Poland on Fire: Karol Okrasa Explains His Polish Cuisine Secrets
default, Karol Okrasa, photo: press materials, center, okrasa-lamie-189-prywspolnym-stole_177.jpg
Karol Okrasa, head chef at the Platter restaurant in Warsaw, talks to Culture.pl about the Polish tradition of smoking food and his upcoming culinary travels, including how to make the perfect smoked mackerel and what surprises has in store for people in Jeju.
Ewa Chwilczyńska: It’s very nice to meet you here, in your restaurant.
Karol Okrasa: It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been running this restaurant for eight years now. After eleven years of working at the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw and travelling abroad, I decided to open a restaurant not just for tourists or hotel guests, but also for local customers. I didn’t expect that I'd be doing this for so long, but as you can see I’m still here. I have to admit that this place is a second home to me.
EC: I hear you travel a lot. Where have you been recently?
KO: I visited South Africa and spent a few days in Panama. When I travel to distant countries, I like to venture into the countryside, try real homemade meals, because in this way I can discover something surprising. It's also a lesson in humility for me. Such experiences remind me not to fall too much for some culinary frills appealing only to a narrow group of gourmet cuisine enthusiasts. During my trips, I look for the pure taste of homemade dishes prepared by people who live, keep their livestock, grow crops and eat their meals in the same place.
EC: And where are you going in the near future?
KO: My next project is in South Korea. It won’t be my first visit to that country: a few years ago I took part in a fair in Seoul where I presented Polish cuisine. It was a very interesting and completely new experience for me. I noticed that, for the Koreans, our mushroom soup and bison grass was something completely new. At the same time, their dishes were a big surprise for me. They offered combinations of flavours that I hadn’t known before. We all supposedly know those basic flavours, like umami, sweet, bitter, salty, but the question is how, in what proportions and configurations they're combined. We can always find a combination of flavours that we've never tasted before.
EC: So you liked Korean cuisine?
KO: I was amazed by the culture of grilling. Restaurants serving grilled meat are on almost every corner and everyone can afford such a dinner. I loved the atmosphere it creates, the fact that I can grill my food while chatting with my friends at the table at the same time. I can’t deny that I'd love to bring this idea back to Poland. I’m sure it would work for us as well.
EC: From what I know, you’re participating in the Jeju Food and Wine Festival down on the volcanic island of Jeju off the southern coast. What are you planning to surprise the Koreans with?
KO: With pristine flavours obtained by natural methods that don't use any spices! I'm going to show them how this can be achieved by a simple process known in Polish cuisine for centuries: smoking. This is undoubtedly the aroma that determined the character of old Polish cuisine. What I mean here is smoking, say meat or cheese, by burning, singeing on an open fire, or baking sękacz [Polish traditional spit cake] in the traditional way on a campfire.
EC: I had the pleasure of tasting sękacz made traditionally on an open fire, and I have to admit I was astonished how different it was from the sękacz you get at a cake shop.
KO: Of course! And that’s the flavour I’m talking about.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Sękacz
EC: Will you also grill? Because grilling is a kind of a national sport in Korea.
KO: Indeed, this might be something that connects us. I'll focus mainly on various methods of smoking, but I’m also going to show smoking combined with grilling. I’m aware that a passion for grilling is one of the things our cuisines have in common, but the grilling method I’m going to present is probably a little different from the one popular in Korea. I’m going to smoke my dishes by burning hay – it’s a technique I remember from my family home.
Smoking Allowed: Poland's Favourite Culinary Art
EC: In Korea, younger generations are returning to the flavours of the past, traditional dishes that used to be popular. In Poland, young people are rediscovering milk bars. And now you mention smoking food by burning hay! What are your favourite childhood flavours that you'd like to recreate in your kitchen, the ones that still inspire you?
KO: I remember the taste of burnt hay and seared meat – for me, these are the real flavours of my childhood. When my grandmother strained curd cheese through straw, that cheese later smelled of straw. She often singed it and sprinkled it with ash to give it a special aroma and taste. I also used to smoke meat with my father. To this day, I remember the hours spent in the kitchen and the aroma of smoke spreading throughout the house – that’s why I am so happy to recreate it. When I visited my grandparents in the countryside as a child, I often slept in the hay, which is why its aroma is so special to me, almost magical. Hay for me is a one-of-a-kind blend of herbs, its fragrance unique like a bouquet of wine or the scent of perfume.
Twaróg – Poland Word by Word
EC: It sounds a bit like the Korean kimchi, which each housewife makes according to her own recipe.
KO: Exactly! Products can be cold-smoked, hot-smoked, smoked in a barrel, smoked in a wooden, metal or brick smokehouse, plus a smokehouse can be 10, 20 or just 1 year old – all this matters and affects the final taste and aroma of a dish. That’s why smoking is so unique. I’ll give you an example: I work with a certain gentleman from whom I have been buying delicious smoked eels for years. He owns a 100-year-old smokehouse in which his grandfather used to smoke fish. The temperature, humidity and other conditions in that smokehouse are impossible to imitate.
EC: It’s nice to hear that there are still enthusiasts who cultivate this tradition and pass it from generation to generation.
KO: Absolutely! I know a person who makes excellent vinegar, for example from elderflower, which has the fragrance of the best perfume. In culinary arts, aroma is of tremendous importance. If we think of the smoking process as we do of the addition of spices, we can understand that it doesn’t have to be long. A short, à la minute smoking can give surprising results that are very satisfying to our taste buds.
If we cover a piece of fish or meat with hay and set fire to it, the smell and aroma of smoke will settle on the surface, just brushing it, like perfume on the skin. As a result, the meat'll be juicy inside, with the subtle aroma of smoke on the surface, making the dish complete.
The Man Who Pickles Everything: An Interview with Aleksander Baron
EC: Do you have any advice for our readers on how to enhance the taste of grilled meat or fish?
KO: Well, it's worth trying to use your barbecue grill in a different way. We can move the charcoal to one half of the hearth and put some apple twigs or cherry tree soaked in water, or some leaf tea in a steel dish on it. Then put a piece of mackerel on the grill over the burning charcoal, cover it tightly, and wait. It’s important that the wood smoulders without catching fire – the grill has to be sealed, so that no air gets in. The mackerel will get cooked in the smoke and heat, and the effect similar to what was once popular in old Polish cuisine.
EC: How long does it take to smoke mackerel this way?
KO: About 10 minutes for a fillet, half an hour for the whole fish. I use this method to cook small pieces of fish or fillets, and also meat, which of course needs to be smoked longer. I'd also recommend combining smoking with grilling. You can put a piece of smoked fish or meat directly on a hot grill, grill it for a moment on both sides, and you’ll end up with a crispy grilled meat with a delicate smokey aroma. Yum!
EC: Just thinking of it is making my mouth water…
KO: It’s really delicious! What's more, traditionally in Poland, the desired colour of dishes could be achieved by using specific wood when smoking. For example, cherry gives dishes a beautiful ruby colour. So smoking was used not only to create the taste and aroma, but also the colour of dishes. It’s really a great method of processing not only meat or fish, but, for example, even butter. And it’s worth trying to smoke food using fresh, fragrant hay. Whenever I take a handful of hay and smell it, its fragrance immediately reminds me of my childhood and my grandmother. There's no herb that can replace the aroma of real hay – a mixture of grasses and herbs, which combined with, for example, roasted duck meat smells fabulously and gives delicious results, especially when eaten with a glass of good Polish nalewka.
The Many Flavours of Poland’s Artisanal Alcohol
EC: You mean smoked fish or meat can be paired with our strong Polish liquers?
KO: Oh yes, definitely! If I can, I'll try to present Polish nalewkas in Korea too. There are several masters of nalewka-making in Poland, and I know two of them. In olden times, nalewkas were consumed as medications, only later gradually gaining importance in cuisine. Today the tradition of making nalewkas is making a big comeback. They can be made from any kind of fruit, root, bark, fruit stones, pips or hay. Nalewkas can be perfectly paired with many dishes.
EC: How would you best describe a nalewka for any unfamiliar readers?
KO: It’s a kind of low-alcohol liqueur, very aromatic, and usually has an alcoholic strength up to 35%. The most popular are fruit nalewkas, traditionally made by macerating fruits in spirit. The trick is to make them dry and full of flavour at the same time. I can assure you that only a few people in Poland can really do it. I know some enthusiasts who go to the forest at dawn to pick wild strawberries, carrying with them all the necessary equipment to make a nalewka. They put fresh fruit in spirit right on the spot, capturing the unique flavour of wild strawberries picked at dawn in a forest glade. Fabulous!
Affordable Culinary Souvenirs from Poland
EC: So finally, apart from smoked food and nalewka, what would you recommend to tourists visiting Poland?
KO: Poland is divided into regions with very different cuisines. For example, if you go to Mazury, you should try baked eel with vegetables in vinegar. In the south of Poland, you can try delicious lamb or game dishes, again paired with nalewkas. I would recommend all dairy products, various types of cheese, and goose meat – it used to be very popular and it's now making a comeback on Polish tables.
And of course bread! Everyone who visits Poland should try some real, aromatic bread, traditionally baked on a horseradish leaf. I remember my grandparents smelling every slice of bread before eating, because it just smelled delicious.
Polish Food 101 ‒ Goose
polish culture in asia
jeju food and wine festival
Other than that, we're currently focussed on natural products in Poland. In recent years, we've seen a trend in the culinary arts to return to our traditional cuisine. We've started to appreciate what we have: pristine nature untouched by industry. For example, Poles still cultivate the custom of mushroom picking. Only an experienced mushroom picker knows how wonderful the smell of a forest full of mushrooms at early dawn can be. In my family, there was always a kind of competition: my grandma would often wake me up in the morning to triumphantly present me a basket full of mushrooms she picked at dawn. I'd see this, then jump out of bed immediately and rush to the forest to pick even more than she did. I remember one morning when I proudly brought home five huge ceps... Even now I have goose bumps as I’m talking to you about it! When I found them, I was in total euphoria. The mushrooms were so big that I took off my jacket and carefully put them in it. Then, of course, as a sort of revenge, I brought them to grandma’s room, put them down on the floor and left. I didn’t even notice when she left the house. She must have gone into the forest as soon as she saw them! [laughs]
Karol Okrasa is the third Polish chef, after Aleksander Baron and Maciej Nowicki, invited to participate in the International Jeju Food and Wine Festival in Korea. As part of the event, from 8th to 11th May 2019, he will create dishes based on Polish recipes with the use of local ingredients. Moreover, Karol Okrasa will also take part in a lunch for the Korean media organised in collaboration with the Polish Embassy in Seoul, and in a special event participated in by representatives of circles operating in the field of food promotion and culture, as well as representatives of the Korean Ministry of Agriculture.
Interview originally conducted in Polish, translated by AW, 29 Apr 2019
Why Are Poles So Obsessed With Mushroom Picking?