Žganci – always and forever

April 2011

As children we were told: “Eat some more žganci and you’ll be big and strong!” So žganci was imprinted in our memory as a healthy food that gives us strength and energy, as food that people used to enjoy and still do. If you asked any Slovenian to name typical Slovenian food, I’m sure that žganci would be in the top five.

What is žganci?

Photo_ Tomo Jeseničnik

Žganci can be found all over the country but is prepared differently in each region. The essence of žganci, however, stays the same. It is rich in energy giving carbohydrates. It is one of the essential ingredients of traditional cuisine that in its time corresponded to people’s possibilities and needs.

In his book “Taste Slovenia ”, ethnologist Janez Bogataj describes žganci as formerly the most widespread dish. In the 19th century, it was even called “the pillar of Carniola”, which shows its importance for the survival of a lot of people. Žganci wasn’t tied to a specific social class. It was eaten by the poor as well as the rich. It was served for breakfast, lunch or, although less often, supper. Leftovers were toasted with lard the following day.

Žganci is prepared from buckwheat, corn, wheat or barley flour, sometimes also from groats or potatoes. Wheat grits, cornmeal and potatoes can be added. It somewhat resembles polenta but is prepared with finely ground flour.

Žganci are distinguished by the basic method of cooking or frying the flour: Carinthian, Upper Carniolan, Lower Carniolan and Lower Styrian. Žganci is a simple dish. Various types of flour (corn, buckwheat) are cooked in salted boiling water. Different ingredients can be added (such as potatoes). Even the side dishes served with žganci vary across Slovenia.

Different methods of preparing žganci

The most widespread method of preparing žganci is the Upper Carniolan one. Pour flour into salted boiling water to form a lump. When the water is boiling, make a hole in the lump, so that the flour cooks as well. Cover the pot and let it simmer for about 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain off the boiling water, which is also called žgančevka. Save some of the water for later. Stir thoroughly and crumble. If the žganci appears too dry, add some žgančevka. Top with lard or cracklings, and the dish is ready for serving. I would like to add that although preparing žganci seems simple, the right ratio between the water and flour must be mastered. Don’t give up, even though you fail a couple of times.

White potato žganci and buckwheat žganci with potatoes are typical of Lower Carniola. The Lower Carniolan method consists of mixing a thick paste and grating it using a small narrow wooden board and a fork.

In Carinthia, where žganci originates, this dish was prepared using a slightly different method. The flour is first toasted. Pour the flour into a pot without cooking oil, salt, onions or any other additions, and toast it on mild to medium heat. The heat mustn’t be too strong or the pot too weak or the flour will stick to the walls and the bottom.

Take another pot and bring salted water to the boil. Let it simmer during preparation. Slowly start adding the water to the toasted flour using a ladle. The flour is toasted enough when it starts turning yellowish or brownish. It is harder to recognize the change of colour with buckwheat flour, so rely on your sense of smell. A few minutes after sensing the aroma, start adding the water and continuously stir. A warning again: it is not easy to determine the right amount of water. It is best to try and see whether you like your žganci wet or dry. If it appears too dry, add some more water. Sometimes a spoonful or a few drops is enough.

Great chefs reveal their tiny secrets

While preparing žganci, it is crucial to add the right amount of water. A lot of people will tell you that real žganci must be served with cracklings but that is a matter of taste. Each housewife has her own secret recipe for preparing this dish. It is also important which flour is used. The best kind is ground in the traditional way with millstones, so that is remains wholegrain.

What side dishes žganci should be served with is also a matter of taste and culinary preference. It is also a seasonal matter. In the winter, žganci is eaten with sauerkraut, turnip and stews. In the summer, sour milk or yoghurt is more refreshing.

The Slovenian word žganci sounds sweet, different, even funny, and foreigners struggle with its pronunciation. The recipe for buckwheat žganci first appeared in German cookbooks in 1465, which proves that žganci really is an old dish. There are many sayings about žganci. If anybody ever says to you: “You’ll have to eat a whole lot more žganci before you’ll be able to do this,” they are almost patronising you, saying that you’ll have to get a lot older and stronger to achieve your goal. Another saying is “Sleep is better than žganci,” meaning it is better to sleep than to eat.
Traditional food is being kept alive and remains quite popular. Almost every holiday is celebrated with special dishes, as described in the old Lower Carniolan saying “A different cut for every holiday.” However, any day is right for žganci! You know, to keep you strong.

Text by Polona Prešeren, Sinfo, April 2011