Kotlet schabowy (KOHT-let s-HA-bow-vey): in its most traditional form, this pork cutlet is coated with breadcrumbs, fried on lard, and served with potatoes and browned or pickled cabbage. Communist leadership in Poland erased pre-war Polish cooking traditions and made the kotlet schabowy a star dish – the food of the perfect Stakhanovite. After communism, this Polish schnitzel was snubbed by the elite. Nevertheless, the schabowy continues to hold its ground as a traditional Polish dish.
Pigs have been bred in Poland for centuries, but the kotlet schabowy has not been on the culinary scene as long as bigos or pierogi. In the 17th-century, the meat of this 'impure and dirty animal' was treated as a side dish, and more refined meats (such as 'figatelli' – sarmatian meatballs) were placed at the top of menus. In fact, pork was viewed as the meat of the working man. Professor Jarosław Dumanowski, who researches old Polish culinary traditions, clarifies that 'the conviction that pork was always a part of Polish cuisine is a misunderstanding.' He explains, 'the meat started to be appreciated and described in cookbooks not so long ago, and that change is linked to the fall of old Polish cuisine of the Polish nobility.'
The kotlet schabowy came to Poland in the 19th century, most likely as a pork variation on the Austian national dish, Wiener Schnitzel (which is a very thin, breaded and deep-fried veal cutlet served with a slice of lemon). Even as the Polish schnitzel began to appear in cookbooks one hundred years ago, the nobility and the peasants never quite granted it a central place on their dinner tables. However, when breeding pigs became even more popular after World War II, Poland became one of Europe's biggest pork producers.
A Polish tradition for some and a symbol of culinary backwardness for others, no other pork cutlet is as divisive as this one. The those who love it – and all other communist-regime era foods – are called 'kotleciarze' (the cutlet lovers). Their defining characteristic is resistance to change, especially in the form of exotic cuisine.
During the communist-regime era, the breadcrumb coated pork cutlet was served in state-owned restaurants called milk bars (bary mleczne). Lucyna Ćwierciakiewiczowa, an author on Polish food in late 19th and early 20th-centuries, desribes how it was once served with shallots fried in butter, onion, mustard or spices as far back as 150 years ago. Often preceded by chicken broth with noodles, today it rests on the plate side by side with cabbage. Her well-known cookbook 365 Dinners has all the pork cutlet know-hows needed to prepare the meat.
On the Polish market, Japanese and Italian restaurants have pushed traditional Polish restaurants into the sidelines. But the re-vamped kotlet schabowy of fine pig breeds (złotnicka and puławska) is slowly re-appearing on the menus of high-end restaurants serving innovative Polish dishes. Today, it continues to be a popular main course in restaurants serving Polish food and in Sunday dinners in Polish homes.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, translator: MJ 18/08/2014