Ten Meals from Ten Polish Regions
If you don’t feel like having the omnipresent żurek or bigos, what kind of a regional meal should you have when visiting Warsaw, Kraków, or Poznań?
Pre-war Polish cuisine was a blend of different flavours from all kinds of nationalities and regions. Yet, obviously, there were also dishes common for the entire country. The change in Poland's boundaries after 1945, the loss of the Eastern Borderlands, and the gaining of territories to the west of Poland, as well as the migration of millions, the repressive policies of the communist authorities, and the huge shortage in food supply – all of these events caused great losses within the culture of Poland’s historic regions. Luckily, the research and promulgation of culinary traditions that has been undertaken in past decades is now starting to bear visible fruit. Thanks to the many activities devoted to the promotion of cooking, festivals, and the new kind of culinary tourism which is just coming to life, regional cooking is now undergoing a visible revival.
Podlasie and Lubelszczyzna - from the potato babka to the Tatar pierekaczewnik
This culturally rich territory in the east and north-east of Poland used to be a mixture of Eastern, Jewish and Mazovian elements.
A main meal in Podlasie will comprise high-calorie yet delicious potato specialities, such as the potato babka and kiszka, and the Biłgoraj pierog. The two former dishes can be made of identical ingredients and will differ only in the way in which they are served and how they look. Both are made with grated raw potatoes, mixed with either bacon or lard speck, and seasoned with cumin or marjoram. The paste for the babka is folded into a baking pan and put in the oven, while the kiszka mass is stuffed into a pig's intestine. Although both these dishes are also known across other regions, they are mainly associated with Podlasie. The Biłgoraj pieróg or pieróg biłgorajski in Polish (biłgorajski being an adjective form) has the appearance of a pâté. It is made of buckwheat groats and potatoes, as well as cottage cheese, eggs, bacon or lard. It tastes best with the addition of sour cream and mushroom sauce.
Sękacz will then be the indispensable dessert cake – baked over a flame, sękacz is the Polish name for a pastry frequently known as the Baumkuche. A few years ago it was eaten by Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen's legendary Noma, during the prestigious Cook It Raw Poland event. A rotating spit is poured over with layers of batter. What’s in the name? Well, once it’s ready and cut into pieces, it resembles a cut down tree trunk with annual growth rings – sęki in Polish. The history of the sękacz cake goes back as far as the Middle Ages, with contradictory legends about its real origin.
During a visit to the Podlaskie region, it is worth stopping by Kruszyniany. This famous village was founded a couple of centuries ago, and given over to Tatars by the Polish king Jan III Sobieski. The descendants of Tatars live in this area to this day, and they cherish their own cuisine, with its particular note of the Orient. A unique Tatar lunch can be eaten in the legendary Tatar Yurta – it can start with the crunchy cebulniki – baked pierogi stuffed with meat and onion. Next, the iconic pierekaczewnik – a kind of huge pieróg, shaped like the shell of a snail, and made with six layers of finely rolled dough, covered with butter and layered with a savoury stuffing made of lamb. For dessert – the czak-czak Tatar cookies, coated with honey, poppy seeds, and almonds.
Off to Kraków for a maczanka
It would probably be best to start a Kraków meal with caraway soup, but unfortunately this symbol of Galician cuisine has been somewhat forgotten. But many restaurants do serve a Krakówian version of flaki. It’s possible to even find them served with kiszka (a type of black pudding), the way they used to be in the past. Another speciality which has recently been regaining popularity is the maczanka krakowska. Steeped and slowly baked neck meat is served with caraway (hugely popular in Galicia, back in the day) and onion, and it is served in a concentrated sauce, in which one dips a wheat roll. It is usually served with pickled cucumbers. The maczanka is recently also making its street-food appearance – various booths in the Kazimierz district serve it with some untraditional toppings.
Although the most popular way of serving duck in Poland is with sour apples and marjoram, while in Kraków, one ought to look for its local version. In the former Polish capital, duck is served with groats and dried wild mushroom. For dessert, I suggest trying the małdrzyki krakowskie – pancakes made with cottage cheese and a pinch of flour, fried with butter and usually served with fruit. They go back a few hundred years, with mentions of the małdrzyki in 18th-century culinary texts.
Podhale: sour cabbage and lamb
The mountainous Podhale region is part of the administrative Małopolska area, but, culturally, it has developed a distinct mountain cuisine of its own. This development was influenced by settlements from the Wołyń region, resulting in the production of sheep milk cheeses, for example – a product which now bears the official EU regional speciality certificate.
Podhale was a poor area in the past, and its harsh climate made the food of the region simple and hearty. Meat was a rarity.
A must-have while visiting Podhale is the regional soup called kwaśnica, a customary start to the main meal on cold winter days. It is made with juice from soured cabbage, and it differs from sour cabbage soup – kapuśniak – often served across the country. The latter is always served with bits of cabbage floating in it, while the classic kwaśnica is always clear. Moreover there are dozens of different kinds of the kwaśnica – a fast variety, and numerous meat versions – with lamb, smoked chops, with the addition of linseed oil, mushroom, and sour cream.
The main course can consist of baked lamb, or mutton goulash served from the pot is also an option, served with the most popular vegetable – cabbage simmered with cumin seeds. The góralski (from Góral – the Polish name for the Tatra highlanders) can also be accompanied by a moskol – a pie made with boiled, mashed potatoes baked in a tin. Legend has it that the moskole have made their way to Poland’s Tatra region during the First World War, together with Russian POWs – and hence the name, which is evocative of the Russian capital, Moscow. When it comes to dessert, a traditional serving would provide the bombolki – yeast buns topped with honey and butter.
Mazowsze and Warsaw - flaki and the wuzetka
Culinary critic, Piotr Adamczewski states that:
"Both connoisseurs and chefs have always had a lot of trouble with Mazowsze cuisine. It is very hard to point out its characteristics. Dishes that come from other regions are relatively easy to name. They have their own, long history, names that are known to everyone, and a distinct flavour."
According to Adamczewski, the cuisine of the Mazowsze region simply appropriated dishes from other areas of Poland. Nowadays, the capital, located at the heart of the region, is undoubtably the most dynamic place on the culinary map of the country. A growing number of restaurants offer modern Polish cuisine of a very high standard, and based on high-quality products. But in order to taste Varsovian dishes straight out of pre-war cookbooks, one has to search for the hardly tourist-friendly destinations in the districts of Czerniaków or Praga. These restaurants have been functioning for decades, and boast a faithful number of clients thanks to the offal dishes for which Warsaw once used to be famous.
As part of the Warsaw dinner, therefore, we order lungs in white borsch, kidneys in thick sauce with carrot and onion, and Varsovian flaki (tripe soup). Contrary to the Kraków versions, Warsaw flaki must also contain meatballs made of veal. For dessert, the classic cake is a wuzetka – a cuboid form made of layers of cocoa-flavoured sponge-cake, jam, and whipped cream, with chocolate coating. It is usually believed that the name – a spelling out of the W-Z letters – is associated with the great W-Z highway which was built in Warsaw in the late 1940s.
A goose meal in Kujawy
The cuisine of Kujawy – a historic and beautiful region, rich in lakes and numerous forests, is rich and varied, as it combines influences from Wielkopolska and from the Pomorskie region. The area is widely known for its recipes for czernina, the traditional Polish soup made with either duck or goose blood. In the Kujawy region, it is made with the addition either of dried fruit, or little potato dumplings, the so-called golce. There are also special varieties of the czernina served with gingerbread. And because Kujawy generally specialises in goose meat, the regional meal cannot do without it. Kujawy are home to the renowned oat goose farms of Kołuda Wielka, which we wrote extensively about in our article entitled Food Fundamentals: Goose.
We start off with półgęsek, the cold-smoked goose breast speciality, and we move on to baked goose. For dessert – the traditional gingerbread pie from the beautiful city of Toruń, about which we also wrote in a special article:
Pomorze and Kaszuby: herring, goose, and rutabaga
Pomorze and Kaszuby in the north of Poland are the territory of a very tumultuous Polish-Prussian-German history. For ages the Kaszuby people conjured up hundreds of different ways for preparing fish. The region is also famous for its goose dishes. A Kaszuby main meal is best started either with the sweet and sour herring a la Kaszuby (served with fried onion and tomato sauce), smoked eel, or the so-called okrasa – a bread spread made of minced goose meat and fat, seasoned with herbs and spices. The tastes of true connoisseurs should be satisfied with the traditional rutabaga soup – a traditional vegetable that has fallen into oblivion, formerly associated with times of poverty in the region. Rutabaga is served with marjoram and goose meat. For dessert, the best find in the summer season must be the Kaszuby strawberry, a proud owner of the EU regional speciality certificate. Outside of the season, it can be substituted with ruchanki – regional little pancakes made with flour, milk, and yeast.
Warmia and Mazury - cucumber stynka and dzyndzałki
In the past, there were more differences between Warmia and Mazury than similarities. After 1945 and the post-war migrations of the regions’ ethnic peoples, it is difficult to trace back the remains of local culinary traditions. Once can discern the influence of foods from the Eastern Borderlands, since many people from that area came to settle in the region after the war. Yet, because the so-called Land of a Thousand Lakes is rich in freshwater fish, they remain the main culinary ingredient and can stand out as distinct for the region.
For a starter, we ought to try a deep-fried stynka (smelts) which smells like fresh cucumbers. Then, the first course should consist of a soup made with the different variety of fish that inhabit Mazury lakes. We continue indulging in our meal as we proceed onto the dzyndzałki – little dumplings with meat stuffing, seasoned with garlic and marjoram. The dzyndzałki resemble Lithuanian kołduny and much like them, they often come served in broth. Apart from the fish, the region offers a variety of potato dishes. Farszynki were most likely brought here by the post-war settlement. These fried potato-dough pancakes are stuffed with meat and garlic and are somewhat evocative of the kartacze – an eastern speciality eaten in the nearby Suwałki region. For dessert – the fefernuszki, little cookies that resemble gingerbread and in which honey is substituted with beetroot syrup.
Wielkopolska pyry with gzik
At the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Wielkopolska region was the most urbanised part of Poland, and it was here that the bourgeois culture first began to develop. Under the Prussian rule that followed Poland’s partitions, the region underwent a process of Germanisation, which is still visible in its cuisine.
A popular Wielkopolska dish are pyry with gzik – boiled or baked unpeeled potatoes served with "gzik” [pronounced: gzhee-kh], a heavy cottage cheese dip, mixed with salt, cumin, onion and dill, formed into a special gomółka shape. The local filling soup is made with sweet cabbage and called parzybroda (literally meaning burns-the-chin). It owes this name to the chopped strips of cabbage which often burn the chin. In Poznań, one can eat the kluchy and łachu, a special kind of yeast dumplings. They are steam-boiled in a pot covered over with linen cloth, and they are served with duck baked with apples, a thick sauce and red cabbage. A Wielkopolska, or rather a Poznań, meal ought to be crowned with the local speciality – the marcińskie (Martin’s) croissants with dried nuts and fruit.
The "śląski łobiod" of Silesian cuisine
The cultural heritage of this miners’ region in the south of Poland has been shaped by a couple of nationalities, mainly Poles and Silesians. Its cuisine bears traces of German and Austrian influences, as well as those of the Czech Republic, Russia, and the culture of the Borderlands. This last influence is due to the presence of those who were displaced from the east and settled in the area, bringing their own dishes with them.
Although Silesia is far from the Baltic sea, the herring starter called hekele is highly popular here. Hekele is made with herring and a hard-boiled egg, with pickled cucumbers, mustard, onion, and pepper. A traditional "śląski łobiod" – Silesian dinner, as pronounced in the local dialect – begins with a thick broth served with home-made noodles. The main course comprises beef rolls stuffed with bacon, pickled cucumbers, and onion. They are accompanied by gumiklyjzy, the Silesian dumplings with a little indentation, made out of boiled potatoes and potato flour, and sweet and sour red cabbage salad. Each Silesian meal is accompanied with by fruit compote. For dessert, the Silesian speciality is a szpajza − a dessert made by adding sweetened and flavoured egg yolks to beaten whites.
Podkarpacie - proziaki and fuczki
Up until the times of the Second World War, the Podkarpackie region was a multi-cultural ethnic mosaic. But after the Holocaust, and the subsequent displacements of the Bojko and Łemko peoples during the Wisła action, the region became almost ethnically homogenous. The diverse culinary heritage has been forgotten and its reconstruction has engaged numerous people in recent years.
The Podkarpacie region has a speciality starter called the proziaki, whose history goes back at least 150 years. The proziaki are delicious little breads baked with the addition of baking soda and soured milk, on a stove top. They are fashionable nowadays and often served in trendy bars or restaurants, although they derive from cuisine of the poor – they were baked when bread was lacking. They taste best with the addition of fresh country butter and cream. Among the many delicious soups of the region, we should look for the zalewajka made with buttermilk and cumin, or kisełycia – soured oat soup. For the main course, I recommend the fuczki – delicious pancakes made of soured cabbage, or the hreczanyki – minced meat mixed with buckwheat groats and garlic, served with different sauces.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk–Chevriaux, May 2015
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 9/06/2015