What has become natural to me and to my family, however, seems to be a foreign concept to many who populate the countless food-focused groups on social media. And believe me, there are plenty of those around. 

I have been a member of many of these groups, due to my diverse culinary interests: Croatian Recipes, Istrian Cooking, Traditional Hungarian Food, Danube Swabian Culinary Traditions, just to name a few. And let me tell you: It has been an exciting ride! Then nothing – well, maybe except for politics – seems to be able to upset people and wind them up in such an extreme way as food does. Especially when it comes to so-called national dishes. 

Let me provide two examples. 

1. What is a National Dish? 

One of the most heated – and also most entertaining – exchanges I have recently read began as a young member of a Croatian recipe group living in the United States asked what typical Croatian meal she should prepare for her American boyfriend. One of the first suggestions was sarma (sour cabbage rolls, popular in several countries including Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Serbia). The first attack came right away: Sarma is not Croatian at all! In no way does it represent Croatian cuisine! It is in reality – and this is particularly bad, akin to high treason in these circles – a Serbian dish! The next suggestion, čevapčići (small sticks of grilled ground meat, comparable in size to fish fingers), was similarly shut down in no time with the argument that it was an Ottoman Turkish import to Croatia. To which one of the discussants remarked, “There isn’t a dish in Europe that has not been influenced by the Ottomans.” From there, the online debate escalated at an unexpected speed, with comments quickly appearing claiming Bosnia and Hercegovina to be part of Croatia. But now I diverge. 

The storm was somewhat quieted down by a third suggestion: She should bake “the traditional Croatian dessert” mađarica. Spoiler alert: Mađarica means Hungarian woman, which makes this multi-layered chocolate-dominated cake immediately suspect. This problem was quickly pointed out by several members, who then just as quickly assured one another that this was just a name and in no way indicative of the dessert’s actual origins. This seemed to be enough to convince most of the doubters and group members began asking for a recipe in large numbers. 

The comments that followed confirmed the banality of the discussion around trying to define what truly a Croatian dish is and what isn’t. While some suggested pastičada, štrukli and fritule (foods typical for the coastal regions), others voted for goulash (clearly another Hungarian intruder) or stuffed peppers – food that is mostly eaten in continental Croatia. The vast regional differences in this relatively small country became apparent. Because let’s face it: Is it even remotely possible to identify just one dish as a national dish shared by everyone living in Croatia, a country reaching from the Adriatic coastline with strong Venetian influences to the plains of Slavonia and to the Danube, influenced primarily by Austro-Hungarian cuisine? And let’s not forget some of the other impulses shaping culinary traditions: Ottoman, Greek and yes, even Serbian. 

As you may suspect, my answer to this question would be “no”. It is not possible to pick just one dish that would be representative of the amalgamation of traditions and experiences that characterizes modern-day Croatia. That is why I found the comment by the seemingly only laid-back member of the group so brilliant. She wrote, “Cook whatever you like, just make sure to season it with Vegeta.” Which summed up my own thoughts on this topic perfectly. 

2. Wars around Food Names 

The regional and sub-regional diversity becomes even more apparent when we come to the names of dishes. Not only recipes but also names differ from place to place – a fact that culinary die-hards often conveniently overlook or try to ignore. Instead, they try to convince everyone that only one name – the one they know or grew up with – is the proper one that should be used. This need for uniforming names and recipes may be an outcome of the uniforming cultural policies we have been observing in many of the Southeast European countries in recent years, which distinguish themselves through being increasingly less tolerant of diversity of any kind. 

As already mentioned, I have rarely experienced people trying to prove their points so fervently as when it comes to food, and this is particularly true for defending food names. But why do they – Why do we? – care so much? 

Stuffed peppers, one of the contested dishes © Angela Ilić 

Food names have to do not only with identifying oneself with a particular national/regional/local/familial tradition but also with owning something. Thus, it can be very disconcerting to find out that one’s own culinary culture may not be the sole “owner” of certain dishes. So, discussions such as “Is this potica?” “Or is this bejgli?” “Orahnjača?” “Nussrolle?” “Walnut roll?” can quickly get out of hand because people may feel attacked in their own cultural identity. And then, accusations of falsifying or stealing dishes and even falsifying history may start flying around. 

In the interest of self-disclosure, I must confess that this is one area I also struggle with at times. What I call “real goulash” – gulyásleves, a type of soup with endless variations – is traditionally prepared in my native Hungary. What the South Slavs call gulaš is something completely different: It is a thick stew, which I would never call gulyás but which I nonetheless enjoy eating. And although I still flinch at times when I hear the name gulaš, I am quite cool with others referring to this stew that way. One thing I would never do, however, is to claim that the way I prepare goulash is the only proper way or that my recipe is the best. I do not consider myself to be a Guardian of Goulash by any means. 

Instead of bringing us together, the names of dishes can separate us from one another and be employed to build walls between certain cultures and traditions. I come back to my already featured Croatian cooking group to illustrate this point. There are people from all different regions of Croatia and from the diaspora represented among its members. And yet, the level of tolerance exhibited by certain members for regional dishes and food names that may not fit the current politically correct norms in Croatia, seems to be quite low. Therefore, it is not surprising to come across comments that are immediately dismissive of anything that may sound even remotely Slovenian, although the dialect of the border region Hrvatsko Zagorje sounds closer to Slovenian than to standard Croatian, and the regional dishes show Slovenian, Austrian and Hungarian influences. Even worse are names that may be perceived as Serbian or transmitted from other languages by Serbian. The comment, “Čorba nije hrvatski naziv za jelo / Čorba is not a Croatian name for food,” reveals this type of prejudice and is technically correct, in that čorba, originally an Arabic word, was brough to the Balkan Peninsula by the Ottoman Turks and is used much more frequently in Serbia than in Croatia today. However, this word – and similar words of Arabic or Ottoman Turkish origin – are also used by some Croats, believe it or not. Just as numerous German words that describe ingredients and various dishes are still widespread in certain parts of Croatia – and indeed, in the entire Southeast European region. 

To sum up, I strongly discourage you, dear reader, from becoming or acting like a Guardian of Goulash – or as a guardian of any particular dish – and encourage you instead to leave your prejudices behind and dive into the incredibly diverse culinary landscape this part of Europe has to offer. And with that in mind: Enjoy your meal! Guten Appetit! Jó étvágyat! Dobar tek! Prijatno/Пријатно! Uživajte v obroku! Poftă bună! Смачного! 

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