I remember once, back when Valerian and I first met about ten years ago, we saw a crowd of people gathered in front of a shop, and he exclaimed “oh, they must have bananas!” When I stopped laughing, I asked him what he meant and he explained that under socialism, if word got out that a store had bananas for sale, people would line up to try to get their hands on this rare and exotic commodity.
An example of socialist advertising at its best.
In the time I’ve been living in this part of the world, I have seen the difference between American and Central European supermarkets shrink every year. No more crowds when bananas come in, now I take it for granted that I can get fresh broccoli, frozen blueberries, and real parmesan cheese pretty much anywhere I shop (coming soon – the locavore trend?). So I expect when we move to the US next year that we won’t have much trouble getting the things we are used to having in our pantry. Still, there are some local specialties that might not be easy to find, and that you might not already have in your kitchen cupboard.
Beans: Many local recipes call for “beans” without getting more specific. Usually, red kidney beans are fine.
Breadcrumbs: Store-bought breadcrumbs here are very fine, but grinding up stale bread in a blender works just as well. They are frequently used in sweet dishes too, so don’t buy the kind with herbs already mixed in.
Cherries: Meggy, višna, cooking cherries, pies cherries, Morello cherries, whatever you call them, they’re very common here and harder to find in the US. Worth it if you can get them fresh, but frozen are pretty decent.
Poppy seeds: More than just a sprinkle on top, poppyseed (or mak) is a common filling in all kinds of pastries and more. Here you can buy the filling ready-made, but just grinding two parts poppyseeds with one part granulated sugar will get you the same results.
Flour: In Hungary, there is liszt (flour) and rétes liszt (strudel flour), and occasionally I’ll find bread flour. In Slovakia, there are more variations, but they are based on the fineness of the grind, rather than gluten content or other factors. It all comes from the same wheat, which seems a bit softer than standard American wheat. I use 00 flour, “special” here in Slovakia, which is the closest thing to the all-purpose flour I’m used to, and which should work in any of these recipes.
Pasta: The Hungarians, in particular, love their csusza, which are usually small flat pieces of pasta, either kocka (squares) or longer ribbon segments. I don’t know if you can find something similar – if not, try breaking up tagliatelle nests into smaller fragments, or shattering lasagne sheets.
Peppers and paprika: Valerian has written a whole post on this, here. While in general the selection of fresh produce is still much more seasonal and limited here, we do have a range of peppers that you don’t see in the US much. Paprika gets old (like any other spice) so buy a fresh jar if you last used it to sprinke over devilled eggs at the Labor Day picnic in 2007.
Rétes tésta/štrudel: Yes, the true test of a housewife is how thin she can roll her rétes dough, but really, just buy phyllo sheets and be done with it.
Semolina: Coarsely ground wheat meal, the main ingredient for Emperor’s Crumbs. If you can’t find something actually labelled as semolina, look for farina or even plain Cream of Wheat.
Túro/tvaroh: This is a soft, mild cheese that is often sweetened and used as a filling for strudel/rétes and various pastries. Ricotta is a good substitute.
Vegeta: OK, we don’t really cook with this all that much, but it’s a very standard “seasoning” here. It’s MSG (monosodium glutamate, “flavor enhancer”) plus some dehydrated vegetables and herbs. The original is Croatian, there are plenty of local knockoffs, and you can occasionally find it in shops in the US. My secret shame: I love eating buttered noodles and peas with a little Vegeta sprinkled over – salty umami goodness!