Do you like funny words? Well if you do, here’s a doozy for you – čušpajz (choosh-piezz). Yes, choosh-piezz is an actual world and it’s really quite fun to say; go ahead, give it a try, choosh-piezz! See what I mean, it’s fun isn’t it! Čušpajz has always been a word that I love saying. The combination of the “ch”, “sh”, “y”, and “zzz” sounds all jammed into one little word is quite unique and its up there amongst some of my other favourite Croatian words like kikiriki (key-key-ree-key) which are peanuts (yes, go figure), šišmiš (sheesh-meesh) a bat, the kind that flies and čevapčići (che-vap-chi-chi) the Balkan specialty many non-Croatians know as chevaps.
Now, you might be asking yourself, what is čušpajz? If you’ve seen the picture, which you probably have, you have probably made the assumption that it’s some kind of soup or stew, and you’re right it is. But čušpajz, is a bit different from your average soup, čušpajz is a thickened soup; thickened with a roux, called zafrig (za-freeg) that is cooked in a separate pot (at least that’s how my mom always did it) and added to the soup near the end. The end result, is a thick, silky, hearty and utterly satisfying bowl of pure goodness.
I have to admit, I didn’t always think of čušpajz in such an affectionate manner. In fact, as a kid, I loathed this dish; I absolutely hated it! In the fall and winter my mom made a cabbage čušpajz, like the one I am showing you today and in the summer, a version with Romano beans, mahune (ma-hoo-ne). I despised both! On days when I saw the big pot of cabbage and vegetables simmering away on the stove, I begged, pleaded, implored my mother to make something else for me and my siblings (they didn’t like the stuff as much as I did), but back then, well in my parent’s house at least, you ate what was prepared for you and if you didn’t like it you starved! Usually, we would fight over the chunks of potatoes and fill our bowls with broth to dip countless pieces of bread in, because it was either that or nothing. Today, this type of parenting would be classified as child neglect, but I still consider it smart parenting! If you’re hungry you’ll eat, and if you don’t like it you will grow to like it and you know what, it worked! I always ended up eating čušpajz, regardless of how much I disliked it, because I knew I wouldn’t get anything else and I eventually grew to like it. Now, it’s one of my favourite comfort food dishes.
There are probably a million ways to prepare čušpajz and like many Croatian recipes, every family has their own way of doing it. Some may not even call it čušpajz, but varivo (va-ree-vo) the “literary” term for stew, or the proper, non-dialect word. Sound confusing? It is. Try being married to someone whose family speaks a totally different dialect, even though they’re from the same region! There have been times when my husband’s Baba says something to me and I just nod and smile, without the slightest idea of what she’s saying. Just to show you how different one dialect can be from another, here’s an example using two ingredients in čušpajz - cabbage and carrots. Most people who don’t speak kajkavski (the name of the dialect both my husband and my family speaks, found in and around northern and central Croatia) know that zelje (zel-ye) is cabbage, where the rest of the country calls it kupus (koo-poos) but I bet you didn’t you know that merlin (mehr-leen) are carrots, where everywhere else it’s mrkve (merk-veh)? It’s no wonder there are so many different ways of preparing one dish, when there’s so many different ways in saying it! Whether you call this čušpajz, varivo or cabbage soup, or make it with beans, spinach or kale, know that it is a simple bowl of sustenance, that fed many poor but hard working people for generations. It’s far from fussy, full of goodness and according to my dad, a dish that falls under the most important type of meal there is – the kind you eat with a spoon.
I use chicken stock for my liquid, where traditionally only water would be used. Remember, this is a peasant dish so adding chicken stock to a stew that would be flavoured from the vegetables would be a waste. Plus, chicken stock is traditionally consumed as domača juha (a simple broth with noodles, the corner-stone of any Croatian Sunday or celebratory meal) so I have to admit, it would be unheard of to add chicken stock when making čušpajz. While I like to keep with tradition, I also recognize when something just tastes better and adding chicken stock, well, it just tastes better.
The addition of meat is also optional, but does lend a lot of flavour, especially if you’re using smoked meat, so it shouldn’t be overlooked. I use my dad’s homemade smoked and dried bacon, špek (sh-pek). Look for slab, double smoked bacon if possible, if you can’t find anything like that, then regular bacon is fine too.
Serves 6 to 8
125 g double smoked, slab bacon, cubed
1 large onion, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced in rounds
2 medium stalks of celery, diced
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/2 head of cabbage, sliced and then cut the slices in squares
1 1/2 cups canned, whole tomatoes, crushed
8 cups chicken stock
Salt, pepper and Vegeta to taste
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon paprika
In a large, heavy bottom pot render the bacon until crisp over medium heat, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook until translucent, 2 minutes, then follow with the carrots and celery. Stir to combine and cook for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, stock a large pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until all of the vegetables are tender.
In a separate saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. When hot, add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Sprinkle in the flour and paprika and cook for 1 minute to toast the paprika and lightly brown the flour. With a ladle, scoop out some two ladlefuls of broth into the pot and with a whisk quickly. The mixture will thicken quickly and bubble quite a bit. Add another two ladlefuls of stock and whisk until smooth. Let the roux come to a boil, then add it to the large pot of vegetables. Stir to combine. You will notice the soup take on a thicker, creamier texture. Season with 1 to 2 teaspoons of Vegeta and/or salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve while hot with crusty bread and a teaspoonful of vinegar to each bowl – if you like.