From Soup to Nuts: Poland's 10 Most Peculiar Soups
small, Łódź, 1964, photo: Miroslaw Stankiewicz / Forum, zupa_forum.jpg
Poles are passionate soup eaters. Most of their soups originate from a distant past: some Polish soups have even been mentioned in ancient French cookbooks such as Escoffier's or Ali-Bab's publications.
Households and eateries serve them in a traditional, rural version. They consist of meat (or sometimes vegetable) broth, pieces of meat, sausages, vegetables, hard boiled eggs, noodles or cereals and contrast with the creams, “veloutés” or “moulinés” more common in the south of Europe. Some renowned chefs, like for example Wojciech Modest Amaro, whose restaurant received the first Michelin Star in Poland, transform traditional soups into modernist dishes.
Sour rye soup (żur, 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. It is typical Polish comfort food even nowadays, regardless of profession and social status. The soup is made with sour rye flour. Sour rye is a naturally fermented liquid mixture of water, spices and rye flour.
It may be bought in bottles in food stores, but it is easy to make it at home. Put rye flour in a large jar, mix with water, spices and cover with a clean cloth allowing access to fresh air. During the boiling process, the soup will thicken a bit because of the flour. What Poles add to the soup depends on their habits and will vary with the region: smoked bacon, meat, cubed or mashed potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, dried or pickled mushrooms, but also a specific tasty, aromatic pork sausage called 'white sausage' (biała kiełbasa). The soup is traditionally served at Easter. A vegetarian version is quite frequently served on Christmas eve: it is prepared with dry forest mushrooms, sometimes horseradish, potatoes and eggs. There exists a famous local variation: white borscht – similar to żurek, but using fermented wheat flour or zalewajka – is a certified regional speciality from central Poland.
Beetroot soup (barszcz czerwony)
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Beets are eaten all year round in Poland because they are known to be tasty and healthy. Beetroot soup, called barszcz is of the most common beet preparation in the country. There exist numerous variations of it. Everyday bortsch is usually served with potatoes, cooked beans or hard-boiled eggs. At parties, weddings and occasional feasts, it is accompanied by various types of small savoury pastries (kulebiaki, kapuśniaczki).
Traditional bortsch consists of a fermented liquid which has to be prepared a couple of days in advance (or bought in a store). It is made from raw beets which become acidic naturally thanks to fermentation in salted water with garlic and other spices. Such a liquid (zakwas) is not only used for bortsch but may be drunk raw as a health beverage. A real must in Poland is the traditional Christmas Eve vegetarian version of bortsch. It is not only a soup, but also one of the culinary symbols of Polish Christmas Eve. It is served with tiny raviolis stuffed with a preparation of soaked dried ceps and fried onions (called uszka in Polish, literally meaning 'little ears'). Bortsch with raviolis is also served in restaurants all year round. The first records of bortsch date from the beginning of the 16th century.
In summertime, Poles enjoy botwinka, which is the name for a soup made from young beets – their roots, stalks and leaves.
Gherkin soup (ogórkowa)
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Sour cucumber soup with shredded or chopped gherkins is typically Polish, omnipresent in daily cooking. Gherkins (sour cucumbers), common in Poland, are prepared in a similar way to sauerkraut, beets and rye flour. They are fermented in brine with spices, dill and garlic. The naturally present Lactobacillus bacteria cover the skin of cucumbers in summertime, allowing them to ferment. Potatoes and chopped dill are typically added. The liquid produced during fermentation is rich in vitamins and minerals and can be drunk as a hangover remedy.
Lithuanian chilled soup (chłodnik litewski)
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This is an ancient but extraordinarily vivid pink soup which is commonly eaten during summertime. It calls for young beets, their leaves and stalks, soured milk (buttermilk or kefir), acid beet juice (zakwas), freshly chopped dill and chives, chopped cucumber, and hard-boiled eggs. A century ago, the soup was still usually served with crayfish tails and veal meat, which nowadays is a luxury. The soup is called 'Lithuanian' because it originated in Lithuanian territory (Poland and Lithuania were joined in a political union for several centuries). Traditional recipes advise a lot of fresh sour cream which, nowadays, may seem excessive because of the fat and calorie content. Some cooks add chopped radishes and gherkins. Nowadays, the most popular accompaniment to the soup is hard-boiled eggs or potatoes.
Cabbage soup (kapuśniak)
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This rustic soup is made with sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) with smoked bacon, ribs, sausage, potatoes and spices like bay leaves, allspice, pepper, sweet paprika; some also add a bit of tomato paste. There are versions of the soup which use a mixture of sauerkraut and white cabbage or, in the summer, white cabbage only. For ages, cabbage has been one of the staples of Poland’s diet. In autumn and winter, the cabbage soup is frequently prepared with a broth made from smoked bacon or ribs. It is available in every eatery carrying traditional Polish food. In the south of Poland, a local version called kwaśnica has a long history in the countryside. This local version was traditionally served after a pig's slaughtering.
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As strange as it may sound to foreigners, both in traditional households and in schools, people eat fruit soups in the summertime as a main course. They are served with noodles or croutons. When in season, strawberries, raspberries or bilberries are inexpensive in Poland; people buy bags of them and consume them in large amounts. However, fruit soups are a bit forgotten already now that a wider variety of fare has become available.
Three meat broth (rosół)
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True Poles eat a meat broth as the first dish of their Sunday dinner. The simple version usually calls for one type of meat. The traditional version uses three or even more types of meat such as chicken, veal and beef, which are simmered together for a couple of hours with vegetables, spices and herbs. It is served with noodles of various shapes, or 'drop' dumplings (lane ciasto or lane kluski).
Barley soup (krupnik)
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During harsh Polish winters, thick soups with barley groats or other grains remedy against a cold. Krupnik is a soup traditionally made with barley groats, and comes from the word krupy, meaning 'porridge'. However a lot of people use various types of groats and meats. Krupnik is also a good hearty vegetarian winter soup option. As opposed to sour rye soup, borscht or cucumber soup, krupnik is not acidic at all. It is often served to children. In Polish, the word 'krupnik' has another meaning as well. It is also a type of sweet honey and herb vodka, which you can find in every Polish liquor store, prepared after a traditional formula.
Duck blood soup (czernina)
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In the not so distant past, Poland was a multicultural country. Some local specialities survived despite historical changes. Czernina (or czarnina) is a soup made from duck blood and clear poultry broth with spices, dried fruits, fine noodles or little dumplings. During the 19th century, the soup had a cultural significance because it was served to young men applying for the hand of their beloved ones after the parents rejected their proposal. It is still a speciality in Kashubia and Greater Poland (north and west of the country).
Stale bread soup (wodzionka)
Poles really love bread, so perhaps it's no surprise they have a soup made from it too. Wodzionka is a Silesian (south-west Poland) bread or water soup made from stale bread, water and fat – prepared by soaking bread in boiling water along with garlic, pepper, bay leaves and other seasoning, bacon, lard or butter. It is served with potatoes.
And one more... Flaki!
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At our readers’ request, we have added another surprising dish to our list: tripe soup. To an unsuspecting dinner guest, a bowl of flaki may seem to contain thick noodles, but in truth they are strips of beef tripe in a rich marjoram-flavoured broth. The dish is rumoured to have been a favourite of King Władysław Jagiełło.
Written by Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux in Polish, Winter 2013; translated & edited on 22 April 2014 by LB
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