Poland, the land of bigos, sérnik, and pierogi. It’s a culinary paradise…unless you can’t eat certain things. Foreigners aren't always the most enthusiastic about Polish cuisine due to dietary restrictions. However, it is definitely possible to eat a wide array of vegetarian, lactose-free, and gluten-free foods while in Poland.
When most people think of Eastern European cuisine, they tend to think of hearty, meat-filled courses designed to get you through cold harsh winters. If you're a vegetarian coming to Poland for the first time you might think your options will look a little like this:
It’s true that there is a lot of meat in certain dishes, but at the same time there are still many options for those who do not want to eat meat.
It’s worth mentioning that Poland has very good fruit and vegetables, which are generally fresher and tastier than what you may find in some parts of the states. It’s especially worth it to come to Poland during the summer when there are hundreds of vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables for as inexpensive as four złoty per kilogram. Since there is a lot of fresh produce, these ingredients make up many traditional recipes. Between different sałatkas and soups you can still have a traditional Polish meal.
Sure this is great if you're traveling to Poland in the summer, but what about during the winter when there are fewer fresh fruits and vegetables? Poland, as well as other Slavic countries, also has numerous varieties of pickled vegetables to choose from--between cucumbers, cabbage, and beets you'll still be able to get your fill of Polish food.
Another common concern for vegetarians may be price—some options are often pricier than their meat-filled counterparts. If you’re eating on a budget, milk bars may be an option: these remnants of the communist era often serve a variety of traditional foods for low prices.
Furthermore, since Poland is a predominately Catholic country, Lent influences food options during certain times of year. Many people choose not to eat meat at least for parts of Lent (the first week and on Fridays). Although people may choose to give up different things during this period, there is definitely sensitivity for vegetarians. Traditional Christmas fare also doesn’t contain meat.
And remember, there are always vegetarian varieties of pierogi (although they are not necessarily vegan).
For those who might want a less traditional (but still tasty) option, check out our list of vegetarian restaurants to try.
The dietary issue I was most worried about when coming to Poland was lactose intolerance. I found out the hard way that I am among the majority of the world’s population that can’t process lactose. Fortunately, my lactose intolerance isn’t severe—it’s mostly restricted to milk and cream (basically anything that isn’t cultured in some way). Although I could find lactose-free milk or soy milk, these options were generally very expensive.
Fun fact: milk and cream both have higher lactose contents than cheese or yogurt because of how they are prepared. This means that if you can handle some amount of lactose, the following foods may be an option.
Kefir is a great way for those who are lactose intolerant to get calcium and other nutrients. An American mindset may instantly try to compare kefir to yogurt, but kefir is generally less viscous and sourer. It’s an essential part of several Polish dishes, but can also be eaten with breakfast. In the fermentation process, the lactose that would be present in the kefir is mostly broken down into lactic acid, thus making kefir a relatively safe choice. There are even some claims that kefir may help relieve those who suffer from lactose intolerance.
Certain regional delicacies are also a potential option. Sheep milk cheese generally has a lower lactose content than those made with cow milk. Incidentally, one of the most famous Polish cheese, oscypek, is made with sheep’s milk.
One thing that was mysterious to me was ice cream. Being in Warsaw in May and June, it seemed like everyone always ate ice cream, and despite any common sense, I found myself craving it too. Figuring I’d chance it and deal with the stomachache later, I found that Polish ice cream didn’t affect me at all. Confused, I looked into it more to find that most of the ice cream I had found was actually gelato. It turns out that gelato has a lower milk content than most American ice creams. Of course this isn’t a great solution for those with a worse intolerance, but at least there’s always sorbet, which is always available in wonderful, seasonal fruit flavors.
Other than that, a lot traditional Polish dishes should be fine—as long as you don’t dolop loads of sour cream onto them. For the most part, cheese is only a part of dishes if you seek it out.
Is gluten intolerance a myth? It’s been an ongoing debate in American society for the last few years with the growing trend of gluten-free diets. Celiac disease is a real condition where gluten causes an intense autoimmune reaction. Most of the debate revolves around the vague concept of non-celiac gluten intolerance. Regardless of whether or not this type of gluten intolerance is real, Poland might not be the obvious choice for someone with this dietary restriction.
However, upon arriving at a Polish supermarket for the first time, I found that there were actually several aisles of items labeled bezgluten. These are generally just the substitutes for your normal items—bread, cereal, so on. There are even gluten-free pierogi and zapiekanki. But are there any Polish alternatives that traditionally don’t have gluten?
Kasza is the surprising answer. Although it is called “buckwheat”, it does not technically contain wheat. Technically, kasza is actually considered a fruit (although it doesn’t seem like it). Be careful though—several brands have appropriated the term kasza for oatmeal and other grains, so these may not be gluten free. However, traditional Polish kasza should be fine. This means it’s a good source of carbs for those who can’t eat most varieties.
Soups may also be tricky—oftentimes in the states they are thickened with ingredients that contain gluten. In Poland, though, you can find soups that are made the traditional way, such as rosoł, chłodnik, or barszcz, that don’t contain these ingredients. Żurek, however, is not a good option: the traditional soup is made with rye. You may want to check with restaurants, especially if you’re in a more touristy area, before ordering.
Another area you can consider exploring is Poland’s various fish options. Herring is a very popular choice and is served in a variety of different ways. Salmon is also very popular and smoked varieties can be found in every store.
In terms of drinking, you may feel pressured to drink beer given its omnipresence in Poland. None of the popular brands are gluten-free (that I've seen), but there still ways to get drunk without it. Wódka is an obvious choice, but Poland is also well-known for its honey mead if you're looking for something that isn't hard liquor.
Regardless of what your dietary restriction is, it is possible to find plenty of things to eat in Poland. It may be a little harder than just finding any restaurant that serves pierogi and bigos, but it's still there. Don’t let dietary concerns discourage you from visiting the country.