A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Cuisine
small, A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Cuisine, Grilling kiełbasa in Kraków, photo: Grzegorz Kozakiewicz / Forum, kielbasa_gril_forum.jpg
From a treasured lore of ancestral ingredients, Polish cuisine has recently bloomed from virtual obscurity into a rising star on 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, to this day, the average Pole carries a shaman-like knowledge of mushrooms, berries, and ancestral recipes. Consequently, fresh and delicious local dishes aren't hard to come by on a visit – but audacious cooks abroad shouldn't be afraid to try a few recipes themselves. Most key ingredients, if not readily available in stores, can easily be made at home.
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To make the most of Culture.pl's guide to Polish cuisine, simply select the topic that seems most appetizing ... and prepare to salivate. Smacznego! ('Smatch-NEH-go', literally: wishing you tastiness!)
A short history of Polish cuisine
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.
Even in these early years, several distinguishing elements of Polish cuisine are apparent nevertheless. First and foremost, there is the variety of foreign influences – a rather unsurprising feature, considering Poland's impressive cultural diversity at the time.
Indeed, Polish cuisine's initial taste palette was essentially Eastern: from the 19th 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. The Renaissance also plied Polish kings with flocks of foreign queens, all of which brought specialties from their own land.
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Bona Sforza, the Italian wife of Sigismund I the Old, is reputed to have irremediably changed Polish cuisine through 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 German (or Austrian, Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian) visitors today to notice familiar dishes, if always with a local twist.
Unsurprisingly, the 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.
While it is difficult to encapsulate the recent past as good or bad, few people would question the fact that Polish cuisine has experienced a tremendous soar of energy and sophistication over the last decade.
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The most iconic Polish food of all, pierogi, needs no introduction. It seems that pierogi ruskie, or the beloved dumplings 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, and chicken, as well as veal, often served with bacon. More sophisticated versions come with lamb, duck or goose meat.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Pierogi
In Poland, you may be served something that looks and tastes like a schnitzel, but be aware that this is no Wienerschnitzel. The kotlet schabowy came to Poland in the 19th century, most likely as a pork variation of the latter.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Kotlet Schabowy
Pickled cucumbers, photo: Jędrzej Wojnar / AG
Polish cuisine is often associated with pickling – first and foremost pickled cucumbers and cabbage (often known to the English speaker as sauerkraut), as well as the juice from these pickles, in the form of beetroot kwas (leaven) and żur (sour rye).
Polish Food 101 ‒ Pickles
To create oscypek ('os-TSEH-peck'), a few things are required: 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.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Oscypek
Pronounced 'go-WON-bki' – literally, ‘little pigeons’ – gołąbki are made by filling white cabbage leaves with a stuffing made of rice and minced meat, and served with either tomato or mushroom gravy. Gołąbki are simmered or baked in a variety of broth flavours. They always taste best on the second or even third day.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Gołąbki
The recipe for kaszanka differs regionally, 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 barbeque along with kiełbasa.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Kaszanka
This and other sausages are easily found in Poland. On weekdays, at parties, or during Christmas or Easter, Polish cold hams and sausages are traditionally served in cuts with cold sides: pickled mushrooms, gherkins, spicy horseradish, ćwikła (a mixture of shredded beets and horseradish), tartare sauce, mustard, or root vegetable salad. Also fried on open fires, they are often added to soups and stews as well.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Kiełbasa
Fermented flour for a soup? Yes, it is possible – in Poland. Żurek is one of the most surprising, tasty and old-fashioned soups known to the country's cuisine. The soup is made with sour rye flour; sour rye is a naturally fermented liquid mixture of water, spices and rye flour. The ubiquitous żurek is prepared in countless regional variations.
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Na zdrowie! What to drink with a Polish meal
Vodka (in Polish, wódka, pronounced 'VOOD-ka') is reputed to be the quintessential Polish beverage. On the 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 sparked many breweries, both large and small, and on a daily basis, beer is encountered more frequently.
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Interest in craft beers has been growing over the last few years. Piwo ('PEE-vo,' beer) now comes 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, where bartenders and waiters will gladly elaborate on their various properties.
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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.
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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 according to its flavor. To play it safe, go for the ubiquitous cherry liqueur, wiśniówka ('vish-NEW-vka').
Travellers fond of nightlife may want to order a szarlotka ('shar-LOT-ka'), a cocktail made from apple juice and bison-grass vodka that tastes remarkably like apple pie. (In fact, as you'll read below, szarlotka is also the Polish word for the dessert.)
Another common concoction is piwo z sokiem (PEE-vo z SOK-yem, or beer with juice), which consists of draft beer with a shot of raspberry syrup.
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Finally, for the moment when the mere mention of the word 'alcohol' could threaten to bring every ingurgitated dish back under daylight, do sample Poland's enchanting variety of mineral waters.
Special occasions: a feast for every holiday
Red bortsch with ceps raviolis, photo: Bartłomiej Kudowicz / Forum
Without a doubt, the most spectacular meal one could enjoy while in Poland is the traditional twelve-course Christmas feast. The number twelve symbolises wealth, the twelve Apostles and the twelve months of the year. Some specific dishes may differ from region to region, but many of them are universal. Carp is one of those staples, along with barszcz (beet soup) and herring in one form or another.
The 12 Dishes of Polish Christmas
From a culinary point of view, Polish Easter can be equally charming, if not quite as copious. The feast consists of smoked meats and ham, where biała (or white) kiełbasa takes centre stage. Biała kiełbasa is an unsmoked, minced pork sausage (with the addition of beef and veal), covered in a thin layer of pork casings and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and marjoram. Eggs are served in every possible way, and cheese and yeast cakes are baked in abundant numbers.
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Furthemore, guests of traditional Polish weddings can look forward to a very long, very filling evening. Current wedding guides advise that 'for a standard wedding lasting about 12 hours, there are typically served between four and five hot entrees, along with appetizers, pastries, cake, and fruit.' So, if you finish your first meal and find it wasn’t too filling, just wait … there’s more to come.
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The same wedding guide suggests that a hot meal be served approximately every three hours. Menus will vary according to a specific couple's tastes, but guests can expect a spread of cold starters to include cheeses, meats, vegetables, pâtés and herring. There probably will be a soup … or two. Hot entrees might include grilled meats, roast chicken, smoked or baked fish, pork loin, tripe, hearty stews, potatoes and breads. Guests are also typically treated to pastries, fruit and cake.
Sweets & pastries
We are witnessing a slow revival in Polish pastry-making nowadays. A few pastry shops are bringing old classics back to life. At the same time, foreign sweets, such as brownies and muffins, crème brulée and fondants have found a lasting place in cafés in the country. Nevertheless, the average Pole remains more fond of traditional Polish pastries.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Iconic Sweets
Szarlotka, or apple pie, is year-round favourite. There are hundreds of recipes for this dessert. The Polish name szarlotka comes from the French – or, if you please, the English word charlotte, which, dating from the 18th century, designates an oven-baked mass of fruits under slices of bread.
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Invented by Marie-Antoine Cârème, the dessert came to Poland in the 19th century. Today, Polish apple pies usually have a half-crisp or crisp base. There are raisins, cinnamon and cloves inside. Szarloka remains a regular on the dessert menus of cafés and restaurants and is sometimes served warm with whipped cream.
Pączki ('PONTCH-ki') are simply Polish doughnuts, but their taste places them firmly above most other doughnuts on this sweet earth. Shaped like a flattened sphere, they are fried in deep oil, so they're not exactly of the low-cal persuasion.
Doughnuts Being Made the Traditional Polish Way
There are a variety of fillings: rose marmalade, liqueur, pudding. Pączki can be found in pastry shops all year round, but they are a symbol of the end of the holiday season. On Fat Thursday, the last day before Lent, tens of millions of these treats are consumed across Poland.
Food tourism: where to eat in Poland
To eat well in Poland, there exists one golden rule: Ask around. Poles often tip one another off as to where the good stuff is, and as a result, reputations spread like wildfire. Don't be deceived by the serious faces everywhere. Even though Poles are not inclined to smile to strangers, they are consistently helpful and will selflessly assist you in a quest to find the best neighborhood restaurant.
In the countryside, experiment with the classics described above. In larger cities, culinary life is extremely refined and fast-paced. Here, it may be wise to consult websites rather than guidebooks, as they can become outdated particularly quickly in this regard.
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Alternative trends: Polish food for special diets
Warsaw's vegetarian restaurants are visited by as many vegetarians or vegans as meat eaters, who know where good meatless food is served. Meals are composed of fresh and seasonal local vegetables, together with uncommon groats and herbs. Prices are low, and daily specials are announced on social media.
At such places, the chefs and waiters are usually young and dynamic. They can be unstoppable inventors and experimenters who don't believe in microwaves, know that spices behave differently in meatless meals, and love to serve health on a plate. Hummus with red beets and cloves, lentil-mushroom burgers between gluten-free corn-flour buns, and mango parsley smoothies – such is the latest in Poland’s culinary evolution.
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Additionally, life choices less mainstream than vegetarianism have appeared in very recent years. While the cuisine of Central and Eastern Europe may have an unhealthy reputation, vegan and gluten-free options have become readily available in Poland today.
12 dishes of polish christmas
traditional Polish food
a foreigner's guide to Poland
Based on articles by Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux and Mai Jones; edited by LB Apr 2014 and LD Feb 2019