Sunday, May 30, 2004

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Grilled salmon with strawberry sauce. Sea salt, fresh basil and thyme. Sun-ripened avocados and fine chardonnay.

Fifteen years after shaking off communism, Eastern Europe is engulfed in a food revolution, with people no longer content to shovel down meat, boiled potatoes and dumplings.

From Bratislava to Budapest, eating habits and tastes are changing radically. It’s a stark shift from 15 years ago, when classic spaghetti in Slovakia meant ketchup and shredded cheese atop limp, overcooked noodles.

“People were used to eating only pork, poultry or beef,” said chef Vojtech Artz, who was the co-host on a popular TV cooking show in Slovakia. The country threw off communist rule in 1989 and joined the European Union in May.

“Now there are all kinds of fish, various seafood — even such things as kangaroo meat,” he said.

Just a few years ago, something as simple as an avocado caused a nationwide stir.

“People had no clue what to do with it,” Mr. Artz said. “We once made a salad with it, and then got calls from supermarkets, which said everyone was buying them.”

Avocados aren’t the only exotic foods that locals have had to learn to use and eat. Under communism, vegetables such as broccoli or asparagus were virtually unknown.

Today, virtually everything is available, and in quantities that would have been inconceivable during communism.

No more waiting in line to get the basics, or fresh pineapple or mandarin oranges for a Christmas treat. These and other fruits can now be bought year-round.

Tastes are fuller and more combined.

Ethnic restaurants have helped persuade people that mixing meat with fruit isn’t a crazy idea. Italian restaurants have shown that pizza shouldn’t be a thick yeast cake topped with vegetables and ketchup.

“As the markets have opened, people have started to learn to use freshly ground spices: sea salt, fresh herbs like basil, thyme,” Mr. Artz said. “We did not have that before, and even if they were somewhere, people didn’t know how to use them.”

The older generation’s spices used to fit into a small box. Nowadays, they take up cabinets or huge containers.

“I think I could not even cook the old way anymore,” said Mr. Artz, who gets stopped by people on the street asking him for new recipes and tips.

In the neighboring Czech Republic, taste buds are changing at the same pace.

“When I remember how it was before the revolution, I have to say that these days it’s a pleasure to cook,” said Martina Gruberova, a 43-year-old housewife. “Our family likes salads a lot, and it’s great what choices we have. Before, we could only dream of such things.”

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