There are foods that span a range of diverse cultures – like noodles. The exact origins of pasta is debated, but today thin pieces of rolled flour and water are enjoyed across Asia, Europe and North America.
It tastes good, one of those addictive comfort foods, and takes on the taste of any country, from bowls of brothy ramen to plates of spaghetti covered with thick tomato sauce and Parmesan.
One Slovak version of noodles is called slíže (sli-se, s pronounced like in Asia). They are also called rezance (re-zan-tse). If there is a difference between slíže and rezance, the Slovaks I asked couldn’t come to a consensus. For me, one big difference is that these noodles are often eaten sweet, with poppy seed, nuts, or tvaroh (farmers cheese), with lots of melted butter and honey or icing sugar.
Slíže with tvaroh (farmers cheese), poppy seeds, nuts, or eggs.
I admit that I haven’t adapted to bought spaghetti noodles made sweet. My strongest memory of this shortcut is asking for lunch after the birth of the twins and receiving a plate of soggy spaghetti with dry poppy seeds and icing sugar, no fat in an attempt to be either healthier or cheaper. It was dry and tasteless and not what I wanted after hours of labour. Is hospital food horrible the world over?
Homemade slíže is another matter, however. Slathered in butter and with a touch of honey, sweet slíže becomes a foray into another cuisine, one of those dishes that mixes known foods in unknown ways.
Pani Obulana graciously agreed to show me how to make slíže. We arranged to meet through her daughter-in-law, but when she sees me at the gate she smiles. “Ah, yes, I recognize you from church,” she says. She is relieved that I am someone she recognizes, and not a complete stranger.
To make the slíže, pani Obulana covers the table with an old plastic tablecloth and pulls out a pastry board. She’s used the board for 50 years. And she explains to me that she covers the new tablecloth to preserve it – she was raised to save things and not throw things away. I ask her why she has two stoves – originally they had a wood stove and an electric stove, but when the gas lines we put in they replaced the wood stove with the gas stove. They kept the electric stove, however, as her elderly mother was living with them and they were worried about her leaving the gas on. The electric stove still works after all these years, she says. The two topics meld into a ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ conversation, both of us lamenting the wasteful culture of our times.
Teta pours a seemingly random amount of flour on the pastry board, makes a well, and cracks in an egg and adds water, stirring with a knife until it comes together and she can start kneading the dough.
I notice a creased photo with a candle before it on the kitchen counter. “I’ve been a widow for 20 years now,” she sighs. She still misses him, I think. He was a soldier and sent the photo to her when he was stationed on the Czech-German border. “I was working at the time as a cleaner at the castle, just for a few months, and when I got the letter it seemed like it was just paper so I folded it and put it in my apron pocket. When I opened it I realized there was a photo inside and I had made a crease in it.”
Teta is kneading the dough – it should be not too soft but not too hard, she says. I’m not sure what too soft or too hard would feel like. She cuts it in half and starts to roll it out. She rolls it thin, turning it as she rolls and letting part of it hand over the edge of the table so that the far edge of the dough is closer. When the dough is rolled thin, it then needs to sit for about 30 minutes to dry a little.
She is still chipper and when she smiles, which is often, her intensely blue eyes light up. She’s 80, and knows she doesn’t look it. I ask her if she remembers WWII. Yes, she says, very well.
Easter in 1945 was on April 1st, as it was this year in 2018. Teta was seven when the front came through Smolenice. During Holy Week before Easter, she remembers her father, uncle, and neighbour digging trenches beyond the barnyard. On Easter day they huddled in the trench, eating treats that had already been baked. Violets were blooming above them.
Wounded soldiers, of both sides though not at the same time, took up residence in people’s homes, in people’s beds. A little girl, she would peak at the strange men lying in their home before scuttling back to the shelter they slept in. The Russians wanted fresh chicken and good food everyday; they ate well, she snorted. As another teta recalled, about half the town took wagons with hay and blankets and even cows into the forest to a particular dip that is sheltered on three sides.
Her parents hid belongings in the hay, but when Russian soldiers came by asking for hay for their horses, the items were exposed and the soldiers took it all. When the Germans retreated though, she grinned, they dropped all the things they had taken.
Everyone was poorer after the war, and some lost their homes completely. Teta’s husband’s family’s house, as well as others in the area, burned down. If I understand correctly, Russian soldiers burned them down for fun. Her father in law was a coachman for the aristocrat who lived in the castle, and the grof helped his employees have somewhere to live. The grof and his family had to flee soon after the war, however, leaving everything behind, as Communism abhorred the aristocracy.
It’s time to cut the dough. Teta liberally sprinkles the dough with semolina flour, both on the pastry board and on top. She then slices the dough into strips about 8 cm (3 inch) wide, piles them up five or six thick, and starts slicing. She slices away but remembers how her mother could slice so quickly, much faster than herself.
It looks easy, but when I try my noodles are all stuck together. You’re pressing to hard, she says, you have to hold the dough very lightly and have a very sharp knife.
When a pile of cut slíže accumulates, pani Obulana tosses them with her hands to make sure they are loose. We pull apart any that are stuck together (mine) before putting them into the well-salted boiling water. “You don’t put much salt in the dough, just a pinch, otherwise it doesn’t dry well, so then you have to generously salt the water,” she advises.
The noodles are done when they are floating, and she uses a strainer to fish them out of the water, dumping them into a small casserole dish, then pouring a bit of melted lard over top and stirring so they don’t stick. She has two of the same casserole pans that fit together, one like a lid, that bake the perfect roast chicken, she claims.
After a few batches the cooking water is thick and murky. She adds a little more water and a little more salt. “My mother didn’t throw this water away, she would strain it and use it to starch the laundry,” teta remembers.
The traditional Slovak costume for women uses a lot of starch, as I myself am just learning. In this area, the sleeves need to stay stiff and puffed out, and the underskirts need to be stiff as well to maintain full body. My girls are in folklore, and I was confused why their kroj weren’t so stiff as I was starching according to the directions on the package, until a friend laughed and said I had to use three or four times as much.
Not only did they use the cooking water for starch, said teta, but they also made a quick soup with it. They called it benzínka. I wonder if it refers to the soup being a quick source of energy with all that starch, as benzín means gasoline. Should we make it, she asks? Of course!
Into a small pot she puts a spoonful of lard, squeezes in a clove of garlic, a few shakes of vegeta (dry vegetable seasoning), paprika, and pepper. Ladle into the pot hot noodle water and voila, instant soup. Slovaks eat soup with the main meal, lunch, every day (which is why I wrote a digital cookbook of consisting of Slovak soups and stews). She serves it poured over more noodles.
We decide to cook up the slíže mixed with scrambled egg, which she loves with pickles. “Shall we have a glass of wine with it?” she asks, her eyes twinkling.
As we are cooking, at one point she grimaces as she bends over to pick something up. Four years ago she was waiting at the bus stop when a car, stopped at the same spot for ice cream, backed into her. She ended up halfway under the car. Though shaken, she didn’t feel hurt until the next morning, when she couldn’t get out of bed. It turned out that a few discs in her lower back had been damaged. Since then her back sometimes bothers her, though she has gone to various doctors and goes to a medicinal spa every year for it.
The pickles are obviously homemade, the vinegar kind. She says she cans a good amount of pickles in the summer but mostly for her children. A typical Slovak grandmother.
We agree to meet again sometime, and she will show me how to make osúch. I’m so glad I got to meet such a lovely woman willing to share her knowledge and stories. Thank you pani Obulana!
These noodles can be cut thin, as shown, or wider. Both can be cooked and eaten the same way. I’ve included four common toppings, but Slovaks also sprinkle over cacao powder, mix in plum butter or other jam, or make the tvaroh version savoury. I want to break the standards and try mixing tvaroh, poppy seeds, and nuts together.
Slíže: Slovak noodles, often sweet
This Slovak version of noodles, slíže, are short and thin, often served with sweet toppings such as farmers cheese, poppy seed, and nuts. It is also delicious in soup or mixed into scrambled eggs with a pickle.
- 250 grams (1 1/2 cups) semolina flour
- 250 grams (2 cups) all purpose flour
- 1 large egg
- pinch salt
- 230 ml (1 cup) water, lukewarm
On a pastry board or in a bowl, mix the flours. Add the egg, salt, and water and stir into a shaggy mass, then knead until it forms into a ball.
Cut the dough into two. Sprinkle flour onto a flat surface and roll out one piece until thin, a few mm. Fold into quarters to transfer to a clean cloth for it to rest for 30 minutes. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
Generously sprinkle a flat surface with semonlina flour and place one rolled piece of dough on it, sprinkling the top with semolina as well. Slice into strips about 8 cm (3 inches) wide. Put on a medium pot of water with a tablespoon or so of salt on to boil.
Stack up about five or six strips. Hold the strips very lightly with one hand while slicing thin strips off the short side with a very sharp knife. When the length of the strips has been cut, use your hands to toss the noodles and pull apart any that have stuck together.
When the water is boiling, dump the slize into the water. Stir right away so they don't stick to each other or the pot. Stir every few minutes. When the noodles are floating, fish them out with a strainer.
Put the noodles into a casserole dish or bowl and pour over a little butter, oil, or lard, depending on how you will be flavouring the noodles. Stir. Continue with your preferred flavour.
Tvaroh (farmers cheese) topping
The topping for slize
- 55 grams (1/4 cup) butter, melted
- 250 grams (9 oz) tvaroh/farmers cheese/quark/dry cottage cheese
- honey or powdered sugar, to taste
- milk or sour cream optional
Melt the butter and pour over the hot noodles. Some people like to make more of a sauce with the tvaroh with milk or sour cream, but some don't. Add sweetener of choice to taste - some will like it very sweet, other not so sweet.
Poppy seed Topping
Topping for slize made from poppy seeds.
- 55 grams (1/4 cup) butter
- 100 grams (3/4 cup) poppy seeds
- honey or icing sugar to taste
Melt butter and pour over noodles. Grind poppy seeds in a spice grinder, coffee grinder, or blender. Toss poppy seeds with noodles and sweetener of choice.
Topping for homemade noodles with nuts.
- 55 grams (1/4 cup) butter
- 200 grams walnuts, or other nuts
- honey or icing sugar to taste
Place walnuts (or other nuts) on a pan and roast in the oven at 180C (350F) until fragrant, about 5 to 10 minutes. Pour the walnuts into a clean cloth and rub together to scrub off some peel. Put in a food processor and grind - but just until chopped, not until it is butter.
Melt butter, pour over noodles and mix. Sprinkle over nuts and sweetener of choice.
Slize with eggs
Fresh noodles are mixed with egg for a delicious scramble. Perfect with a pickle.
- 1 tablespoon lard
- 2 or 3 eggs
- pinch salt
- handful or two slize
Melt lard in a frying pan. Whisk eggs in a bowl and salt and pour onto the warmed pan. When the eggs are partially cooked, add as much slize as you like. Stir until eggs are just barely cooked through.
Pani Obluana likes plants, and is looking forward to working in her garden, especially the flowers
She also enjoys cross-stitch, making this cloth as well as others in the house.
A weigh scale on the wall.