A culinary tour of Poland. For someone who has grown up in a part of North America rife with people of Polish and Ukrainian descent, it sounds like a joke. Who flies halfway around the world to visit a country almost decimated by the second world war and then stunted by the oppression of Communism to dine on pierogies and cabbage rolls, foods that are often dismissed here at home?
The answer is: someone who is open to meeting enthusiastic people who are proud of their country’s resilience, and game for trying an endless parade of flavourful soups, deliciously sour pickled products, sublime baked goods, and yes, dumplings stuffed with an endless combination of fillings. When it comes to European travel, Poland definitely is the road less traveled, but with relatively inexpensive prices for food, hotels, and activities, travelers are starting to catch on to how much the country has to offer explorers.
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While Westernization has opened the door to a lot of less traditional restaurants (20-something Poles will tell you that they’re way more likely to eat at KFC than a Pierogarnie) and the country is currently going through a “burger craze” (to match the “sushi craze” they saw a few years back), it’s not hard to find a plate of traditional Polish fare in the cities of Warsaw and Poznan, which is where I found myself just a couple of weeks ago (Krakow — I’m coming for you next time!).
Sitting down at a traditional Polish table, you’ll likely find apple juice alongside jugs of water, likely to add some vitamin content, since fresh vegetables don’t seem to find their way onto most traditional plates. Polish meals almost always begin with soup — the soups not only (sometimes) provide more vegetable content, but are good belly warmers. Some of the best soups include Zurek (a sour rye soup, often served in a bread bowl), Barszcz Czerwony (borscht), Flaki (beef tripe), Czernina (duck blood soup), Zupa Grzybowa (mushroom), Kwasnica (sauerkraut), and Gulaszowa (goulash), but my top pick is Zupa Ogorkowa, which was initially presented as “cucumber soup,” but is actually sour pickle soup. It’s really easy to make at home and unbelievably tasty.
For the mains, the focus is on meat and dumplings. There are dozens of varieties of pierogies that regularly appear on Polish menus, ranging from sauerkraut and mushroom to beef to blueberry (a dessert pierogy served with butter, chocolate sauce, and sprinkles, plus a bowl of sugar and a stern suggestion to sprinkle it on top). Other than that, you’ve got some of the things Canadians are used to like cabbage rolls, pork chops (often breaded), and kielbasa, plus more intense dishes like the Polish version of blood sausage, Golonka (stewed pork knuckles), and Bigos, a delicious hunters’ stew made of cabbage and as many kinds of pork as you can manage. The food at the Radio Cafe in Warsaw is great, plus it’s a former hang-out for Radio Free Europe activists, and in Poznan, try out the traditional fare at Wiejskie Jadlo, Bar Metka, and Chlopskie Jadlo (which also has locations in Warsaw and other points throughout the country).
Some of the best fun to be had in Poland, though, comes in the form of bar snacks, which serve as a great chaser after a nice shot of potato vodka. Polish pickles (similar to kosher dills in that they’re salt brined and very sour), pickled herring, jellied pig’s trotters, and Smalec (pork lard) are traditional choices and still served at throwback vodka bars frequented by the young and rowdy.
But it’s not all traditional. One of the gems of Poznan is Zielona Weranda, a hopelessly adorable little café with a more modern menu, featuring spectacular cookie-flavoured iced coffee and a nice little pork dish with raisins and honey over rice. There was an air of traditional Polish flavour there, but it was a much fresher, lighter take.
While watching the finals of the Polish Culinary Cup, where chefs from around the country competed for the top prize through live cooking demos, it became clear that the top chefs in Poland are just as innovative and experimental as young chefs anywhere else. Again, a lot of traditional Polish food was used (namely sausage and other forms of pork), but in fun and really appetizing ways.
Music was not a priority on this trip (except for the communal karaoke going on in a vodka bar — I didn’t understand a word, but those Polish pop songs are catchy!), but one name did pop up just about everywhere: Frederic Chopin. The airport in Warsaw is named after Chopin. One of Poland’s most delicious vodkas is named after him. There’s a church in downtown Warsaw that, legend has it, literally has Chopin’s heart encased in one of the columns. He is still a huge hero and a point of pride for Poles. With few (no?) Polish mainstream pop or rock bands having achieved wide success outside of Eastern Europe, Chopin remains Poland’s biggest rock star, even though he died over 150 years ago. For those not into classical music, here’s why:
Now, when I got back to Canada, I needed to invite Julie over and make her some Polish food and I thought I’d try my hand at one of the most delicious things I ate on my trip: Bigos. This “hunters’ stew” is packed with vegetables (though, they’re cooked down to the point where it kind of looks like one big mash of meat) and is spiked with sauerkraut, giving it a very Polish flavour. A respectable Polish cook should have a pot of this on the stove at all times, I’ve been told.
4-6 thick slices bacon, cut into ½ inch piece
1 lb kielbasa sausage, sliced
1 pound country-style pork chops, cut into 1” cubes
¼ cup flour
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
½ a head of green cabbage, shredded
1 lb sauerkraut, drained
½ cup dry red wine
1 bay leaf
1 tsp marjoram
1 tbsp paprika
salt and pepper to taste
¼ tsp caraway seed, crushed with a mortar and pestle
2-3 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup canned diced tomato
Heat a large pot over medium heat and add the bacon. Once it starts to release its fat, add the kielbasa and cook until everything is nice and brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve on a plate. Lightly dredge the pork chop cubes in flour and fry in the bacon fat (add some vegetable oil if there isn’t enough) until golden brown. Remove from pot and reserve with the bacon and kielbasa.
Add more oil if necessary and sautee the onion and garlic until the onions begin to soften, then begin to cook the vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, cabbage and sauerkraut) over medium heat. Keep the heat low enough that none of it browns, and cook until carrots are softened, about 10 minutes. Add the wine to the pan and deglaze the brown bits from the bottom. Add all of the spices and let it cook for a minute or two.
Add the chicken stock (start with two cups and slowly add more if the bigos starts to dry out as you cook it), the tomato paste, tomatoes, and reserved meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and let cook at a low simmer for at least an hour or up to three hours (the longer you cook it, the better it will taste). Serve with crusty bread and a Polish soup of your choice.
Enjoy with a little bit of Chopin as your dinner music. And whether you have Polish roots or not, think about Polish food next time you’re planning dinner. Not only will it be delicious, but if these dishes are good enough to have fueled centuries of Polish resilience and spirit, there’s got to be something to them.
This trip to Warsaw and Poznan was generously provided by the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Poland, within the framework of Polish Economy Promotion Program in Canada.