Immigrant Cuisine in Warsaw: From Pol-Viet to Georgian Bread
default, International Refugee Day celebration organized by Ocalenie Foundation, Łomża, photo: Marek Maliszewski / Reporter / East News, center, fundacja_ocalenie_d_en.jpg
Poland has long been one of Europe’s most homogeneous countries. For many historical reasons, ethnic minorities are few, and cultural diversity has always been a Western fantasy we either strived for or feared, not a reality. Yet there are growing minority groups in Poland, and in recent years, their situation has been dynamic – which is reflected in Poland’s culinary landscape.
In Warsaw itself, there aren’t many places you could call an ethnic neighbourhood; there is no true Chinatown, Little Italy or Little India. And yet on the outskirts, we have two areas with a high Vietnamese population and possibly the most authentic pho in Europe. You can buy fantastic Georgian khachapuri all around town, and Turkish kebab has almost become a Polish national dish.
Some small-scale initiatives such as Kuchnia Konfliktu (Conflict Kitchen) and Babel Bar have a double goal – of helping refugees adapt to new conditions and feeding the people of Warsaw amazing food from places such as Chechnya and Tajikistan. These ‘new Poles’ have created their own, fascinating cookbook.
Crispy chicken balls deep-fried in a fluffy coconut batter, five-flavour pork, orange sweet-and-sour sauce served with everything, cabbage salad, cloggy sauces with pineapple and bamboo shoots – all of these dishes are quite familiar to people from Warsaw, whilst in Vietnam, they would probably be seen as pretty exotic. They are all staples of the so-called Pol-Viet cuisine, a peculiar set of pan-Asian dishes prepared mostly by Vietnamese immigrants in Poland.
Vietnamese students started arriving in the late 1950s, and now there might be around 20 to 30 thousand Vietnamese people living in Poland. Vietnamese food culture in Warsaw is historically connected to two main locations: the legendary stalls located on Constitution Square in the centre of Warsaw provided Poles with the first taste of the Orient in the early 1990s. Deep-fried spring rolls – which in Poland are called sajgonki – have been a clear favourite from the start, as well as pho soup, the biggest hit in the times of the a10th-Anniversary Stadium and its ‘Europa Bazaar’ (which was replaced by the National Stadium, built for the 2012 Euro Cup).
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For years, Poles viewed the so-called wietnamszczyzna and chińszczyzna as pretty much the same, although Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines are radically different. The reason for it is not just ignorance, but also some choices made by Vietnamese immigrants themselves, who for years catered to the Western tastes, settling for a nondescript oriental vibe instead of highlighting their unique culinary culture . (This wasn’t necessary voluntary, since in the ’90s, finding any Asian products in Poland was no mean feat.) There was also detrimental gossip floating around: that the meat for sajgonki was provided by pigeons from Constitution Square, or that you need to be careful, because the Vietnamese might serve you dog meat.
Everything has changed in the last five years or so, often thanks to the second generation of Polish-Vietnamese cooks, who – like the Masterchef winner Ola Nguyen – want to present their culture and cuisine in a modern way. Nowadays, well-travelled Poles know the difference between Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese foods very well, and foodies are more and more interested in ‘authenticity’ – whatever this vague concept truly means.
Authenticity – understood as ‘what a Vietnamese immigrant would eat to feel at home’ – is what you can find in in the Bakalarska Market, located in the Włochy district in southwestern Warsaw. In local bars, you can taste classics from Hanoi such as banh mi sandwiches, pho bo soup or bun cha noodles with grilled pork belly, and shop in one of the many Asian supermarkets. Since most Vietnamese vendors speak very little Polish, it’s helpful to have a guide. Fortunately, the translator Ngo Van Tuong authored a book about Pol-Viet traditions entitled Słodko-kwaśna historia, czyli wszystko, co chcieliście kupić w wietnamskich sklepach, ale baliście się zapytać (‚A Sweet and Sour History, or Everything You Wanted to Buy in Vietnamese Shops but were Afraid to Ask’, published by Drzewo Babel in 2018).
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Still, the true ‘Little Hanoi’ is Wólka Kosowska. Technically, it is not located in Warsaw but around 25 kilometres away. Still, this village with a huge Chinese shopping centre has become a mecca for the most adventurous foodies from the capital. It might be the only place in Poland where you can taste so many strange, original dishes cooked by Vietnamese people and mostly for Vietnamese people. Snail soup, goat blood soup or rice porridge with blood and offal might not be something a wide audience would appreciate, yet the tours organized by Asian-food experts from the Pyza Made in Poland blog are incredibly popular.
In November 2019, at the Five Flavours Film Festival, dedicated to Asian cinema – which has been one of the most important Asian cultural events in Warsaw since 2007 – the first Polish screening of the film Taste of Pho, directed by the Japanese newcomer Mariko Bobrik, was held. The film, which premiered in San Sebastian, is a nostalgic tale about a Vietnamese chef who needs to adapt to the Polish reality. His daughter, who is already connected to the West more than to her country of origin, feels ashamed of the noodle soup she gets made for breakfast when all of her classmates eat sandwiches. Finally, thanks to a Japanese director educated in the Łódź Film School, the Vietnamese minority in Poland will get the chance to share their experience through art. The film was supposed to hit the cinemas in March 2020, but due to the pandemic the premiere had to be postponed.
Georgian gluten attack
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Galust and son, owners of Armenia restaurant in Lublin, photo: Jakub Orzechowski / AG
Georgian immigration to Poland started in the mid-1990s, and in the beginning, it was mostly composed of students, businessmen and artists. The friendship between these two nations was reinforced during the war in Osetia in 2008, when President Lech Kaczyński – who was friends with the former President Mikheil Saaashvili, now wanted in Georgia on numerous criminal charges – backed up the country's independence. In the following years, immigration increased drastically: Poland became a friendly land for Georgians, who were tired of the lack of economic and political stability. At the same time, many Poles started going to Georgia on holiday, appreciating the beautiful nature and kinder weather, tasting the wine and obviously the food.
Georgian (or Georgian-Armenian) bakeries are one of the latest culinary trends: for the past couple of years, they have been flourishing all around Warsaw. There are quite a few Georgian restaurants as well. The cuisine, with its khinkali (similiar to pierogi), fire-grilled meats and spicy sauces appeals to the Polish palate, half familiar, half exotic. It’s the bakery format that has truly won over Polish hearts, however – but is it really ‘authentically’ Georgian?
As Krzysztof Ciemnołoński, who is half-Georgian, half-Polish, from the PolakoGruzin.pl website says: in Georgia you can find a bakery on every corner, but, apart from plain bread, you can usually only buy khachapuri with cheese, lobiani with red beans and pkhlovani with spinach. In Poland, you can get breads filled with literally everything, from bacon to chopped egg with chives, mushrooms or chicken. The reason seems to be the Polish longing for variety: in a Polish bakery, you can find dozens of different breadstuffs, so to compete with them, Georgians had to adapt.
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When kebab met cabbage
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Kebab Lussi, Warsaw, photo: Wojciech Kryński / Forum
Somehow, kebab has become Poland’s national dish: it can be found everywhere, although it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the Turkish original. It is probably more reminiscent of the German döner kebap, considered by many one of the most characteristic dishes of Berlin. But whilst Germany obviously has a vast Turkish minority, in Poland, kebab joints have been opened and staffed by a variety of migrants from Middle Eastern countries and, especially in smaller towns, have become flashpoints during the migration crisis of the past few years.
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In Warsaw, kebabs rose to fame in the early days of the 21st century, with the legendary rivalry between two joints located next to each other in the very centre of Warsaw on Marszałkowska Street. The ultimate drunk food, synonymous with late-night partying of the pre-hipster era, is composed by either a ‘thick’ (also called Turkish) or a ‘thin’ (Arabic) bread, a huge amount of either mutton or chicken meat, a mild (garlic mayo) or a spicy sauce and an array of salads, with sauerkraut being probably the least Turkish of all. In short, one could say that Poles have transformed the Turkish classic into a fast food of bread, meat and cabbage … and garlic sauce.
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Kuchnia Konfliktu restaurant, Wilcza Street, Warsaw, photo: Jacek Marczewski / AG
Each day at Kuchnia Konfliktu (Conflict Kitchen) is different. This tiny Warsaw restaurant serves food cooked by refugees, so one day, you can get pilav from Tajikistan, and the next – Ukrainian pickles or Turkish vegetable soup. The only rule is that the food needs to be vegan. The locale was established for ethical and environmental reasons by the activist owner, Jarmiła Rybicka, who has been helping refugees to find jobs and get accustomed to their lives in Warsaw through her restaurant and foundation. It’s a colourful enclave of tolerance, with the purpose of opening a dialogue about migration through food in these difficult times for the multicultural utopia.
Babel Bar food truck, opened by Convivo Social Cooperative, is another example of culinary activism. Its staple is the exotic Chechnyan cuisine, virtually unknown in the Western world, gluttonous and utterly delicious. Fluffy pancakes called chepalgash, with an indecent amount of butter and cottage cheese, not to mention spiced with wild garlic, are served alongside other Eastern European specialties such as Kazakh manti and Ukrainian galushki. All of these dishes are comforting and heart-warming.
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Speaking of galushki, I can’t fail to mention the biggest ethnic minority in Poland: Ukrainians. Obviously, you can find a few restaurants with typically Ukrainian food in Warsaw, yet there aren’t as many as one might expect given the number of migrants. The reason is probably the similarity between Polish and Ukrainian culinary traditions. We both share different versions of barszcz and pierogi: the famous pierogi ruskie with cottage cheese and potatoes, often translated in restaurant menus as Russian pierogi, are actually Ruthenian – they come from a historical region of Red Ruthenia, comprising of parts of western Ukraine and south-eastern Poland. We both enjoy fermentation, cottage cheese, pork and potatoes.
The histories of Poland and Ukraine are so intertwined that tourists are even taken to the traditional Ukrainian Kamanda Lwowska restaurant on some Warsaw food tours. And Kanapa in the Mokotów district defies the stereotype of ‘homely and unsophisticated’, serving Ukrainian cuisine at its finest (as in: fine dining). Here, you can taste dishes such as potato halushky with cheese, truffle paste and hollandaise sauce and fish marinated in beetroot, with malt bread and oyster emulsion.
We can now find authentic Ukrainian, Kazakh, Chechnyan, Syrian (and many more!) recipes in a new book published by the Ocalenie Foundation (or Rescue Foundation). Tygiel: Kuchnia Nowych Polaków (Melting Pot: New Poles’ Cuisine) is a beautiful collection of stories and recipes. Some of these are now familiar to Poles and other Westerners (such as falafel and tabbouleh), whilst others seem fascinating and exotic (yukka leaf soup, melon seed drink, Jemenite eggs and beans). They are accompanied by interviews by the culinary journalist Basia Starecka with people who now make Poland their own – in the kitchen and beyond.
That’s all we can really wish to every refugee, every migrant and every visitor who comes to Warsaw: that they feel at home, both at the table and everywhere else.
contemporary polish cuisine
Written by Natalia Mętrak, Feb 2020