Note: This post previously formed part of a ‘letters from a couch surfer’ series.
I arrived after dark, clutching a small box of homemade Polish cakes sent with me from Kraków but somewhat crushed (sorry, Aga!) during the seven-hour train journey to Žilina in northern Slovakia. Katarina met me at the station and we took a hair-raising car ride through slippery streets to her home, the Madman grinning maniacally from behind the wheel all the while.
So began the most rambunctious, surprising and at times frightening Easter weekend of my life.
I couch-surfed with the fantastically witty Katarina and her friends in this small city, flanked on all sides by mountains, for three days. I awoke to snow on that first day, gently yet unrelentingly falling to create a world so altogether white that the line between earth and heavens was all but indistinguishable. I wasn’t sure I’d ever actually stood in falling snow before.
We rugged up and headed outside to collect young willow boughs to plait into korbáče, small but surprisingly effective whips. It’s a somewhat peculiar Slovakian Easter Monday tradition that men take their handmade korbáče and whip their women before splashing them with cold water, supposedly promoting good health.
Naturally, after creating the whips with which we would later be beaten, we turned our hands to making little rewards for our men – eggs decorated with wax and brightly dyed. This process takes a lot more skill than at first appears necessary. Trust me.
We poked around the 14th century Strečno castle, precariously balanced on a rocky outcrop to guard over the Váh river; walked up a snow-hidden Žilina hillside to a football field perched mutely high above; and swigged local beers from a smokey village pub for the paltry sum of €0.75 (just under $1AU).
We even braved another drive with the Madman through snow-laden streets, skidding and sliding down laneways at such breakneck speed that eventually I, extremely smoothly, began screeching: “I’m really scared! I’m really scared!”
Throughout our weekend adventures, we were fed by cooking extraordinaire Marian, who had mastered the art of whipping up something amazing only to hide it away out of sight, and out of our minds, until that perfect moment in which everyone realised they were ravenous.
His goulash, kindly made vegetarian for my sake, is second to none – and he has agreed to share the recipe so you can take part in the awesomeness, too.
Marian’s Slovakian vegetarian goulash
What goes in:
200g packs of soya chunks
1 large onion, diced
2 capsicums, diced*
3 tomatoes, diced or 400g diced tinned tomatoes*
3 potatoes, diced into 1cm cubes
About half a litre of vegetable stock
*Or add 1 bottle of Lečo instead. It’s a premade stew of capsicum, tomato and onion, common across Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria and Poland.
How you do it:
Place the soya chunks in a large container and soak in vegetable stock with a little salt and pepper for at least one hour. The longer you leave this mixture the better the soya chunks will taste so leave them overnight if you can. Drain the soya chunks after soaking and reserve the stock for later.
Heat the butter in a large saucepan then add the onion and fry, stirring occasionally, until it’s soft and golden. This is an important base for the goulash so you can also press the onion to let the juices loosen and intensify the flavour.
Stir in the chopped capsicum, soya chunks, paprika, chilli and one potato (this will slowly cook down and make the soup lovely and thick).
After about 15 minutes, when the capsicum has softened, add the tomatoes and stock. Bring the whole lot to a boil and then allow to simmer and stew for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the last two potatoes and continue cooking for another 20 minutes. Add a little more stock if the goulash begins sticking to the bottom of the pan. The end result will be a thick and hearty stew. Serve piping hot to the hungry hoards.
The goulash is even better when eaten on the second day – if you have enough self-control not to eat it all on the first!
Žilina may be off the worn tourist track to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava but I’m sure I will always rave about the place thanks to the sheer brilliance and warm generosity of the bunch of people I met there. My parťáčkas!