Conventional wisdom says that Polish cooking and bold flavours don’t mingle. But this idea was dispelled during my trip to the Central European nation last July, at a culinary workshop I attended in Warsaw. Chef Michał Piosik, who conducted the workshop, quizzed the class, “Did you know Polish food was considerably influenced by spices?”
I learnt how, in the Middle Ages, trade relations between Poland, Asian and Southeast Asian countries ensured that spices like nutmeg and pepper were liberally used in the local cuisine. Successive invasions, the two World Wars and the spread of communism resulted in political upheaval, which transformed the country’s food. A once-vibrant cuisine acquired a Spartan bent, but Poland’s unique cuisine tradition is undeniable; for instance, Poland still retains some milk bars (bar mleczny), the no-frills cafés set up in the 19th century to serve inexpensive food.
Here’s a quick guide to the interesting history behind some classic Polish treats:
Photo by beats1/Shutterstock.
This thick creamy soup made from meat or vegetable broth, barley groats and potato, is derived from kisiel, another traditional Polish soup made from a fermented mix of honey, milk and barley. Kisiel was popular in medieval Poland. In 1394 during Lent, the country’s ruler, King Władysław II Jagiełło, served the soup without milk to his guests and peasants, using minimal seasoning to symbolise austerity.
Today, there are regional variations of the kisiel like the rye meal zur (soup) or krupnik. Krupnik was also prominent in the diet of pre-war Poland’s Jewish community, which had a popular Yiddish saying that went, “Beser bay zikhkrupnik, eyder bay yenemge brotns (Better barley soup at home than a roast at someone else’s home).”
To enjoy hearty krupnik in modern Poland, visit Kameralna in Warsaw, which opened in 1947. (www.kameralnarestauracja.pl; open daily from 12 p.m. till the last guest leaves)
Photo by kaband/Shutterstock.
Tubers, especially potatoes, are a fixture in the local cuisine. In the 17th century, King John III Sobieski introduced potatoes across the nation, and it is the centrepiece of placki ziemniaczane, a Polish staple. In ancient Poland, these fried potato pancakes made with flour and egg and accompanied with sour cream, were available in different variations. Some were stuffed with cheese and fried like a Spanish empanada. Others were served with fruits, or baked with apples. Nowadays, placki is served at milk bars.
In 14th-century Poland, immigrant German Jews brought with them their culinary traditions which included flatbreads like cake or kugel, a savoury pudding made of potatoes or vegetables like zucchini and onion. During the holy festival of Chanukah, families in Kazimierz, Krakow’s pre-Holocaust Jewish settlement, regularly whipped up bread pudding made with kugel. On Sabbath when cooking wasn’t permitted, turnip kugels made with buckwheat kasha (porridge) were cooked in advance and served with chicken.
Kugels are still popular in Poland. Modern variations of kugel are flavoured with cranberries, pineapple or cream cheese. One of the best places to try this dish is Klezmer-Hois, a renowned café in Kazimierz, which also has live Klezmer (Jewish) music. (www.klezmer.pl; open daily from 7 a.m.-11 p.m.)
Pierogi in the making the crescent shaped dumplings are rolled stuffed pinched and later boiled or fried. Photo by Rathina Sankari.
The origin of these famed dumplings is controversial. While some claim it came from Russia, others believe it was first made in the region that was once part of eastern Poland before the borders were redrawn. Pierogi are relished with various stuffings—potato and cheese, meat and onion, and fruits like blueberries and raspberries. Boiled, baked or fried, it is topped with sour cream, pork rinds, lardon (bacon), dill, or parsley. When meat wasn’t easily available during wartime and the communist era, pierogi had simpler stuffings and lacked fancy toppings. Today pierogi is standard fare in local restaurants. Zapiecek in Warsaw specialises in pierogi stuffed with salmon, blue cheese, and turkey. (www.zapiecek.eu; open daily from 11 a.m.-11 p.m.)
Photo courtesy: Poland Tourism Board
The national dish of Poland, this stew of cabbage and meat was restricted to nobility in medieval times. Legend has it that Lithuanian Prince Wladislaus married Polish Queen Jadwiga and introduced bigos to the country in the 14th century. Also called the hunter’s stew, it was common for royalty to carry the dish along on hunting expeditions. Bigos is a complex one-pot meal usually made with spit-roasted game (hare, pheasant, boar, and venison) and cabbage, prunes, bacon, mushrooms, wine, and cinnamon. It’s slow-cooked on an open fire and best enjoyed as it ages.
For a sumptuous bowl of bigos, head to Bąkowo Zohylina Wyźnio, a restaurant at Zakopane. (www.wyznio.zohylina.pl; open daily from 1 p.m.-midnight)
As with any region of Europe, if the Polish raised a toast in the Middle Ages, it was likely to be a glass of mead. Made from fermented honey and water, the drink flowed freely among the noblesse, as only they could afford honey. No special occasion was complete without it. In the 13th century, the Duke of Łęczyca even donated three urns of mead to the Krakow cathedral. Over time, mead lost ground to cheaper drinks like vodka and beer. In the last few years though, mead has made a comeback and is available in many restaurants in Krakow’s Main Market Square.
To sip on some great Polish mead, head to Cafe Camelot in Krakow (ul.Św. Tomasza 17; +48 12 421 01 23; open daily 9 a.m.-midnight) and the dive bar Pasiekain Warsaw (www.restauracja-pasieka.pl; open Mon-Fri 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat-Sun noon-1 a.m.).
A traditional bar mleczny with self-service at Krakow. Photo by Rathina Sankari.
Traditionally, Poles eat five meals a day, and the practice lives on in the country’s milk bars. For a taste of this past of Poland, visit Bar MlecznyKrak-Rest in Krakow (www.bar-mleczny.com.pl; open daily 9 a.m.-8 pm.) and ZłotaKurka in Warsaw (www.barzlotakurka.pl; open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-5 p.m.).
For śniadanie, the first breakfast of the day, milk bars serve open sandwiches topped with cold cuts; a hurried second breakfast drugie śniadanie of dry sausages served with pickle; obiador dinner, is the heaviest meal of the day and includes pork cutlets, cabbage rolls, and kompot, a syrupy fruit drink; light snacks are served for the evening podwieczorek when Poles eat cheesecake and szarlotka (Polish version of apple pie). The last and lightest meal of the day served at a milk bar is kolacja, or supper, which comprises leftovers of the day.
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