8 Polish Superfoods
The worldwide trend for superfoods has also spread to Poland. But just like any other nation, Poles also have their own local products, which are “super”. Even if they’re familiar, hackneyed, and their names don’t sound too original, regular intake of them aids the treatment of many diseases and helps prevent others. Where should one look for them? At local markets, tested retailers, and producers, or organic food shops. Here are a few examples.
Flax seeds have been known in folk medicine for centuries. Also known as linseeds, they are rich in omega-3 fats and in dietary fibre. In the past, although their chemical composition was unknown, the beneficial medical effects of eating flax seeds were simply observed. They are eaten to support treatment for digestive system conditions (including stomach and duodenum ulcers), as well as the treatment of respiratory conditions, and the balancing of high cholesterol levels. Flax seeds can prevent high blood pressure and heart diseases. It’s true that the recently trendy chia seeds (which are also much more expensive) contain more fibre, but flax seeds have a much higher level of omega-3 fatty acids. Flax seeds also contain a lot of vitamin E and phytoestrogens. Their flavour and medical qualities have been emphasised for years, and are even mentioned in an early 19th century work devoted to methods of obtaining vinegar and pressing oil. Although flax seeds were somewhat forgotten in the Polish People’s Republic, they have regained popularity over the past decade. It is a perfect ingredient to add to cottage cheese, to salads, and to the traditional Polish snack food served with vodka – herring.
Before the potato was introduced in Polish territory, the fundamental ingredient of the local diet was all kinds of groats, among them the gluten-free millet. It has strong alkaline-inducing properties, and contains many vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E and lecithin, which is good for memory and concentration and can also help regulate cholesterol levels. It contains little starch and a lot of easily absorbable protein and vitamins from the B group. It helps cure colds, thanks to its anti-viral and anti-inflammatory qualities. The silicon that this groat contains has a positive effect on hair, skin and nails. After years of oblivion, millet groats are enjoying a huge comeback, its great qualities are now being remembered and appreciated. Polish culinary blogs are filled with all kinds of recipes that use groats – from savoury goulashes, salads, pancakes, and vegan pates, through to gluten- and sugar-free desserts. The latest revived hit is the so-called jaglanka, a sweet serving of the millet groat with the addition of seasonal fruit, spicy seasonings, and honey.
In the fall, go to the market and buy fresh cranberries. Forget about the goji berry (especially since it is sold dry, and the process of drying oxidises vitamin C). Rich in vitamin C, carotene, flavonoids and anti-oxidants, the cranberry is known across many other countries, but it has been present in Polish cuisine for centuries. Its beneficial qualities are confirmed: it has antibacterial effects (useful in inflammations of the urinary tract), it protects against diseases of the heart and the circulatory system. You can also prepare sugar-free cranberry juice for the winter. Here's a 19th century recipe: “cranberry juice made in the winter when the cranberries freeze. Place them in a clay pot and put them into an oven overnight, so that they let out their juice. The following day, pour them out onto a tiffany cloth tied in four corners, and when the juice drips through, pour it into bottles, cork them, dip the bottle neck in tar, and store in a dry, cold basement pantry. Juice of this kind is healthy and desired when ill”.
There is no Polish cuisine without the beetroot. Although it is poor in vitamins, it contains precious minerals – iron, potassium, magnesium and folic acid. It you want to fully benefit from beetroot's goodness, you should make juice from it raw, or eat it in a salad, (it’s better to buy organic beetroot, as well as ones that are not too overgrown), because the minerals they contain actually dissolve in water if the vegetable is cooked. You can also bake it, unpeeled, in order to preserve its nutritive values. Beetroot strengthens the circulatory system, and although it does not contain a lot of iron, it is considered a blood-producing food. It prevents anaemia, helps to regulate the level of cholesterol, prevents the calcification of blood vessels, and lowers blood pressure. Betanine, which gives the vegetable its colour, protects against cancer. Some research suggests that the beetroot can ameliorate the condition of patients suffering from cancer.
Parsley – an ever-present ingredient of Polish cuisine that makes all children frown – cleanses the kidneys and the urinary tract, and it helps those who suffer from anaemia. It is rich in Vitamins C and A, beta-carotene and iron. It also contains vitamins from the B group, including folic acid, the minerals calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, manganese, and sulphur, as well as natural antioxidants. It strengthens the sight, and helps rid the body of excess water. It has diuretic effects, helps digestion and facilitates the assimilation of food. It is helpful for liver conditions, bladder stones, and rheumatic conditions. The essential oils it contains have diastolic effects which makes them act not only against digestive problems but also menstrual cramps. Today, it can be eaten the whole year round, but obviously the seasonal kind grown in natural conditions is always best. 19th century cooks knew of the beneficial qualities of parsley leaves, too, and also developed their own ways of storing it for the winter.
To this day, it is almost an everyday ingredient of the traditional diet. In the past, it would prevent scurvy and before World War II, it was made in every household before the winter. The bacteria which are created in the process of pickling improve the bacterial flora of the digestive system. The cabbage also lowers cholesterol levels and helps the organism to regenerate. It has anti-cancerous effects, and boosts the immune system – it contains vitamin C, and vitamins from the B, K, A and E groups. It is also rich in manganese compounds, as well as zinc, calcium, potassium, iron, and sulphur, which are all essential for the body’s functioning. The lactic acid produced during fermentation has beneficial effects on the digestive system. Pickled cabbage can be bought in any grocery store and at every market. You should check that is has been pickled naturally, without the addition of citric acid or vinegar, and whether is has been pasteurised – the latter does not have all of the aforementioned nutritional values. It is also easy to pickle a cabbage yourself. The best kind to use are the late variety, with solid and serried heads.
The dark colour of this fruit is due to anthocyanins (which are also present in other fruit such as the blackberry, blueberry, raspberry and cherry). The aronia berry has the highest level of this substance, which eradicates free radicals, and also protects the heart and the circulatory system. Aronia is also rich in vitamin C and E, and the B group vitamins, as well as beta-carotene, calcium, iron, copper, manganese and iodine. It is good for the sight, betters digestion, and strengthens the immune system. Poland has a very high production of this fruit, but most of it is exported. Research confirms that regular intake of aronia fruit lowers blood pressure, cholesterol level and lowers the risk of heart disease as well as cancer.
Bilberries, also known as the European blueberries, are known in Poland either as jagody, black jagody or borówki, depending on the region. They are a popular seasonal fruit which grows wild in the forests. In the past, bilberries were used to heal infections, typhoid and polio. They owe their qualities to their high anthocyanin levels which have a beneficial influence on the hearing and the blood vessel system. They are also used as an effective medicine for stomach and intestine conditions. Bilberries are good for the sight, and as a result they are employed in treating night blindness. They have antibacterial qualities and prevent infections of the urinary tract.
These are only some of the healthy products used in traditional Polish cooking. There are many more of them – such as quince, which also boosts the immune system and soothes digestive problems. Wattle is another: it has cleansing effects, soothes inflammation and strengthens the immune system. Poland also produces many excellent kinds of honey on unpolluted land.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux
Translated by Paulina Schlosser 13/07/2015