Guilty Pleasures: Regional Fast Foods from Poland
default, Eating zapiekanki at the Przystanek Śniadanie (Breakfast Station) bar in Park Powstańców Sląskich in Katowice, photo: Grzegorz Celejewski/AG, center, zapiekanki-ag23.jpg
Italians have pizza a taglio and fritto misto
We could trace the beginnings of global fast food in Poland to 17th June 1992, when the first McDonald’s opened in the centre of Warsaw. It was a big memorable event, but not all fast foods come from the US, and not all are global. Even though the dish that has gained the biggest popularity and, according to research, is regularly consumed by almost half of the population is the Turkish-German döner kebab, if we take a closer look, all over Poland we find interesting, surprising and bizarre fast foods that no late-night outing or junk-food craving should miss out on.
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The Zapiekarnia under the Jagiellonów roundabout in Bydgoszcz, photo: Arkadiusz Wojtasiewicz/AG
The undisputed queen of Polish fast foods was first created in the 1970s, when Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party, bought the license for baguette baking, a food he had sampled during his travels to France. There wasn’t much to put on them, but in the following years creative Polish entrepreneurs used what they had: button mushrooms fried with onions, semi-hard ‘yellow’ cheese (NB: an important thing worth knowing about Polish culinary culture is that for decades we only had two types of cheese: white cheese and yellow cheese, and we still tend to refer to most cheeses this way: when you buy a ‘sandwich with yellow cheese’, it might be cheddar, gouda, emmental or any other type of yellow cheese) topped with ketchup. Sizzling hot, open-faced sandwiches with melted cheese were a real hit in the 1980s, though they later almost disappeared, replaced with fancier Western delicacies.
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Unexpectedly, they’ve recently had a comeback as a nostalgic reminder of the communist era. After all, it’s easy to give zapiekanka a modern makeover: you need a quality baguette, good cheese (or a few types of cheese, now that we have more than white and yellow), a variety of home-made sauces, and fresh ingredients such as salami or ham for meat lovers, and tomatoes, pickles, corn or onions for veg fans. The most famous zapiekanki can be found in Kraków’s Kazimierz district in the middle of Plac Nowy (in the building of a former slaughterhouse), but you can find them both in trendy joints in central Warsaw and in inconspicous booths in small towns.
A decadent savoury doughnut – that’s probably the simplest way to describe this delicacy from the beautiful north-western city of Szczecin. Its story started in 1969, when the Społem co-operative received a gift from a Soviet army surplus store. It was a machine for preparing dumplings, invented by a Russian in the 1950s and designed to feed a small town in case of war or some other catastrophe. Sensibly, Poles decided to use it to make paszteciki – the name is a diminutive of pasztet (pâté), and is often used around Poland for the name of a yeast bun filled with sauerkraut and mushrooms or meat, usually served with hot beetroot barszcz. That’s not the version from Szczecin though, named and treasured by Bogumiła Polańska. She’s the owner of the oldest shop still selling them, located on 46 Wojska Polskiego Street. These paszteciki are different – not baked but deep-fried, crunchy on the outside but fluffy on the inside, and filled with either meat, sauerkraut, button mushrooms or boiled eggs.
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For the last 40 years, Polańska hasn’t changed anything in the recipe nor in the decoration of her establishment – she believes one of the main reasons people love coming there is for a sense of security and comfort. In 2009, she received the prestigious Złoty Laur award from her faithful consumers and a congratulatory letter from the President of Poland. A year later, pasztecik was enrolled on the list of Polish regional products, and, believe it or not, October 20th is now officially Pasztecik Szczeciński Day.
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Poranek (Early Morning) milk bar, photo: www.slupsk.spolem.org.pl
That 46 Wojska Polskiego Street must be a magical address: in Szczecin, it’s the place for paszteciki, as mentioned above, while 200km to the north-east, in the city of Słupsk, the first pizzeria ever opened in Poland can be found under the same street name and number. It all started in 1974 thanks to another Społem employee, Tadeusz Szołdra, the chair of Słupsk Catering Services and creator of what we would now call a restaurant chain – the so called Karczmy Słupskie, which served regional dishes from Pomorze in many cities, not only in Poland but also in Chicago and Toronto.
Italians, who are often super-particular about their traditional food, would probably have a heart attack after seeing the small, round, fluffy pizzas still served in Słupsk. They are filled with either sauteed mushrooms or sausage, tomato paste and – you guessed it – yellow cheese. In many ways, they’re similar to zapiekanki – let’s remember there weren’t that many ingredients available when they were created – but that’s exactly the nostalgic taste of pizza that Poles became acquainted with before they had the opportunity to taste authentic Italian margheritas and marinaras, which only arrived here in the post-communist 1990s.
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A knysza from Bocadillo bar at the main train station in Wrocław, photo: Kamila Kubat/AG
This legend of the Wrocław gastronomy scene gained popularity in the 1990s, when the choice of street foods, especially ones available 24/7 to hungry travellers and party-goers, was very limited. It is mostly associated with the city’s main railway station, where it was sold next to the Polish versions of hamburgers and hot dogs.
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Americans might associate the name with something completely different: a knysz (or knish) is a baked yeast dough bun filled with mashed potatoes, ground meat or kasza (buckwheat), which derives from Eastern European Jewish culture, possibly from the town of Knyszyn in the Podlaskie region, and is quite popular in Jewish bakeries in New York. Whether knysze – just like a big part of the city’s population – came to Wrocław from the east or not, they’ve taken on a completely new guise. It’s basically a triangular grilled bun that gets cut open and filled with lots of veggies) white and red cabbage, tomatoes, shredded carrots, corn, cucumbers, crispy fried onions) along with garlic sauce and often something else – tuna, Vienna sausage, grated yellow cheese or a chicken cutlet.
Like many Polish fast-food inventions, knysza also had a rough time when people switched to McDonald’s and other foreign chains, especially after Wrocław’s railway station was renovated before the Euro 2012 championships, and all its old-fashioned, dodgy fast-food joints were shut down. And yet it still has a devoted group of fans who call themselves knyszożercy and search for the best colourful, veggie-filled, garlicky bun there is all over Wrocław.
Another staple of Jewish cuisine, cebularz is a wheat dough pancake topped with lots of fried onions and poppy seeds, especially popular in the city of Lublin. A recipe for a similar onion pancake actually appears in the first-ever Polish cookbook, Compendium Ferculorum by Stanisław Czerniecki, written in 1682 (a critical new edition was published recently by Jarosław Dumanowski).
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There’s historical evidence that cebularz was created by Jewish bakers from Lublin in the early 19th century and then sold by street vendors in the Old Town. Being cheap, nutritious and tasty, it quickly became very popular – and it still is. In 2007, the cebularz was registered by the Ministry of Agriculture on its list of traditional products, and in 2014 it was put on the European Union’s Geographical Indications and Traditional Specialities list.
The original hamburger: a bread roll (often a kaiser roll – this is in former Galicia, after all) filled with slowly braised pork shoulder with plenty of sauce, often spiced with caraway seeds and served with onions. According to legend, this used to be the favourite snack of Kraków’s cabbies. Or maybe of the numerous students coming to the city – after all, a bread roll swimming in sauce that always abounds was a cheap and nutritious treat.
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Nowadays, it can cost a lot when served in restaurants, or a bit less from food trucks in the Kazimierz district. In all honesty, it would be wrong to call this food ‘fast’: it actually takes a long time to bake the bun, and marinate and braise the meat. That’s why maczanka (from moczyć, meaning ‘to soak’) fits quite well into the new wave of fancy street food where ingredients are carefully selected and treated with respect.
Oscypek z żurawiną
Oscypek is a traditional smoked cheese made with salted sheep’s milk, typical of the Podhale mountain region in the south of Poland. The first mention of cheesemaking in the Tatra Mountains dates back to the 15th century, and the first recipe for oscypek to the 18th. Its trade name is now protected under the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin geographical indication, although it often becomes an object of forgery – cheeses of similar shape are produced using cow’s milk, which is much cheaper but, obviously, has a very different taste.
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But why put a cheese on a list of fast foods? The reason is oscypek is often sold on the streets, served grilled with a dollop of cranberry sauce on the side. This cheesy, sweet and salty snack has become a staple of mountain resorts in Poland.
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A waffle from the Park Cafe in Łódź, photo: Marcin Stepień/AG
And what’s for dessert? The sweet taste of summer by the sea: waffles and the so-called Italian ice cream – or what in English we’d call ‘soft serve’. These old fashioned treats are mostly associated with holidays and can still be found pretty much everywhere in popular resort towns. Polish gofry are usually rectangular, made with flour, sugar, a pinch of salt, milk, egg yolks and melted butter, and served with a variety of sweet additions: from powdered sugar to whipped cream and seasonal fruits. Another characteristic add-on is frużelina – a fruit jelly made with either cherries or raspberries, mixed with sugar and a bit of potato starch.
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Soft-serve ice cream is called ‘Italian’ in Polish because of the origin of the first imported machines used for their production. They are light and airy, frozen at just -4 degrees Celsius. Later on, Poles modified the machines and created another variety of soft-serve, much denser and creamier: they called them świderki (drills) or – for some mysterious reason – ‘American’ ice cream (they have little to do with America, although they could be considered quite similar to the McDonald’s sundae). Both of these ice creams are served in two basic flavours: vanilla and chocolate. And even now, with all the amazing artisanal, multi-flavoured ice cream we can buy, they attract customers of all ages.
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Although our list here may seem long, that’s obviously not all we can be proud of when it comes to the fattier & faster side of food. For those that still have room, there are open sandwiches with herring, or vegetable salad and loads of mayo in Cieszyn; there’s fried kiełbasa and roast chicken; there are Polish versions of the loaded potato. And finally there’s the universally Polish pajda ze smalcem – a thick slice of white bread with a pork-fat spread flavoured with onions and marjoram, usually served with a sour dill pickle.
Polish fast food is definitely not for the faint hearted!
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Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, Oct 2018