"Before, there was only one brand of milk, one kind of jam, two types of flour," she said. "Now I can spend 10 minutes just looking for my favorite brand among all the milk cartons."

Associated Press writers Nadia Rybarova in the Czech Republic and Pablo Gorondi in Hungary contributed to this story.