Vegan Alternatives to the 12 Dishes of Polish Christmas
For Poles, Christmas Eve is one of the most important holidays, and, of course, is mostly just about eating. And Poles take their festive food very seriously. An old tradition has it that a 12-dish Christmas Eve dinner is a must. Culture.pl introduces you to a new wave of this tradition, with a surprising twist: it's 100% vegan.
Why does there have to be exactly 12 dishes? This number wasn’t picked at random. Twelve is a special number in many ways: according to Catholic beliefs, and here we have to admit that over 90% of Polish people describe themselves as Catholic, it symbolizes the 12 apostles. Another option is more pragmatic: 12 dishes for the 12 months of the year, to celebrate each of them and ensure luck for the following dozen.
Nevertheless, no matter your religious views, Christmas Eve dinner in Poland is more than just a meal. It's the most important dinner of the year, and many dishes are only eaten on this particular day, so pay attention to what appears on the table. It is a special day when all the family gets together, often coming from all around the world just to wait at the table for the first course to start this delicious feast.But the world is moving very quickly and trends in nutrition are changing. Our part of Europe is not perceived as a paradise for herbivores. Actually, quite the opposite: the cuisine of Slavic nations is seen as meat-heavy and greasy. Christmas Eve Dinner is a great way of proving believers of these stereotypes wrong.
If you are not sure if you should invite your vegan friend for Christmas, if your fiancée from Canada has stopped eating gluten, or a bunch of your exchange friends that are about to visit have decided to skip lactose, just lay the table anyway, and check out our 12 vegan Christmas dishes.
1. Vegan Christmas Eve red borscht
The vegan version of Polish Christmas Eve starts inconspicuously with the traditional red borscht. All of those gathered are hungry and happy, but when the word vegan appears, you may see suspicion in the eyes of the grandpas. As it turns out, there's no need: for those who might be afraid of the veganisation of Christmas this borscht should be the first reason not to be. Red borscht is 100% vegan and still traditional. In this case, the absence of animal products doesn't matter, as the most important thing is to achieve the amazing, slightly acidic taste that perfectly matches beetroot's sweetness. It is all about good ‘zakwas’. To start Christmas dinner with proper borscht you should prepare this sour base a few days in advance. Besides raw beets, boiled water and garlic, high-quality bread is essential. Don't hesitate to use gluten-free bread made of seeds, nuts and groats. After gathering all the ingredients, just put them in large jar (0.5 to 1 litre) and cover with boiling water. After 3-5 days your sour base will be ready! Borscht is usually served with small dumplings, uszka, (which directly translated from Polish means ‘small ears’), but you can serve it as the Górale (Highlanders) of the Tatra mountain region do with delicious white beans or slices of bread.
2. Christmas almond soup
While in most houses Christmas Mushroom Soup is the second soup to be served during Christmas Eve dinner, some Poles still prepare Sweet Almond Soup. This traditional recipe is a little bit forgotten and bringing it back to life is a great idea. All you need is: wheat berries, almonds, plant milk, sugar and a vanilla stick. You can also replace wheat with your favourite groats to make it gluten-free.
3. Greek-style tofu
Each nation has some stereotypes when it comes to cooking. In Poland, it is commonly maintained that Greece is the land of the so-called ‘Greek-style fish’. To be honest, there's no such dish in the homeland of Socrates, but in Poland ‘Greek-style fish’ means fish prepared with carrots and spices. As a vegan cook, you refuse to even hear about preparing fish as one of the 12 dishes, but we've got you covered. Polish ‘Greek-style tofu’ might conquer the hearts (and stomachs) of your guests, so better make some more in advance.
4. Lentil and walnut 'meatloaf'
Meatloaf is one of the most popular dishes in Polish cuisine. The Christmas version (even the vegan one) is, of course, something special. It is based on lentils, and to prepare it you should be patient, as lentils like to have a cosy soak in water before they are cooked. After cooking, combine the lentils with vegetables, crushed walnuts and a pinch of spices (not to destroy the deep taste of the walnuts!), put them into a baking form and wait till amazin as a complement to one of the Christmas soups. If you want to spice it up in an unusual way, use black carraway, an old Polish herb.
5. Polish dumplings (pierogi)
Without a doubt, ‘pierogi’ is the first word that comes to mind when talking about Polish cuisine, and celebrating anything without them is a crime. The most Christmas common fillings are sauerkraut and mushroom, but you can easily use a little bit of tofu with vegetables or one of the delicious kinds of groat instead. Adding parsley or coriander might be a refreshing idea to bring a twist to the old tradition.
6. Mushroom and white bean pâté
Mushroom and white bean pâté is a great way of convincing friends and family of the multitude of ways of preparing vegetables. What’s more, it goes well with slice of bread or fresh vegetables. It’s vegan-friendly, gluten-free, and will last for a few days in the fridge. The only things you need are mushrooms (to be honest, Polish Christmas has a case of mushroom fever), cooked beans, and a good blender. We'll leave the rest is your imagination, inspired by Eastern European tastes like cumin, rosemary, and lovage.
7. Braised sauerkraut
Even if you decided not to fill your pierogi with sauerkraut, there's no way to get away from it. But this isn't the sauerkraut of travel guides or podcasts about the world's weirdest dishes, but sauerkraut scented with smoked plums, sour apples, and fresh rosemary. It used to be said that traditional sauerkraut is just cabbage with all the types of meat that you can find in the neighbourhood. Well, it is not: originally, sauerkraut was 100% vegan without any animal products, and only with the passing of time were more and more ingredients added.
8. Cabbage rolls (gołąbki)
These cabbage rolls might remind you of Latin American tamales or African dishes served in vegetables leaves, but in contrast to these, the leaves of Polish gołąbki are 100% edibles. Stuffed with typical cereals, mushrooms, and spices, they will make you fall in love with cabbage. But be careful: they're very filling, so think twice before helping yourself to seconds, as you still have four more dishes to try!
Wheat grains, poppy seeds, honey, and a bit of candied fruit are all it takes to prepare one of the most amazing Christmas dishes. Looking at the ingredients list it may appear a poorer sort of dish, but in reality it’s an amazing dessert with a taste which can't be compared. In the past, Kutia was perceived as a special holy dish and eaten only on special occasions. Nowadays, it's prepared only for Christmas Eve. To make it vegan, just switch the honey for maple syrup or sugar and forget about cream, et voila!
10. Polish gingerbread cookies
Another dish especially for gourmands are Polish gingerbread cookies (pierniczki). The best recipe comes from Nicolas Copernicus' home town. He was one of the greatest astronomers, but not only did he ‘stop the sun and move the earth’, he also had a sweet tooth. In Toruń, you can buy adorable packages of gingerbreads with his picture on the box and enjoy them on Christmas Eve. Another idea is to prepare them at home. Thanks to the variety of Polish cuisine you can prepare them in a 100% vegan way. Instead of honey, use caramelized sugar, and eggs can be easily replaced by linseed mixed with boiling water. Don’t forget to serve with a small bowl of jams and plum preserves. Vegalicious!
11. Dried fruit compote
The Poles are masters of preserving the tastes of summer through rainy autumn and windy winter. Dried fruit compote might sound like a terrible misunderstanding, but give it a shot. To prepare this simple beverage you just need some dried and smoked fruits. The best, of course, are those that you saved from being eaten by your family while you spent a nice weekend in the countryside. To make a perfect Christmas compote, use apples, pears, plums and cherries. Even though mixing a smoky flavour with fruit might sound crazy, you’ll fall in love with compote. If not, you will at least better digest all of the rest of the dinner, because it speeds up your digestion.
12. Millet and cashew ‘cheesecake’
Christmas without proper cake is not Christmas. Especially if you want to celebrate them in a Polish way. To prepare one of the special cakes is a beloved tradition that brings grandparents, parents and the youngest ones together. The most popular are ‘Poppy seed cake’ and cheesecake. A common Polish belief is that poppy seeds symbolize luck and prosperity, just like pomegranate seeds in Jewish tradition. The meaning of millet in Polish cuisine is very similar. Our millet and cashew ‘cheesecake’ combines both of them, which makes it just a perfect Christmas cake.
Author: D.S., 17.12.2015.