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I admit, the Balkan cured salami known as kulen first caught my eye because of its bulbous, knobby shape, which made it look something like a malignant tumor sitting in the meat case. I found it first at Lincoln Quality Meat Market under the name slavonski kulen and imported, via New York, from Croatia. It's a tangy, bright red pork-and-beef cured sausage emulsified with lots of paprika, not unlike a good hot soppressata. Over a period of a couple of weeks I probably ate my way through three pounds of it.
But then Friend of the Food Chain Vera Videnovich alerted me to the presence of kulen at George's Liquor & Deli in Ravenswood, the primary retail outlet for George's Brand Meats, whose processing facility in Franklin Park turns out about 20 different cured and smoked Balkan-style beef and pork products and distributes them under various brand names, including their own.
Dan Dacic, son of founder Niko, tells me there are kulen-like variations from Hungary, Germany, and other parts of eastern Europe. "Slavonski" Kulen indicates an eastern Croatian origin, which puts it near Serbia's northern Vojvodina province—pretty much the capital of kulen, according to Dacic. Appreciation for kulen seems to transcend generations, since it's celebrated with both annual folk festivals and on its own Facebook page.
Dacic says their kulen recipes—made with either a beef-and-pork mix or a less peppery all-beef formula—are 30 or 40 years old and involve mixing, stuffing, curing, cold smoking, and drying the meat over a 20-day period. The result is stuffed in straight collagen casings, which gives it a more familiar, sausagelike aspect, less alarming than the Croatian brand. It's more emulsified too, and a touch drier and less fatty.
But I'm not playing favorites—I love both of those kulen equally.
George's Liquor & Deli, 1964 W. Lawrence, 773-728-6333
Lincoln Quality Meat Market, 4661 North Lincoln, 773-561-4570