Carp – A Slovak Christmas Tradition

Checking out the fish.Kapor

December 20, 2010

Allan Stevo

These wading pools start popping up all over the city.  They start popping up about a week before Christmas.  The pools are filled with carp. That’s kapor in Slovak.  Fresh carp will also appear in the fish counter of grocery stores that have fish counters.  Large quantities of them will appear in frozen food sections. But the coming of the carp pools is the hardest to miss.

Depending on who owns the wading pools, they take on different shapes and sizes.  However, there are always some constants: they are always filled with a little cold water and lots of carp, and they are manned by a fish monger with a net and a scale.  You point to your carp; he reaches into the pool gently with the net, so as not to create a disruption among the carp.  His assistant nestles the bag up to the net, the carp flops around once and then slides into the bag.  The bag goes onto the scale, the assistant moves a few weights around to determine the weight of the carp, the customer pays 4 Eur/kilo ($2.38/lb.) and then goes on his or her way with the new carp.

Purchase complete.

How to Recognize the Start of Christmas

Bratislava was clearly not built to handle the immense number of cars that currently inhabit the town.  Therefore, a rather intricate and well-run transportation infrastructure is needed and utilized – trams, buses, trolley-buses all run day and night to get people around the city from home to work and back.  During peak hours, you often need to nudge or push your way on-board so that other passengers will move out of your way quickly enough for the heavy and powerful bus doors to not close on you.  And once on-board, as you would at any other time during the winter, you ride snuggly packed in the warm bus with a hundred other strangers.

The Christmas lights and decorations around the city are nice.  The Christmas market is very nice.  Occasional Christmas music is pleasant, so is the occasional appearance of Svaty Mikulas (St. Nicholas) in gold, or Santa Claus in red.  Of course there are also lots of Christmas items on sale.  But none of these are the true herald that Christmas is upon us.  In this environment, this snug bus – at 5:15 pm on this pitch  black Bratislava evening, where you couldn’t fall over if you tried because people are packed so tight – on this bus is where you are first reminded that Christmas preparation has truly begun.

On that quiet warm bus, calmly, your mind starts to wander, heck you might even feel your eyelids get a little heavy.  There’s a comfortable warmth to the bus and even the tightness of the packed bus is comfortable as it insulates you from the bumps in the road and the twists and turns along the way.  You can´t hear anyone talking, as is the way in Bratislava’s buses.  Those few people who are talking are talking very, very quietly, nearly imperceptibly.  It’s almost silent aside from the hum of the motor underneath your feet.  Warm and pretty peaceful aboard this bus, there’s a very strange and sudden wiggle against your leg.

You freak out for a second and jump just a bit and the guy next to you looks at you like he’s about to report you to the police as a lunatic.  Anyone who suddenly jumps like that on a bus cannot be normal.  On a packed bus, you automatically reach for your valuables to make sure they are still there before you worry about what the heck it was that just wiggled against your leg.  You can barely even move enough to look to see what it was, but you push against those around you a little and make room, and you tense your legs a bit as you look down and the instant before you look it happens again.  That wiggle that strange creepy wiggle against your leg.  You smell a smell and another neighbor eyes you and says “prepacte” “pardon me” or maybe he too gives you an ugly look.

Christmas preparation has begun.  The first time a carp wiggles through a plastic grocery bag against your leg on a packed tram, you know that Christmas preparation has begun in Slovak families.

The carp will make his way home with the father or mother carrying it.  He or she will have phoned ahead to alert the family that a cold-water bath should be drawn.  And in goes the carp.  The carp will float for a bit until it gets over the shock of not being able to breathe for the last 45 minutes and will then get accustomed to the bathtub.  The tap will be left trickling to give the carp fresh water and oxygen A Child Playing with Carp in His Bathtub courtesy of the facebook Kapor Fanpageand there it will live, perhaps played with by the children and even given a name.  It will remain there in the bathtub until Christmas Eve when it will be pulled out, thumped with a hammer on his immense boney head and then decapitated, skinned, gutted, sliced into steaks, soaked in milk, breaded, and fried, before the family sits down to eat him along with potato salad.

Some Christian churches place a prohibition on the eating of meat before Christmas Eve, as a sort of a vigil, a fast for the Christ child.  In Slovakia, this eating of fish grew out of that tradition and spread so as to make fish the A ten pound carp in a friend's bathtub.standard for all Slovaks.

Carp is very common.  Trout is popular too.  Some families might eat salmon.  Some families might have a member who doesn’t care for fish at all and might therefore avoid this “traditional” dish.

As Slovak ethnologist Rastislava Stolicna puts it on Christmas Eve “Catholics and Otrhodox [would fast, during which time] they ate only fish, formerly only salted or cooked, but in the twentieth century fish fried in oil served with a potato salad began to be gradually consumed.”  So, in fact, the meal of fried carp and potato salad is not all that traditional across Slovakia. It’s 100 years old according to Stolicna, and taste a little bit like a pond, and is really full of lots and lots of Carp and potato salad on a "modra" dish.bones.  However, I sit down each year with my friends to eat this bottom feeding fish that looks like a gigantic black goldfish, because there is something nice about the whole tradition.  There’s something pleasant about the taste.  There’s something pleasant about eating it fried.  And once you get used to it, it’s no even that bad making your way around the bones.  Some people have a harder time dealing with the bones that others – it´s annually reported in Slovakia that several dozen Slovaks do go to the emergency room each year to have carp bones removed from their throats.  Despite how strange a carp eating tradition may seem to an outsider, the tradition lives on.  You don´t have to walk five steps on a nearly empty street to find a Slovak who loves carp and potato salad on Christmas.  Like any other taste associated with any other tradition, it´s virtually impossible for an outsider to rationalize. Every reader of this sentence loves a taste and connects it with a memory or an emotion that may be unique to that person.  Eating carp on Christmas is not strange, it´s simply what Slovaks do.

The Christmas meal in Slovakia has lots of other traditions.  A few that I haveOblatky drizzled with honey.

seen have been:

Oblatky – wafers are appreciated 365 days a year in Slovakia, more so than in the U.S.  For example, you can buy these giant cousins of communion wafers sprinkled with garlic seasoning in the store on sale right next to potato chips.

Rubbing garlic on oblatkyAround this time of year, the markets fill up with people selling oblatky and trubicky (their rolled cousins). At Christmas Eve it is common to have oblatky at the table before the meal as the first course.  In some families it is drizzled with a little honey.  In others it is topped with honey and garlic.

Kapustnica – On December 23, anyone who subscribes to my newsletter will get a special gift.  I will send the kapustnica recipe of one of my favorite Slovak cooks.  She’s a A big pot of kapustnicalunch lady in the Petrzalka section of Bratislava and makes this cabbage soup for 150 teachers, friends, and honored guests every year.  Kapustnica is a soup that is loaded with a bunch of different items, which vary from valley to valley and family to family.  Her version contains three kinds of meats, sauerkraut, dried mushrooms and more.

Cutting an apple – This tradition is such a ubiquitous Slovak symbol of health that this year, one of the Bratislava mayoral candidates even featured it in her campaign ads.  You take an apple and cut it in half. If the seed pods inside are full and healthy, a healthy 2011 awaits you.  If you cut it in half and see something different, woe be to you for even cutting that apple open.

Vianocka being made - Photo from SlovakCooking.comVianocka – I’ve never made a vianocka and don’t intend to do so now, but I do buy them from time to time; it´s a sweet knotted bread with a few raisins baked in that goes perfect with a little butter on top.  If you’re looking for a recipe, take a look at this vianocka recipe at SlovakCooking.com.  Not only does the recipe sound good, the accompanying photos are picturesque.  One family I know eats oblatky with honey and vianocka with garlic.  It´s named vianocka because it’s eaten during the vianoce (Christmas) celebration.

Allan Stevo is an author from Chicago. He is writes about Slovak culture once a week and posts his columns to “52 Weeks in Slovakia” as well as sending them to a few small newspapers and magazines in the U.S. If you’ve enjoyed this column, sign up here to receive it in your inbox weekly (for the next 42 weeks), or share it with a few friends through email, facebook, twitter, or a host of other social networks using the buttons below.

Question:

What are Christmas traditions that you have, or that you know about that are common in your family, but might not be common in the family living next door?


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Comments

  • My Slovakian daddy loved to talk about carp !! How he used to catch them when he was a boy. Mom would ask us whether we wanted fish for Christmas here in the States, but we opted for her succulent roast duck instead. In fact, we couldn’t find carp on sale in the seafood section in California 25 years ago, let alone live ones swishing around in a bucket !!

    I had my first taste of kapustnica at a Slovakian Christmas Church Service. I liked it. Moja maminka made kapusta frequently; one version was reddish with pieces of bacon, sort of like kapustnica.

    Ahhhhh…..Vianočka !!! Maminka to niekdy udelala. Nothing like it can be found in the supermarkets or bakeries. I’ve got to find a good recipe !! I hope the rising yeast dough won’t blow up in the kitchen !!

    Dobrú chut, Allan !!

  • Mark Lencho

    Dec 23rd, 2010

    When we lived in Slovakia for a year, štedry deň (Christmas eve) was the day we ate carp (and also went to the cemetary to tend candles for departed family members). Our American family felt honored to be part of that tradition because we were told that this was a feast only for immediate family (special exception made for us by our host family). Christmas day, on the other hand, was a huge celebration with the meal centering around duck, and the entire extended family was involved.

  • William C. Wormuth

    Dec 17th, 2011

    My Gramp told me that he tried cooking carp, he caught fresh from a nearby lake.
    He said that it turned out “smelly” and that someone told him it should be cleaned of a certain “strip”, which caused the smell.
    Perhaps someone knows about this.
    Carp is very common in Western Slovakia and is eaten Year Round.
    Americans, (at least here), consider it as garbage fish. It is not native but brought here by Jews.

  • Dear Vilo,
    Thank you for the comment and the info. When cooking carp in Slovakia, which may be of a different variety, we each time removed the head, inner organs (being especially careful with the gall bladder), skin and then cooked it (usually fried). I’m not able to help with this “strip.” Maybe others will be more knowledgeable than me about this.

    Just last night I was told by a Jewish guy I’d recently met that gefilte fish is regularly made from carp and that some white fish salads of carp are also popular in Jewish cooking from Central and Eastern Europe. Your comment about settlers bringing carp with them fit nicely with that info from last night. Until then, I’d never heard a connection between carp and Jewish culture, only a connection between carp and Slovak culture, but it stands to reason that since many American Jews emigrated to the U.S. from this neck of the woods that they would bring traditions of the region, like carp, with them.

    Thank you again, Vilo.
    Allan

  • jim stasheff

    Dec 18th, 2011

    Does any one have a preferred recipe for potato dumplings?
    the kind that after mixing you flick little pieces into hot oil?
    then cover with cheese? if no bryndza is available, what do
    you substitute?
    dakuju

  • My family has always had the Christmas wafers on Chrsitmas Eve before a dinner consisting of fish, pieorgies, bobalky, pagach, sapraska (? browned sauerkraut), shrimp and mushroom soup (with vinegar). We never had carp but I am happy to read of the traditions in Slovakia as I know most families have Americanized traditions over the years.

  • Ben Morris

    Dec 18th, 2011

    I remember hearing about the carp tradition at Christmas when I lived in Slovakia. I did not stay over Christmas, so I didn’t get treated to any carp, but I was served some delicious, “kapustnicka” (Not sure if I’m remember the name exactly). I had forgotten about the association of Christmas and carp, to tell you the truth. When I read the title of your article, Allan, I thought you meant you were going to go on a rant about things you may dislike about Christmas! 😉 Certainly, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Ben

  • Can’t wait for Kapustnica recipe! Thanks for sharing!

  • re carp, not that really traditional. It had to be fish in order to fit the ‘fasting’ requirements. And mostly, a river fish. Carp however, used to be by far the easiest fish to ‘farm’ and grow, hence the ‘tradition’. Otherwise, carrion fish used to be preferred kinds of fasting meals, mainly due to muddy carp taste (avoidable by keeping carp in milk overnight before frying). But since early 50’s and on, the commie state took over and as it was with every aspect of life, just one massive grown fish remained, the carp. And there comes the ‘tradition’ for us, born into communism.

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