Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Late night at Riblji Paprikas Party

Going to a Riblji Paprikas party in Sombor in August is like going to an American barbecue in July. The dress is casual, the women lounge about on the deck idly talking, the children run like demented puppies all around the yard, and the men are completely in charge of the cooking.

Ribliji Paprikas is a type of fish soup, cooked outside in a huge cast iron pot over an open fire, that's only made in a certain northwestern part of Serbia, where the Hungarian influence is strong. Once you get about 30 kilometers below Belgrade, my host explains, you've gone too far south. The ingredients, which like any good pot of chili in Texas vary slightly from chef to chef, but the basis of every Paprikas is finely chopped red peppers, onions, a dash of salt and an entire large fresh water fish or two (including head and tail) from the Danube or local canal.

Sustained by shots of Rakija, the famous Serb clear plum brandy, the men dashed about the fire officiously, tossing in half a handful of this, a tiny bit of that to season the broth. They continually heaped on piles of dried twigs so the flames leapt high and white hot, and the soup boiled up dramatically for what seemed like more than an hour. Every few minutes one of the men would kick the pot with his foot, slightly searing his leather moccasins, to get it rolling about as it dangled over the fire -- the macho equivalent of stirring.

I was slightly alarmed watching - it seemed a very long time to cook a soup at such a high heat. Would the fish be hard and tasteless? Nothing could be further from reality.

When at last the soup was ready, the men carried the pot to sit in a place of honor in the middle of the table. (Naturally, like men around the world, they forgot about formal potholders and seared their hands until an awkward carrying device was contrived out of a piece of cardboard from the woodpile. I said to my husband, "That's exactly the way you would do it honey." To which he replied, "This is true.")

In the meantime, in a brief flurry of activity the women had set an outdoor table with wide bowls of the type you eat pasta from. The only silverware was a ladle for the soup and a large soup spoon for everyone. They also brought out a big bowl of pasta -- thick yellow egg-spaghetti only cut into two-inch lengths.

Everyone filled their bowls with the pasta and then ladeled soup broth over it. We'd get to the fish later, it was explained to me, when we'd eaten enough of the broth for the fish to be visible at the bottom of the pot. Because the fish is thrown into the pot pretty much whole, it's hard to pull out serving-sized pieces if you can't see what you're jabbing at with the ladle.

There had been some concerned conversation earlier about whether the soup would be too hot -- as in spicy hot-- for this Amerikanka (me). I'd poo-pooed the suggestion, "Oh I eat Indian and hot Asian food all the time!", but secretly begun to worry as the soup had so dramatically boiled and boiled. In my experience with Mexican peppers, the longer you cook them at high heat in a soup, the more intense the spicyness.

However, my first taste proved the soup was actually fairly mild, more of a smokey, tangy flavor than anything that could burn your mouth painfully. So when I saw the men adding small slices of fresh, uncooked hot pepper to their bowls, I begged some too. Now the soup was perfect!

Later when we got to the fish part of the meal, it was also completely different than I had imagined. Instead of hard overcooked fish, it was unbelievably moist and tender. I have never tasted better cooked fish in my life. Everyone ate their fish with their soup spoon, which takes a great deal of dexterity given that you're dealing with skin plus lots and lots of little bones, and also given the amount of pivo (beer) you've probably had by that point. I had to use a few fingers as well to pry the meat clean. I'll get better with practice; Americans are not used to eating unboned fish routinely as Serbs are.

Every summer in Sombor they have a Paprikas festival with dozens of men gathering to cook and compete outside. We just missed it this year, but hopefully will be here for the next in 2008. I suggested that someone should contact Tabasco to sponsor it. Tabasco is one of the very, very few items on supermarket shelves from the US, it would go perfectly in Paprikas, and best of all, it's from Louisiana which in festive spirit reminds me a great deal of Sombor.

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