When people consider the food from Eastern Europe, they usually imagine the stick-to-your-ribs foods that their—or someone else’s—grandmother used to make. Think meaty stews, loads of potatoes, and second helpings. But as our views of what’s “healthy” change given the evolving information we have about how our bodies work and what foods are optimal for them, we may want to take another look into the healthiness of the foods of Eastern Europe.
Of course, any article looking at whether Eastern European foods are healthy will have to generalize a bit. The countries of Eastern Europe all have their own cuisines, and while they have influenced each other over the course of centuries and bear some similarities, climate and geography play a large part in what the people of Eastern and East Central Europe have traditionally eaten. However, if you’re wondering how healthy the foods of Eastern Europe are, consider the following elements of many Eastern European cuisines:
Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, and that ubiquitous Eastern European vegetable, cabbage. Cruciferous vegetables most notably protect against cancer due to their phytonutrient content and anti-inflammatory properties, but they also contain folate (a form of vitamin B), important for healthy cells, and vitamin C.
Healthy Eastern European Foods with Cruciferous Vegetables
- Cabbage Rolls—Cabbage rolls are a favorite throughout Eastern Europe, and many families have their own recipes for this warming, filling dish. Cabbage rolls typically contain pork, rice, and tomato sauce, but variations of this favorite meal exist—or you can use substitutes depending upon your preferences.
- Fillings for Dumplings—Cabbage is often used as a filling for dumplings such as pierogi.
- Cabbage Soup—shchi is what Russians call a filling cabbage soup, perfect for a cold day for lunch or as a starter.
Beets, for some reason, are on many people’s lists of foods they won’t touch. But beets are a sweet, tender root vegetable that packs a generous nutritious punch. They’re one of those foods that fit into the idea of eating the “rainbow”—their deep purplish-red color indicates the presence of antioxidants. Their high fiber content makes them good for digestion, while zinc, copper, and vitamins A and C improve the body’s ability to fight off cold and flu.
Healthy Eastern European Foods with Beets
- Lithuanian Cold Pink Soup—The quintessential Lithuanian summer soup contains beets, giving it a pretty pink color.
- Borscht—Beet soup is a beautiful way to warm up on a winter’s day, full of vegetables and meat.
- Beet Salads—Cooked beets make a lovely addition to salads, where they add a touch of sweetness and burst of color.
Onions and Garlic
Onions and garlic both belong to the allium family of plants, renowned for their cancer-fighting properties. Furthermore, who hasn’t been recommended to eat garlic to ward off common ailments such as colds and the seasonal flu? And indeed—some Eastern European cultures have used garlic for protection, most notably against vampires, such as in Romania (Why Romanians Are Obsessed with Garlic from BBC Travel).
Healthy Eastern European Foods with Onions and Garlic
- Herrings and Onions—This basic, healthy dish is often served with a side of potatoes—but who can deny the health benefits of fish sprinkled with onions? Soup versions of this combination of ingredients can also be tasted!
- Garlic and Fava Beans—Though garlic can feature as a seasoning in almost any dish—soups, dips, and main dishes included, consider a simple garlic and fava bean dish with carrots and sour cream, a combination of flavors so simple and delicious, it’s ridiculous!
In a time when functional and holistic health doctors recommend improving gut health and the health of the microbiome, fermented foods are having their moment. And guess what? Eastern Europeans love their fermented foods, from fermented dairy to vegetables.
Fermented Food Options from Eastern Europe
- Pickled Vegetables—Eastern Europeans have long pickled vegetables, which keeps them fresh and crisp even through long winters. While pickled cucumbers with dill are a favorite, pickled beets, onions, and even eggplants feature in the Eastern European diet.
- Kefir (and other fermented dairy)—Cultures of Eastern Europe have known about kefir long before it became a modern health food. This fermented dairy product is a lighter version of its cousin, yogurt, and while it can be purchased from supermarkets, it’s also possible to purchase kefir starter grains to make this slightly sour dairy drink at home.
- Sauerkraut—Love it or hate it, sauerkraut is a favorite in this part of the world. Sometimes flavored with caraway, it serves as the perfect side dish to pork and serves up all the benefits of cabbage and the healthy bacteria involved in the fermentation process.
Unfortunately, much of the Western world has moved away from eating organ meats, but organ meats supply significant nutrition, including the B group of vitamins, iron, selenium, and vitamins A, D, E, and K. Tongue, liver, kidneys, hearts, and other parts of animals are a part of classic Eastern European cuisine—although, admittedly, these cultures have generally moved away from eating organ meats, too. Gelatin and bone marrow provide collagen and glucosamine for healthy joints—and if you’ve never tried a good pig’s ear or pig’s foot, you’re missing out (no, really!).
Healthy Eastern European Dishes Made with Organ Meats
- Pate—A good pate spread on a thick piece of homemade bread makes for a rich appetizer. Made from chicken or calf’s liver, it uses a part of the animal that often gets overlooked.
- Pork Feet—Pork feet can be purchased cured, but it’s also possible to pair cooked pig’s feet with sauerkraut or bacon for a delicious collagen-delivering meal.
Locally Sourced and Seasonal Products
Some of the healthiest foods from Eastern Europe are locally sourced, seasonal products that are particular to the region.
- Sea Buckthorn—Sea buckthorn is a plant that grows in the Baltics and elsewhere and is associated with plentiful health properties and is used in food, as a tea, and in cosmetic products. Packed with vitamins and minerals and other healthy compounds, people who use and love sea buckthorn swear by its ability to improve wellness.
- Honey—Honey made by bees using local trees and flowers as their source material are flavorful, have antibacterial qualities, and retain their unique aroma.
- Nuts and Seeds (pine nuts, flaxseeds, hazelnuts, walnuts)—Nuts and seeds, with their good fats, fibers, and crunchy texture add a delicious dash of health benefits to salads, as a part of breakfast, or as a snack. Flaxseed and buckwheat are staple seeds in regional diets, and fresh nuts, collected from the forest floor, can be purchased at outdoor markets when the season is right.
- Herbal teas—Eastern Europeans have long been cultivating the power of herbs to alleviate common ailments such as lung disorders, sore throat, and digestion. It’s likely you’ll be able to find home-grown as well as factory-packaged herbal teas that contribute to anything from relaxation to the strengthening of the immune system.
- Mushrooms—What would Eastern European cuisine be without mushrooms? Many Eastern Europeans have developed a sixth sense for mushroom hunting and do so both as a pastime as well as to add to the family larder. These may be used in soups and stews or dried for later use. The benefits of edible mushrooms are still being discovered, but they’re thought to protect against some forms of cancer and give the immune system a boost.
- Fatty Fish—Fatty fish are high in omega-3 compounds, which reduce inflammation and promote heart health. Herring, mackerel, and sprats are widely eaten fatty fish and many delicious recipes feature them.
How Can You Try Healthy Foods from Eastern Europe?
The easiest way to incorporate the healthy foods loved by people in Eastern Europe is probably to get yourself a good cookbook from the country or region of your choice and select recipes to try using ingredients from your local supermarket. Cabbage, onions, and beets can be easily sourced, though you may have to ask specifically at your supermarket for such items as organ meats. Certain fish may also be difficult to find. However, the world of Eastern European cooking is so broad that whether you’re quick fermenting cucumbers or whipping up a batch of cabbage rolls, neither the availability of ingredients or your skill level will prevent you from sampling these various cuisines.
Of course, you may also visit the countries of Eastern Europe to gain a better understanding of the combination of ingredients, national dishes, and the culture that surrounds them. While the best option may be to secure an invite from someone who will cook favorite family dishes at home, plenty of restaurants proudly showcase local cuisine.
While traveling, market stalls will present the local, seasonal offerings from gardens and orchards. You can learn more about these foods and their preparation by speaking with the sellers.
Finally, some foods, such as honey or herbal teas, may be purchased as souvenirs and taken home for future use.
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