Central European Delis
Delicatessens, delis, whatever you call them. You know them primarily as that spot in the grocery store where you can get cold cuts and some prepared foods. Some see them as the small local eateries where one can get a freshly made sandwich. A few see them as the specialty stores to get items you normally can’t get at the supermarket.
In Chicago, we have a very large population of Polish and other Central European immigrants, and especially in their neighborhoods you’ll find this staple of community and cuisine. While in the Windy City it will be of mostly Polish influence, exploration has shown me that the Polish deli is really more the deli style of Central Europe and parts of the former USSR. However, we can attribute it all even further to the Jewish.
Back before the 1800s, even all the way back to Medieval Times, the Jews were given a rough time in this world, as if that’s anything new. When Emperor Charlemagne gave rights to Jews and allowed them to live and flourish, this gave Jewish people the chance to settle into land and make it their own. Now what created much of the deli food we know now is really the Jews adopting the food that was available to the regions they settled in while adhering to their kosher rules of cuisine.
The deli was simply known as a place to get “delicious things”. It’s where Jews at the time could make a living running a store selling items one might not get at a butcher. A brisket of corned beef is a very different fare from just a cut brisket after all. There is a process to it, thus bred the new entrepreneur.
As the culture migrated overseas and spread over America, the business model of these delicatessens varied. We saw some that stayed as small grocery stores; others become cafes or diners, and some stood in between the two. The Central European deli in modern times plays itself off more as a modestly priced venue where one could find quality meats, sausages, fresh fruit, and especially imported products from Europe.
So why shop at a Polish deli, or German deli, or Russian deli over the supermarket? The best way to describe the difference is simply “night and day”. The choices you find at a Central European deli are far greater in quality and flavor over those found in the typical supermarket. Even sliced grocery store ham can’t compare to some fine smoked meats or other delicacies, often imported. Just the larger selection of cheeses alone impressed me. Way more than the typical American, Swiss, and Cheddar found in any supermarket.
I especially love how many imported goods these delis stock. It’s their niche, and how they manage to compete in the US against larger chains. You won’t find good imported mustard, or preservatives, or even some of the confections you’ll find in one of these delis at your local supermarket. Even some of the more niche ingredients used in the recipes found on this site can be found in these delis. Maybe it won’t mean much to a lot of you, but for me I feel like I’m back in Europe every time I’m in one of these stores. They’re a wondrous treasure for the foodie.
If you ever happen to find a deli or even grocery store of the Central European flavor, here’s a handful of suggested items you should try:
Lubelski Cheese: Some say it’s a bit like a dull mozzarella, but I more liked the flavor as it made me think of cream cheese in a sliced form.
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls: Many think of these as purely Polish, but I’ve seen them all over the Central European region of cuisine. Seasoned ground beef rolled up inside cooked cabbage as an outer shell.
Smoked Polish Cheese: I’ve seen different kinds of Polish cheeses, but smoked. The smoking in itself adds a wonderful flavor, regardless if it’s Swiss, Gouda, or another cheese.
Turkey with Paprika: I love sliced turkey, and this one quickly became my favorite. Fully cooked turkey with an outer layer of red paprika for a zesty taste.
Kabanos: These are long, thin sausages, diameter of a nickel I’d say. Not as spicy as a pepperoni, but flavorful and wonderful just cut into pieces and served as is.
Pierogis: Practically all of these delis and even grocery stores sell them frozen and pre-packaged, but if you can find them hot and ready to eat, try them. Dumplings stuffed with potato, sauerkraut, or meat.
Moscow-style Ham: You might not find this in every deli you encounter, but it was a beautiful cooked ham flavored with garlic and caraway seeds. Incredible.
Nalesniki: Very tasty item. A sweetened cheese filling wrapped in a pancake. I’ve also seen homemade jelly substituted for the cheese, or the jelly used as a topping on it all.
Schnitzel: It’s not just a German thing. Traditional schnitzel is usually boneless pork breaded and fried. Different venues serve it differently based on local flavor. Sometimes it’s topped with a delicious gravy.
So now you see the starting point with Central European delis. Next time we’ll explore the metamorphosis of the deli into a cultural icon of Jewish cuisine within New York.