Eastern Europeans drink a lot of vodka - that's no secret. However, if you've ever been to a party or had a long dinner with someone from Russia, Poland, or Ukraine then you've probably also noticed that they are generally able to hold their alcohol better than their American counterparts. While some of that comes from years of practice and a generally high level of consumption, there's another secret too. Salo! Salo is a salted pork fat that is sometimes referred to as the Ukrainian national dish and was served at nearly every meal that I had while touring the country.
Not surprisingly, salo exists in different forms throughout the region, with true Ukranian salo containing virtually no meat - just pure white fat - while Russian and Polish versions will contain stripes of meat similar to bacon. It is generally served with garlic as well as onions and pickles and together this is the ultimate drinking snack. While I'm sure that every cook in Ukraine has their own special recipe passed down by the previous generations, in the most basic form it is simply pork fat (or pork belly) that has been covered with herbs and spices (bay leaves, peppercorns, garlic, red pepper etc.) the covered in salt and cured for days or weeks.
After a week touring Ukraine with the folks at Global Spirits and consuming significant quantities of both Khortytsa Vodka and Salo (for research!), I have to say that it does enhance the experience ...
How Does Salo Help You Enjoy Vodka More?
In truth, I've always enjoyed sharing sausage and a bottle of vodka with friends but Salo is just that much better though the principle is the same. First, by eating something between shots you slow down the consumption and are guaranteed not to ever have an empty stomach. This helps ensure that the alcohol enters the body more slowly. Second, salo is so delicate that it virtually melts in your mouth and this coats the tongue, mouth, and throat with a layer of fat that helps reduce any burn - as well as further reducing the speed at which the alcohol enters the bloodstream. Finally, the combination of salt from the salo and from the pickled vegetables accompanying it can help replace electrolytes as well as make your thirstier so it encourages you to stay hydrated instead of becoming potentially dangerously dehydrated from drinking too much. That dehydration is one of the prime causes of a hangover, so make sure to eat your salo and drink water when you enjoy your vodka!
The History of Salo in Ukraine
It is said that historically since Ukraine has been a poor country and pigs were easy to raise that farmers would sell the meat - but keep the fat for themselves. Not only was the fat seen mostly as something to that the wealthy would discard but it also had the highest calorie count, something that was essential for maintaining the strength to harvest wheat and tend to the farm chores. The other benefit to these peasant farmers and serfs was that the cured salo could last for a year or more. This meant that not only would it provide a high-calorie food source during warmer months but also one that could sustain them through the cold Ukranian winters.
Today, salo is served in a couple different ways in Ukraine. The first is since authentic Ukrainian salo is pure pork fat, it can be sliced and spread on a piece of course bread almost like a thick butter. The second is sliced into small strips and eaten individually - often between shots of Khortytsa Vodka. In this form, it is similar to Italian lardo but whereas Italians slices theirs extremely then, Ukrainians enjoy theirs more thick.