A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Cuisine
Polish cuisine is the result a treasured lore of ancestral ingredients, and has recently bloomed from virtual obscurity to one of the rising stars of the European scene. Its great advantage over long-time favorites like French or Italian fare is its range of unexpected tastes: the sharp pungency of mustard plants, the sparkle of fermentation, and umami galore.
While Poland is not immune to the fast-food bug, still to this day the average Pole carries a shaman-like knowledge of mushrooms, berries, and ancestral recipes. Consequently, fresh and delicious local dishes are not hard to come by while visiting, but audacious cooks abroad should not be afraid to try a few recipes themselves since most key ingredients can easily be made at home, if not necessarily available in stores.
To make the most out of our guide, simply select the topic which seems most appetizing, and prepare to salivate. Smacznego! (smatch-NEH-go, literally: wishing you tastiness!)
The oldest published Polish cookbook, Stanisław Czerniecki's Compendium Ferculorum from 1682 shows that much has changed over the last four centuries. The volume offers such lurid advice as this:
...take a live capon, pour wine vinegar down its throat with a funnel, tie and hang it up for five hours, pluck it nicely, and bake or prepare it as you wish.
Nevertheless, even in those early years, several distinguishing elements of Polish cuisine are apparent, first and foremost the variety of foreign influences, a rather unsurprising feature considering Poland's then impressive cultural diversity.
Indeed, Polish cuisine's initial taste palette was essentially Eastern: from the XIth century onwards, not only were Asian spices in use, but Crimean influences were also prevalent. Later on, the arrival of Jews in Poland during the Middle Ages led to a further amalgamation of tastes. Renaissance also plied Polish kings with flocks of foreign queens, all of which brought specialties from their own land. Bona Sforza, Italian wife of Sigismund I the Old, is reputed to have irremediably changed Polish cuisine because of her love of vegetables. To this day, Polish stores sell little bundles of carrots, leeks, parsnips, celery root and cabbage called włoszczyzna, or 'Italian stuff'.
Poland's subsequent partitions and assimilation into the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires will have left enough of a mark for Germans (or Austrian, Russian, Belarussian, Ukrainian) modern day visitors to notice familiar dishes, yet always with a local twist.
Unsurprisingly, two world wars kept the glory of Polish cuisine dormant for most of the twentieth century, although opinions are divided as to the faults or merits of food under communist rule.
Pierogi: the most iconic Polish food of all, they need no introduction. It seems that pierogi ruskie, stuffed with potatoes and cheese, are one of the most popular varieties both in Poland and abroad. Pierogi with meat fillings are quite popular as well: pork, beef, chicken and veal, often served with bacon. More sophisticated versions come with lamb, duck or goose meat.
Kotlet schabowy: you may be served something that looks and tastes like a schnitzel, but beware, it’s not a Wiener schnitzel. The kotlet schabowy came to Poland in the 19th century, most likely as a pork variation of the latter.
Pickles: Polish cuisine is often associated with pickles – first and foremost pickled cucumbers and cabbage (often known to the English speaker as sauerkraut), as well as juice from these pickles, beetroot leaven and żur (sour rye soup).
Oscypek: two things are needed to create oscypek (os-TSEH-peck) : a special breed of sheep called Polish Mountain Sheep, a shepherd, a small mountain hut with a hearth, a shepherd’s apprentice and a pastureland.
Gołąbki: pronounced go-WON-bki– literally ‘little pigeons’ – they are made by filling white cabbage leaves with stuffing made of rice and minced meat, served with either tomato or mushroom gravy. Gołąbki simmer or bake in a broth of varied flavours, and they always taste best on the second or even third day.
Kaszanka: the recipe for kaszanka differs according to regions, but the most popular version stuffs buckwheat, blood and offal, including liver, lungs, skins and fat into an intestine casing. In the summer, kaszanka [pronounced: ka-SHAN-kah] is often tossed on the BBQ along with kiełbasas.
Kiełbasa: it’s always sausage time in Poland! On weekdays, parties or during Christmas or Easter, Polish cold hams and sausages are traditionally served in cuts with cold side accompaniments: pickled mushrooms, gherkins, spicy horseradish, ćwikła (a mixture of shredded beets and horseradish), tartare sauce, mustard, root vegetable salad. They are also fried on open fires, or added to soups and stews.
Żurek: fermented flour for a soup? Yes, that is possible in Poland. It is one of the most surprising, tastiest and most old fashioned soups in Poland. The ubiquitous żurek is prepared in countless regional variations. The soup is made with sour rye flour. Sour rye is a naturally fermented liquid mixture of water, spices and rye flour.
Vodka is reputed to be the quintessential Polish beverage, and on one hand Poland produces several exquisite luxury vodkas which connoisseurs praise extravagantly. On the other hand, Poles tend to keep vodka for large gatherings and formal occasions. It was the most easily accessible alcohol of communist years, but the economic transition has seen a quick growth of breweries, both large and small, and on a daily basis beer is more frequently encountered.
Interest in craft beers has been growing over the last couple of years. They come in all sorts and sizes: blond or dark, unpasteurised, honey or otherwise flavoured beer, porter, stout, Kozlak Bock beer, wheat beer. There are countless local beers, and waiters and bartenders will gladly elaborate on their various properties.
Poland could also become the new European cider Eldorado. With 3 million tonnes of apples grown every year, Poland produces as many apples as Spain produces grapes. Conscientious Polish consumers have turned towards quality artisanal cider makers who aim to put the apple in the bottle with minimal manipulation. When looking for a Polish cider, avoid large brand names and look for the wide assortment of non-industrial gems.
Another remarkable product easy to find on Polish shelves, nalewka is a traditional alcohol most often prepared from fruit, but also from nuts and spices. The flavors are endless: cherry, ginger, juniper, hazelnut, pineapple... Non-Polish speakers interested in purchasing a bottle should keep in mind that the name of a particular nalewka will vary in function of its flavor. To play it safe, go for the ubiquitous cherry liqueur, wiśniówka (vish-NEW-vka).
Travellers fond of the nightlife may want to order a szarlotka (shar-LOT-ka), a cocktail made of apple juice and bisongrass vodka which tastes remarkably like apple pie. Another common concotion is piwo z sokiem (pee-VO z SOK-yem, beer with juice), which consists of draft beer with a shot of raspberry syrup – beware that the drink is not held to be overly manly, although Polish males of the hip-big-city variety are now often above such petty considerations.
Finally, for the unavoidable hour when the mere mention of the word 'alcohol' will threaten to bring every ingurgitated dish back under daylight, do sample Poland's enchanting variety of mineral waters.
The most spectacular meal one can withold while in Poland is surely the traditional twelve course Christmas feast. The number twelve symbolizes wealth, the twelve Apostles and the twelve months of the year. Some specific dishes may differ from various regions, but many of them are universal. Carp is one of those staples, along with barszcz and herring in one form or another.