Polish food: the art of hearty eating
Mealtimes and food have a central place in the Polish family. Meals bring the family together. Food is also central to expressing hospitality, which is very important in Polish culture: “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom” [When a guest is in the house, God is in the house]. If you are lucky to be invited to dinner in a Polish household, come prepared to eat heartily and forget about counting calories for that day.
Like many Poles, my father believed a meal was not a meal if it did not include soup. His favorite was rosol, which is clear soup made from beef or chicken. Usually it is served with thin vermicelli noodles. Dad, however, preferred a good helping of boiled potatoes in his rosol.
My uncle, on the other hand, said a proper soup should be so thick that a spoon will remain standing upright in it. His favorites were hearty mixtures of meat, potatoes and vegetables, more like a stew than a soup.
One of the central dishes for the Christmas Eve meal is barszcz made from stock and grated beets. On Christmas Eve it is usually served with uszki (similar to ravioli) stuffed with wild mushrooms. However, on other occasions, the barszcz is often enriched by stirring in sour cream. My mother only ever made barszcz z uszkami for Christmas. As a child I loved the uszki but was less keen on the barszcz. I would enter into prolonged negotiations with Mum on the ratio of the two in my bowl! Since then, I have developed a fondness for the barszcz too. I think the version with uszki is far too tasty to be restricted to one annual occasion.
The Poles seem to have a taste for sour food. Another soup is made from the leaves of the sorrel plant, which have a refreshing sour flavor. Sorrel grows wild, but is also cultivated in gardens both in Poland and among Polish émigré communities. Soup made from finely chopped sorrel is thickened with sour cream or egg yolk or both. It is served garnished with croutons or a chopped hardboiled egg.
Sorrel soup and beet soup with sour cream are often served chilled in summer. Chlodnik (cooler) is a chilled soup made with beet and cucumber. Poles also enjoy chilled fruit soups made from various fruit such as rhubarb, strawberries or sour cherries mixed with sour cream.
A very traditional soup, called zurek, is made by soaking rye flour in water and leaving it to ferment for some days. The sour liquid (zur) that forms is used to make the zurek. During Lent, a minimalist zurek often features on the menu. For this, the zur is combined with vegetable stock and a few vegetables are also added. At other times, the ingredients that are added depend on the season. Chopped hardboiled egg, chopped cooked potato, smoked sausage and bacon, together with a few seasonal vegetables are typical additions. There are also specific regional variations. For example, in the Mazowsze (Mazovia) region of central Poland, horseradish, garlic, sour cream, mushrooms and white sausage is added to zurek, and marjoram is used to flavor it.
Fish,as well as meat and poultry, is often cooked plainly, by baking, boiling or coating in breadcrumbs and frying. Accompaniments may include kasza (buckwheat), kluski (noodles) or boiled potatoes sprinkled with parsley and melted butter.
The most highly prized fish in Poland is carp, which is a common centerpiece of the Christmas Eve meal. Carp is fried, baked or prepared in aspic. Another variant is to cook the fish in vegetable stock and leave it to cool. Horseradish and sour cream are added to the stock to make a sauce which is served with the cold carp.
One childhood memory I have is of being taken on holiday to Hel. This is the thin “finger” of land that pokes out of the Polish coast. Between this strip of land and the main coast, there is freshwater, while the other side faces the salt water of the Baltic. Both freshwater and sea fish were in abundance. Best of all was the smoked fish sold ready to eat from numerous street stalls. I have never again seen so many different varieties of smoked fish.
Pickled herring is very popular. My mother would chop it up and mix it with (you’ve guessed!) sour cream and lots of sliced raw onion. We would eat this piled high on thick slabs of white bloomer bread. I still love the taste, although now I use thick plain yogurt instead of sour cream.
Poles eat meat cooked in all the usual ways, but also have some specific ways to prepare it. Here are three examples.
Thin slices of beef are rolled round chopped onions, gherkins and carrots to make a dish called zrazy. After the zrazy have been stewed slowly, sour cream is added to the gravy. Kasza (boiled buckwheat grains) is the traditional accompaniment.
Pigs trotters and pork knuckle are boiled together with celery, carrots, herbs and allspice until the meat falls off the bone. Both meat and vegetables are then cut into small pieces and put back into the cooking liquid. Chilling the dish causes the liquid to become jelly. This wobbly delight is called zimne nozki (cold little feet). It is often eaten doused with vinegar.
Pozarskie kotlety are cutlets made from boned chicken breast rolled round a mixture of minced veal and egg yolk. The cutlets are dipped in beaten egg and breadcrumbs, browned in butter in a frying pan and then baked in the oven until fully cooked.
Polish sausages (kolbasa, kielbasa) are famed all over the world. Most are made with pork, but liver, game and beef are also used. In 1964, the Polish government wished to control the quality of meat products. To this end, it issued a standardized list of recipes. This included 119 sausage recipes and 19 more recipes for blood sausage and liver sausage. There are numerous regional specialties, which depend on variations in the smoking techniques and the spices and herbs that are added. Krakowska is a thick, straight pork sausage with lots of pepper and garlic. Wiejska is u-shaped, made from veal and pork and flavored with marjoram and garlic. Jalowcowa is pork flavored with juniper. As a child in Ealing, London, I loved going to the Polish delicatessen with my mother. “Uncle Miki”, the proprietor, would always give me a kabanos, a thin, dry pork sausage with caraway seeds. I would chew on this happily all the way home.
Have a taste of Polish sausage
Have you ever eaten Polish food?
Have you had Polish food, and what did you think?
Vegetable and other savory dishes
Vegetables served on the side will often have browned breadcrumbs in melted butter poured over them. In my opinion, this works exceptionally well with cauliflower.
Polish gherkins are not pickled in vinegar, but are obtained by leaving small cucumbers to ferment in brine together with lots of dill and peppercorns. In my family, ham and gherkin sandwiches were a regular teatime treat. My mother would also make a mixed salad by mixing together chopped gherkins, fresh cucumber, tomato, onion and hardboiled eggs, and stirring in some mayonnaise.
Mizeria is a salad of cucumber, onion and sour cream (again!), which is often served as a side dish. It is a bit similar to the Greek tzatziki, but sour cream is used instead of yogurt and the cucumber is sliced rather than being diced into small pieces.
Grated raw potato and onion, mixed with beaten egg and flour is fried to produce placki. These are eaten hot with dollops of (yup!) sour cream. I always showed my Anglicization by asking Mum to hold the sour cream and eating my placki with tomato ketchup.
Like gherkins, kapusta (sauerkraut) is also made by packing shredded cabbage with salt or brine in a barrel and leaving it to ferment. It can be served as a warm or cold side dish.
One of the main uses of kapusta is to make bigos, which some consider to be the national dish of Poland. Traditionally, this was a hunter’s stew, with game from the hunt being added to the kapusta. Nowadays, bigos is more likely to contain smoked sausage and pork. Some people prefer to mix the kapusta with an equal quantity of fresh white cabbage. Others prefer to leave out the kapusta altogether and just use fresh cabbage, although it is then a matter of debate whether it can still be called bigos. Onions, tomatoes, wine and even prunes are sometimes used as additional ingredients in bigos.
In the days when farm households made their own kapusta, a few whole heads of cabbage would also be placed into the fermentation barrel. The leaves from these were used for golabki (the name means little pigeons, possibly due to the shape being like a pigeon breast). The leaves were rolled round a mixture of buckwheat, onion, mushrooms and minced beef, pork or chicken. The golabki were baked in a small amount of water. Today, it is more common to use blanched leaves from fresh white cabbage, rice instead of buckwheat, and to cook the golabki in tomato sauce.
Fancy doing some pickling?
Pierogi are the ultimate comfort food. A pasta dough from egg, flour and water is rolled out and made into parcels with a variety of stuffings. Popular stuffings include minced beef and onion, shredded cabbage and mushrooms, soft cheese and chopped onion mixed into mashed potato. Boiled pierogi are eaten with melted butter, or, in the case of the meatless stuffings, with chopped fried onion and bacon scattered over them. The next day, the leftovers are fried in butter or oil and taste even better.
Cheese and Potato Pierogi: a hands-on method!
Cakes and desserts
Stewed fruit, either one variety or a mixture, is a popular dessert and can be served warm or cold. Fruit can also be juiced or pureed and then thickened with arrowroot powder and slightly sweetened to make a cold sweet known as kisiel.
Sernik is the Polish version of cheesecake. Soft cheese is mixed with sultanas for the filling. Unlike American cheesecake, sernik is baked giving a very different result.
Chrusciki are made from strips of a very light pastry, which is twisted into a characteristic shape. The pastry is deep-fried and sprinkled with confectioner’s (icing) sugar. Another name for these is faworki.
My mother’s signature cake, produced for all birthdays and great occasions, was a coffee-walnut torte. Instead of flour, she used ground walnuts mixed with sugar and a dozen eggs. She would bake the cake, cut it across into three layers and douse it liberally with rum. She would then beat butter with sugar and coffee until it was totally smooth and use this to sandwich the layers and cover the cake. The final touch was to decorate the top with walnut halves and plain chocolate drops.
Yeast dough is used in many Polish cakes. At Easter we would always have babka. This is a tall, semi-sweet cake with candied peel and sultanas, often glazed with lemon water icing and decorated with strips of candied orange peel.
Another type of yeast cake, makowiec or makownik, is made by rolling yeast dough round a filling of poppy seeds boiled with sugar and mixed with candied peel and sultanas. Our local delicatessen would sell these cakes for Christmas and Easter and orders had to be put in early to avoid disappointment because they were always a sell-out.
Make poppy cake without the grind
As an adult, I love exploring foods from around the world. As I came to learn more about different types of food, I realised that often East meets West in Polish cuisine. One tasty example of this is halva. Although it is better known as a Middle Eastern sweet, halva made from ground sesame seeds and various flavorings is also produced in Poland. Another way sesame seeds are used in Poland is by being mixed with melted sugar to make something similar to nut brittle. In my opinion, these are best when produced as very thin bars, often sold in small packs of three.
"Jedzcie, pijcie i popuszczajcie pasa!" [Eat, drink and loosen your belt] say the Poles and they mean exactly that!
Hubs with Polish Recipes
- Barszcz z Uszkami - Polish Beetroot (Beet) Soup
The iconic Polish soup with pasta parcels filled with a delicious filling of minced porcini or other wild mushrooms.
- Chrusciki: Polish Bowtie Cookie Recipe
Polish Bow Tie cookies, or Chrusciki, are a traditional treat at Easter and Christmas time. In some Polish families they are also traditional wedding treats. Do enjoy this family recipe for the crisp, flakey fried cookies any time of year!
- Vegetarian Bigos
- Stuffed Breast of Veal from Poland
- Polish Spring and Easter Recipes
- Polish Sour Mushroom Soup Recipe
This recipe for Polish Sour Mushroom Soup is a Polish Christmas Eve tradition. Made with fresh mushrooms, its tangy flavor is enhanced with sour cream. Often this is served with a dollop of mashed potatoes in it! Yummy!
- Potato Pancakes Recipe- Just Like Mom's, But Easier
Make this easy Potato Pancake Recipe using your blender. Your potato pancakes will be just as good at Mother used to make with lots less effort. Serve with applesauce and sour cream for a delicious meatless dinner.
- Authentic Polish Easter Recipes - Origin of the Easter Basket