Clean Eating: The Healthier Side of Polish Cuisine
small, kasza-manna-gettyimages.jpg, Mill groats, photo:. Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket/Getty Images, center
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Quite often, when you ask foreigners about the first thing they associate with Polish cuisine, they answer something along the lines of: 'There’s lots of meat! Especially pork! And potatoes and lard and pierogi, and it’s super-heavy! It has to be heavy, since Poland is so cold'… right?
Mounds of potatoes
We might be exaggerating a bit, but the stereotype of Polish food being quite fatty, meat and potato heavy and generally not suited for anyone on a diet, remains quite strong. Poles themselves, when asked about their favourite dishes most often choose the ones that consist of pork and white flour. That’s what we often present to the world: most Polish restaurants’ menus both in Europe and in the States are based on a handful of immortal classics such as pierogi (served with fried onions and lardons), gołąbki (filled with meat and doused in a creamy sauce), schabowy (pork cutlet covered in crumbs, anyone?) and kiełbasa sausage.
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Delicious but not particularly healthy - Polish sausages on a barbecue, photo: Marta Błażejowska/AG
We have created the popular concepts of the ‘traditional’ karczma (inn) and gospoda (tavern), which often serve gigantic portions of meat (mostly pork) in various sauces with mounds of potatoes and fried cabbage. These dishes – as food historians can’t seem to repeat enough – don’t really have anything to do with authentic Polish cuisine.
Fortunately, this ‘quantity over quality’ paradigm has been challenged by a new generation of Polish chefs, authors and contemporary home cooks, who show us that Polish cuisine is not only interesting and delicious, but can also be… surprisingly healthy.
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New old trends
Bób (fava beans), photo: Agata Jakubowska/AG
When browsing through clean-eating and special diet food blogs, mostly from the US and the UK, Poles often see that things which are considered ‘new trends’ in the West, are often just parts of everyday meals in Poland. For years, we didn’t appreciate some of the treasures of Polish cuisine, which are now fashionable and even deemed miraculous by ‘holistic nutritionists’ and other health gurus from the Internet.
For instance, seasonality is something that comes quite naturally to Poles: for years we didn’t have access to imported goods and therefore were forced to eat locally and seasonally. Even though it's now possible to buy raspberries in February, they are usually expensive and tasteless and so Poles tend to wait for the right time of year: asparagus and cabbage in May; strawberries and baby potatoes in June; then the summer bounty of berries, green and fava beans, tomatoes and so forth; and later plums, mushrooms and pumpkins in the autumn. Winter is obviously the most challenging season, but we keep ourselves well-nourished with root vegetables, apples and, of course, some exotic fruit like tangerines, oranges and lemons, which have to be imported anyway. And yet for centuries the best way to keep our vitamin levels up has been the miraculous process of fermentation.
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– Fermentation –
The most amazing way of preserving food has for long been considered controversial by Western palates not used to the sour taste of fermented foods. A lot has changed thanks to the global popularity of Korean cuisine and especially its staple – the spicy pickled kimchi. And yet the mere idea of ‘soured milk’, veggies left to ferment for months and bacteria populating your food can be challenging to some.
But it’s thanks to these bacteria that fermented foods are so good for you: they transform sugars into lactic acid which is a fantastic probiotic able to reinforce both your immune and digestive systems. It not only facilitates the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, but also smoothes the skin, strengthens hair and nails and increases the absorption of iron, therefore protecting against anaemia. What’s extremely important nowadays is the connection between the biodiversity of macrobiota encouraged by eating lots of probiotic foods and lesser risk of food allergies which are becoming more and more rampant.
Thanks to chefs such as Aleksander Baron and educators and bloggers such as Mead Ladies, fermentation in Poland is at the peek of its popularity. They argue that you can pickle pretty much anything, although there are a bunch of classics which remain the most popular.
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Dill pickles & sauerkraut
Pickled cucumbers, photo: Jędrzej Wojnar/AG
These most popular fermented vegetables are omnipresent in Polish cuisine. They taste amazing, have virtually no calories and provide us with vitamins all year long (which was crucial in the past and is once again crucial now, when the concept of seasonality is key).
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Every Pole will tell you that real bread is sourdough bread: the product of lactobactillus cultures combined with yeast. Making it is a true art: first one needs to make the starter (zakwas), which then ferments for a few days and has to be regularly ‘fed’ before being mixed with the rest of the dough. It should rest once again and only then baked.
Even though carbs in general, and bread in particular, tend to have a bad reputation among nutritionists, sourdough breads have a relatively low glycemic index and are easier to digest than other types of bread, especially when made with whole rye or spelt flours or sprinkled with flax, nigella or sunflower seeds. The varieties are almost endless and good bread is always worth looking for – you’ll notice Poles tend to open bakeries wherever they go.
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Żur (or Żurek), photo: Bartosz Krupa/East News
Żur and barszcz czerwony – two of the most famous Polish soups – both use (at least, in their most traditional version) the process of fermentation.
Żur requires fermented rye flour spiced with garlic, bay leaves and black pepper. The soup itself – usually served with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and sausage – is not the healthiest (although it will give you a big dose of energy and is often used as a hangover cure). The fermented beetroot in barszcz, on the other hand, is a magic potion filled with vitamins A, C, E, lactic acid, antioxidants, folic acid and iron. Due to the presence of the latter two, it is highly recommended during pregnancy.
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Kefir & zsiadłe mleko
Probably the most controversial of fermented foods – this ‘milk gone bad’ usually isn’t met with much enthusiasm and, according to some Western food safety standards, is unsafe to drink. And yet, soured milk and kefir are popular all across Eastern Europe, as well as in Turkey and Scandinavia.
Let’s clear this up: nothing really goes 'bad’ here – milk goes sour thanks to lactic acid fermentation or kefir grains – a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The benefits of drinking it are endless: it’s a good source of protein, B2 and B12 vitamins as well as phosphorus and calcium. It is a fantastic probiotic which helps maintain a healthy bacterial balance in your gut, therefore aiding digestion.
There are two classic ways to have soured milk in Poland (and kefir as well): either with boiled new potatoes and dill, and often an egg sunny-side-up, boiled cauliflower or green beans, or as the basis of chłodnik – the wonderfully refreshing beetroot soup, made even healthier by the abundance of summer veg, such as cucumbers, radishes, spring onions and dill.
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– Alternative grains –
Kasza (groats), otręby (bran) and płatki (flakes), made from different grains, have been a staple in Polish cuisine for centuries. Eaten mostly by peasants, especially before potatoes were introduced in Poland on a bigger scale in the 19th century, buckwheat, spelt, barley and wheat groats are nutritious and help mantain a balanced and varied diet. It’s worth introducing them into your daily menu alongside the more popular pasta and rice.
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Buckwheat, barley & company
The nutty, roasted buckwheat – kasza gryczana – is probably the most most distinctive of them all: it can be found in canteens (as one of the carb options next to potatoes and rice) as well as in many traditional, regional dishes. It’s wonderful when served with mushrooms, it’s the perfect filling for pierogi and gołąbki, and it can become the base of wonderful pancakes and patties. It is gluten free, has a low glycemic index and quite a lot of fibre.
There are a bunch of varieties of the popular barley groats – pęczak, kasza perłowa and kasza łamana, depending on whether the seed is left whole, cut into pieces or in the form of flakes. Potassium, calcium and magnesium found in barley help decrease blood pressure, zinc and manganese contribute to mantaining bone strength and selenium – which rarely appears in food – aids the liver detoxing functions. It’s added to the traditional Polish soup krupnik, served with meat or mushroom sauces or turned into what we jokingly call kaszotto – a variation of risotto which uses kasza (usually pęczak) instead of arborio rice.
Other grains Poles often eat include oat, spelt and – the trendiest of them all – millet.
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The mighty millet
Proso millet is a grain cultivated in many parts of the world (like India, Russia and Turkey), but in the West, mainly the US, it’s often grown just for birdseed. And yet it is one of the healthiest gluten-free grains available. Forgotten for years, it has now become so popular, that there are whole books dedicated to ‘detox millet recipes’. It’s filled with important nutrients such as magnesium, copper and phosphorus, and therefore has heart-protecting properties and lowers the risk of diabetes. It is an important ingredient of the so-called ‘alkaline diet’, popular among some health gurus, although not exactly evidence-based.
The simplest way to eat it would be just to boil it (remembering to soak it first to get rid of the bitter taste) and serve with your usual meat and veg for dinner, but there are many other recipes which are more interesting and more delicious.
In a savoury version, millet can be added to soups or used as a pierogi stuffing (a special recipe for the regional skromowskie pierogi calls for cottage cheese, mint and millet), or even used as a binder instead of eggs in vegan recipes for bean or lentil pâtés and burgers.
Sweet applications are even more varied: millet is a great substitute for oats and, cooked with milk and enriched with fruit, nuts or a bit of chocolate can make a fantastic breakfast; when cooked in milk (regular or plant-based) for a long time and blended until very smooth, it forms a fantastic base for puddings, shakes and even ‘cheesecakes’.
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‒ Fats, snacks & sweets ‒
Cold pressed oils
Various oils, photo: Garo/Phanie/East News
Even though it might seem like there are only sunflower, rapeseed and imported olive oils to choose from in your local shop, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a fantastic variety of oils with different flavours and health benefits.
Let’s start with rapeseed – not the cheap, regular one, but the one that is golden, cold-pressed, filled with antioxidants and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The most famous one comes from Saint Lawrence Mountain (Góra Św. Wawrzyńca) in the Kujawsko-Pomorskie region.
Flaxseed oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acid and therefore is the basis of the anti-cancer diet created by German biochemist Johanna Budwig. It has a hearty, nutty flavor, which tastes fantastic with quark cheese and herring – two staples of the Polish menu.
Milk thistle and primrose oils are beneficial for your liver, while nigella seed oil fights bacteria and parasites. Just remember not to heat them – some of them are amazing in salad dressings, while others should be treated as medicine.
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The healthy snack
Nutritionists say we should eat five meals a day and snacking is usually frowned upon. And yet Poles relish in a bunch of healthy snacks: simple and plant-based.
Fava beans are a must in the summer – we devour them with a pinch of salt (they're a good source of protein, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, phosphorous and vitamin B1). We also eat sunflower seeds, picked straight from the flower, which is more of a pastime than actual eating (and yet nibbling on them we still manage to supply our bodies with vitamin E, magnesium and selenium). Dried apple chips and smoked prunes are also quite popular, as well as walnuts.
Old fashioned snacks include the super-thin wafers called andruty and rice cakes are also quite light, natural and low on calories when compared to mainstream cookies and chips. Many different brands produce a whole array of cookies, flapjacks and halvas with Polish superfoods – sunflower and flax seeds, oats, millet grains, dried fruits and, finally, honey.
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Poland’s golden treasure
Ecological honey, photo: Franciszek Mazur/AG
Without a doubt, honey is one of Poland’s greatest treasures. Whenever you visit a local street fair, a food festival or just an organic store, you are going to find a whole array of local honeys: acacia, rapeseed, buckwheat, goldenrod, linden, raspberry and the most esteemed of them all: honeydew honey.
This golden treasure has a lot of health benefits, which vary a little depending on the plant used to produce it. It’s a good source of antioxidants such as rutin, fights bacteria (that’s why Poles tend to drink litres of honey and lemon tea when they have a cold, minding not to add honey too early, since it loses some of its qualities when heated too much), helps lower your cholesterol and balance your blood pressure. All in all, it’s a great substitute for sugar.
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traditional polish cuisine
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Polish Food 101
So by now, you can see it's true. Millet with fruit for breakfast, mushroom and root vegetable kaszotto for lunch, beetroot barszcz or a beautiful salad sprinkled with seeds and dressed with cold-pressed oils for dinner, berries sweetened with honey for dessert and a bowl of fava beans while watching a football game – Polish cuisine truly can be varied, colourful and healthy.
Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, Nov 2018