Gołąbki – literally ‘little pigeons’– are made by filling white cabbage leaves with stuffing made of rice and minced meat, served with either tomato or mushroom gravy. Gołąbki simmer or bake in a broth of varied flavours, and they always taste best on the second or even third day.
Culinary critic and columnist Piotr Bikont was right on the spot when he summed up gołąbki with the following comment
…they are typical homemade food. Many years of experience finally taught me not to order gołąbki at a restaurant. The more refined ones won’t even feature them in their menu as the dish is, in my opinion unjustly, considered a simpletons’ delicacy, unworthy of an elegant table and more suitable for a diner’s menu. And the diners, milk bars, and cheap bistros are indeed full of gołąbki. But if such inexpensive places often serve quite edible versions of baked beans or even flaki, the gołąbki they serve are usually indigestible. The main reason is dead simple – it’s due to the quality of the meat.
Stuffed cabbage across Europe
Various dishes made from stuffed cabbage can be encountered throughout Europe. They are popular in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and also in Belarus and Russia, as well as Germany, Sweden and Finland. Stuffed cabbage is also a traditional Jewish dish – holishkez are stuffed with meat balls and served with a sweet and sour tomato gravy. However in the Balkans, Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Georgia it is mainly grape leaves that are stuffed and rolled.
It’s not clear whether Poland owes its gołąbki to Turkish, Armenian or Jewish influences. They were apparently first served in the Eastern borderlands. A 19th century cook books speak of “stuffed cabbage”. Maria Marciszewska, in her book entitled Kucharka szlachecka (A Noblemens’ Cook) described “stuffed cabbage, also called gołąbki” with “beautiful” groats or rice, with leaves of sauerkraut, and meat of baked duck, goose, chicken or pork, along with fresh bacon. Contemporary cuisine considers stuffed cabbage and gołąbki as two distinct dishes.
The Ruskie gołąbki
A rich variety of gołąbki possibilities is to be found in old cook books and regional traditions. One of the typical Eastern borderland versions has the stuffing wrapped in pickled cabbage leaves from cabbage heads previously soured in their entirety, without chopping. The author of a popular early 20th century Uniwersalna książka kucharska (Universal Cook Book), Maria Ochorowicz - Monatowa, called this variety “ruskie” (from the historic name of Red Ruthenia, or Red Russina, also inhabited by Polish people) –
"Real Ruskie gołąbki are made from sour cabbage, which has to be pickled as a whole cabbage head. Two such heads should be peeled into each separate leaf and the stuffing should be rolled in them as previously. They ought to simmer not on sour rye bortsch, as that would make them too sour, but on a delicate mushroom flavour."
These Ruskie gołąbki were also called “hołupcie”. They are known in today’s Karpaty region and appear in recipes of the Łemko ethnic minority, who call them “kiszeniaki” and stuff them with groats and meat. The Polish Ministry of Agriculture actually lists a recipe from Nowe Sioło on its official list of regional products. The formerly Polish city of Lviv also used to serve the gołąbki with grated potatoes.
The Eastern influences are also present in the Lower Silesia region. In 1945, many people from the Eastern Borderlands region were made to resettle there, and they brought their ancestors’ culinary traditions with them. Among them is the buckwheat groats, potato and meat gołąbki recipe. A vegetarian version of the dish was served for Christmas Eve.
Nowadays gołąbki are usually simmered in meat or mushroom broth, but 100 years ago they used to be baked in a layer of sour rye soup, or cabbage leaven or whey. This method is rather specialized, but it is still used by the family of this text’s author. It’s also worth pointing out that it isn’t only white cabbage that can be used to make the gołąbki, but also its delicate Italian kind, or even red cabbage. The stuffing can be made not only with pork meat and rice, but also other kinds of meat, and the distinctively Eastern European groat variety called kasza [pronounced: KA-shah].
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk – Chevriaux, July, 2014, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 7/08/2014