Polish Cuisine Rediscovered: A Modern Take on Polish Food Fights for its Place in the World Culinary Landscape
default, Polish Cuisine Rediscovered:
A Modern Take on Polish Food
Fights for its Place in the
World Culinary Landscape, Image from 'Fresh from Poland: New Vegetarian Cooking from the Old Country' © Michał Korkosz, 2020, reprinted by permission from the publisher, The Ex, center, fresh_from_poland_breakfast.jpg
Poland’s food never had its moment in the spotlight – one that would establish it as something the international public could appreciate on a daily basis. Could all of that be changing with a new twist on Polish cuisine?
There are the staples, of course: pierogi, pączki and Polish sausage are something many people have tried, although not always in the best possible version.
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I still remember watching a Top Chef episode where one of the competitors had to make a dish using Polish sausage and almost cried. There are many stereotypes that surround Polish food – people tend to think it’s quite heavy and meaty. Comfy? Possibly, yet not too varied or subtle. Fatty, brown, purely potato-based … even boring.
However, in the last decade or so, there has been enormous development in Poland in terms of our interest in discovering, researching and promoting Polish culinary culture. We are finding out so much that its richness and complicated history can be overwhelming even for us – yet these revelations can also become empowering for Polish expats, who until now might have been unsure of the attractiveness of their culinary heritage.
The ‘heavy cloud of the Eastern Bloc’
Before going to Poland, I only had the faintest idea of Polish food, based on my experiences in NYC. I came to Poland following an invitation of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. I accepted precisely because I did not know anything at all and I was curious,
says food researcher Professor Fabio Parasecoli. For the last few years, he has been working on a project about the changes in the Polish food world.
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Michał Korkosz, a recipient of the Saveur award for best food photography, who recently published a Polish cookbook, entitled Fresh from Poland, in the United States, confirms:
I feel like Eastern Europe is still a black spot on the culinary map – and people are curious to explore it (...) Although it seems as if there still is a heavy cloud of the Eastern Bloc hanging over Polish food. It’s often put in the vast Eastern-European category, but people don’t realize how incredibly varied it is. Of course, there are similarities between Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian cuisines, yet, for example, they all have also been influenced by the French. It’s all part of our history.
As the success of Polish food trucks in many parts of the US shows, there is interest in at least one classic dish – pierogi. And Brooklyn-based Pierogi Boys are one of the spots that takes this nostalgic comfort food, but markets it as a hipster must-eat. Krzysztof and Andrzej believe that New Yorkers are definitely ready for Polish grub:
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[...] our American friends’ interest in Polish food was one of the first reasons why we started Pierogi Boys. Lots of our guests tell us about a Polish childhood friend, or a distant relative who used to make pierogi or gołąbki. These dishes remained in people’s hearts as comforting memories, and they are eager to rediscover these flavors years later. Also, more and more Americans travel to Europe and try Polish food over there—very often they’re surprised to discover how familiar and delicious it is.
The times, they are a-changin’
Today, Poles fare finding new pride in some of our traditional ingredients (goose! sea buckthorn! rapeseed oil!) and techniques (fermentation! smoking!). We are researching the historical intricacies of various foods that different Polish social groups have had access to. At long last, there’s a place for serious academic research on how the courts’ diet differed from peasant food, how our regions differ from each other culinary-wise.
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Milk bars might be Poland’s only original restaurant concept, but as of now, nobody has ventured to recreate them abroad. Maybe such affordable canteens, serving mainly vegetarian, flour-based comfort food, could become a good culinary concept for the times of economic crisis?
A journey to the Polish regions
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A still from 'Flavor of Poland', courtesy of Independent Film Factory, Inc
Yet modesty is not all there is.
Would you ever associate crayfish or snails with Poland? Probably not, but crayfish soup is a delicacy known in several regions, and snails have been imported from Italy since the 16th century and are now locally grown. In the Pomorze region, there’s a fish soup garnished with a golden, amber-spiked spirit, and the main protagonists at Polish courts were sturgeon and venison. Americans can now learn about all of these exotic dishes by watching the first ever culinary travel show airing in public television that is fully dedicated to Poland.
Ten Meals from Ten Polish Regions
Created by Edyta Ślusarczyk and Robert N. Wachowiak, Flavor of Poland aims to not only fight the ‘heavy and boring’ stereotype, but also to show the incredible variety of Polish food in all its glory by visiting 13 out of 16 regions of Poland and presenting both modern and historic dishes. The viewers learn that staples beloved in all parts of the country obviously exist – but, as the show transports them to the Eastern regions of Podlasie and Podkarpacie, their culinary experience is totally different from that in the North at the seaside or in the West, near the border with Germany.
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Aleksandra August, host of 'Flavor of Poland', courtesy of Independent Film Factory, Inc.
Regional cuisine, seen not as a fixed set of national dishes but as an amalgam of smaller cultures brought together in one country, is something people started to understand thanks to Italy and its regions. Poland – contrary to the stereotype – is much the same in this regard, and this variety is clearly worth showing to the world.
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A cuisine to (re-) discover
Flavor of Poland is not the only initiative trying to show a different side of Polish food to the English-speaking public. In the past decades, a few beautifully designed and photographed cookbooks have been published: from the nostalgic Rose Petal Jam: Recipes and Stories from a Summer in Poland by Beata Zatorska and Simon Target to Polska: New Polish Cooking by the UK-based Zuza Zak.
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Antoni Porowski attends a signing event for his book 'Antoni in the Kitchen' at Barnes & Noble at The Grove on 21 September 2019 in Los Angeles, California, photo by Michael Tullberg / Getty Images
Polish food even has a celebrity ambassador – the Polish-Canadian Antoni Porowski, one of the Queer Eye crew, who published his cookbook Antoni in the Kitchen in 2019. Although it includes recipes from all over the world, Antoni admits to having a soft spot for the food of his family – but only now. As he shared in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
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—I was really ashamed of my Polish heritage growing up, but as I got older, I realized my name isn’t something to be ashamed of and although before I never wanted to eat cabbage or Polish food again, now I revisited all of these recipes that I love so much and that I am actually proud of.
Now Antoni will even teach you how to cook the Polish żurek soup, which he considers the ultimate hangover cure.
The latest addition to the Polish culinary library is the aforementioned Fresh from Poland by Michał Korkosz. What’s most unique about it is that it’s not only a modern, vibrant take on Polish food, but also that it's entirely vegetarian. Korkosz shares:
The Comforts of Polish Comfort Foods
It was obvious to me that I had to present the vegetarian side of Polish cuisine. The reason is simple: that’s the one I like the most. There’s a whole bunch of ingredients that deserve international attention: groats, cold-pressed oils, dairy (twaróg cheese, kefir!) or a whole array of seasonal vegetables and fruits – including berries of which we are the biggest exporter in the world.
Korkosz proves that a vibrant spring millet salad or crispy sauerkraut fritters are just as Polish as the sausages and stews associated with Poland until now.
Through his book – as well as through a hipster experience in the Brooklyn-based spot Pierogi Boys, with the Flavor of Poland TV show and thanks to the ongoing research of Fabio Parasecoli and Mateusz Halawa – the international public can finally discover the fascinating and ever-changing world of true Polish cuisine.
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Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, May 2020