Polish Food 101 ‒ Pierogi
Pierogi (the word ‘pierogi’ is plural in Polish, the singular is one ‘pieróg’ – pronounced pye-ROOG) are the most recognizable Polish food abroad. They are half-circular dumplings usually made from noodle flour dough, and sometimes from pastry dough. Pierogi are stuffed in a similar fashion to many other types of dumplings, for example the Japanese gyoza or the Italian ravioli.
Polish pierogi are usually boiled in salted water. Baked or even deep fried pierogi are also popular. There exists tons of recipes both for the stuffing and for the dough. During decades of communist regime, Poles usually could only "enjoy" the more simple rural versions with basic toppings. Perhaps this is why nowadays a lot of eateries and homes are tempted to experiment with extravagant stuffing and fancy toppings to turn this simple dish into a gourmet delicacy.
Why are pierogi so popular?
To many Poles, pierogi are remindful of childhood flavors and of their family home. Everybody knows that kids usually love flour dishes. Poles adore pierogi not only out of nostalgia for the past; they are the archetypal comfort food, satiating and hearty. People also have fun with them because of the stuffing which is always a bit of a surprise: will it be delicious or totally inedible? The Polish pierogi "concept" allows for endless opportunities to experiment with stuffing. People love them because they can be eaten warm, cold, baked, fried or boiled. They taste great on the second day, grilled on a frying pan with some butter. They also freeze very well, so you do not have to eat everything at once.
A bit of pierogi history
Pierogi arrived on Polish territories in the 13th century. The were probably imported from the Far East via eastern neighbors such as Kievian Rus (today's Ukraine) perhaps thanks to Hyacinth of Poland (a monk in a Kiev monastery who became patron saint of pierogi). In the past, pierogi were more popular in the eastern borderlands of Old Poland than in the west. The first written pierogi recipes come from Compendium Ferculorum a book published in 1682. It was the first Polish cookbook of the renowned cook Stanisław Czerniecki. What was the stuffing for those ancient pierogi? No potatoes (which were unknown in the 17th century in Poland...) but chopped kidneys, veal fat, greens and nutmeg.
Flavors and fillings
It seems that pierogi ruskie, which are stuffed with potatoes and quark cheese, are one of the most popular varieties nowadays. The name pierogi ruskie, which is commonly translated as Russian dumplings, misleads not only Poles but also foreigners. Make no mistake! The name does not indicate any Russian origin since such food is unknown there. Ruskie pierogi arrived from a prewar region of Poland which is now part of Ukraine. Indeed, before 1945 Ukrainians used to call this particular variety of pierogi ‘Polish pierogi’. It is likely that “pierogi ruskie” were created by Poles living in Ukraine at the time. These pierogi therefore obtained their new moniker – ruskie - after WW2, when thousands of Poles were forced to leave their homes in Western Ukraine and relocate to the West of Poland.
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. Meat is first cooked and then ground. The filling may vary according to the region and the season. In some regions, buckwheat or other grains or pulses like lentils are common. Some local versions also call for sausage, farmers’ cheeses for example sheep’s cheese (bryndza) from the Tatra mountains. Others require fish, for example herring. In autumn and winter a lot of Poles eat pierogi with braised sauerkraut and dried forest mushrooms. They are also part of the customary Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally pierogi are served with simple toppings: fried onions, lardons, melted butter, sour cream or pork rinds. These toppings may also be upgraded or replaced with more complicated sauces, as well as fresh herbs like parsley, chives, dill, mint, thyme, rosemary, tarragon or basil. The richness of spring and summer vegetables allows for surprising pierogi variations. Polish foodies and gourmets experiment with green veggies like asparagus, spinach, green peas, fava beans, sorrel or broccoli mixed with some good local cheese.
Poles also like sweet pierogi. In summer, some eat a sweet version of pierogi as a main course! This culinary habit of serving sweet food as a main meal may seem awkward and cloying to foreigners, yet kids usually love to tuck in sweet pierogi with quark cheese. Summer pierogi are filled with fruit like apricots, bilberries, apples, sweet or sour cherries. During Christmas, Poles eat pierogi with sweet poppy seed filling. Sweet pierogi can be topped with some powdered sugar and melted butter. This simple food may turn into a delicious dessert when served with an orange sauce, a lemon curd, some crème anglaise, a basic chocolate ganache or even a raspberry or a strawberry coulis.
Where are the best pierogi found?
It is not complicated to make pierogi but it takes time. Some experience in the kitchen and a good recipe are paramount. There is no hack to success. The pierogi dough should be elastic, delicate and soft, so it does not dominate the taste of the stuffing. It should not be too thick.
In Poland, they can be bought in food shops, eateries, restaurants, school canteens. These last few years, pierogi houses called “pierogarnia” have emerged This type of restaurant, sometimes very fancy, specializes in one type of dish - pierogi. Avoid those which seem to have thick, hard, gluey dough with only a tiny bit of stuffing.
Some Polish chefs of the new generation do not serve pierogi. They insist that pierogi are an over-exploited dish. However, Polish foodies await the Michelin star version of this traditional Polish dish. Will pierogi be promoted from peasant food to culinary classic?
Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, Winter 2013.