When I eat Polish food, something extraordinary happens.
My brain goes into a mind-freeze and stops controlling my arms. My arms work with a life of their own and reach out for more helpings without thinking. Stuffing my face at times. My brain says that maybe something’s not right, but it’s a faint mumble, as the delicate flavours and hypnotic aromas of the food make me heady, and the visual delights on the table reach out and grip my arms and control them…. and damn, it feels so good as they reach my mouth !
The only explanation is that most traditional food is not only really good to taste but feels really good once it makes it’s way into your skin, bones and gut. Traditional Polish food is cooked very basic, with just butter, pepper, salt, garlic, onion and some herbs like parsley and dill. Thus preserving the actual flavours of the meats and other ingredients, making the meal quite wholesome. Polish food is essentially cold weather food, heavy and hearty, so having it in smaller doses in summer is a good idea.
The list that follows can probably not cover all the food I like in Poland, so there may be more lists to follow, but this is a good start for the first timer in Poland.
1 Tatar | Polish Steak Tartare
Number one on my list is mouthwatering steak tartare, served in the traditional Polish way, with the yolk of an egg on top, and condiments served on the side such as raw onion, brine-pickled cucumber, and sometimes pickled bell peppers and wild mushroom. The traditional Tatar is served with the yolk of a quail egg, which is far tastier and also smaller, but in the absence of one, a chicken egg will do.
Eating Tip : Gently mix all ingredients on the plate together. It’s easier if you make a little hole in the centre of the tartare and throw the egg yolk in there first to keep your plate from getting messy, and then mix the rest in. A bit of salt and pepper, is also nice. If you eat at a restaurant you may be asked if you’d like a shot of vodka with your steak tartare. Don’t say no if you can help it, a vodka shot goes excellently well with a steak tartare. My favourite is a bitter-sweet vodka, known as Zoladkowa Gorzka. If you don’t find that, then a regular vodka will do, as all the ‘regular’ vodka in Poland is pretty damn exceptionally good.
2 Pierogi | Stuffed Dumplings
Another absolute favourite is of course, Pierogi, or Polish stuffed dumplings made of unleavened dough. Pierogi was the first Polish food to encounter my palette, and there started my love affair with Poland, really. Unlike traditional Asian dumplings such as Dim Sum or Tibetan Momo, which, by the way, I love too, the Pierogi is more flat in shape. The Dim Sum is of course the healthiest option of the three, made of rice paper, but the Pierogi rivals in taste and flavours. But apart from that, there is something, undefinable about eating Pierogi. It’s a warm, safe feeling, maybe from the love that goes into it’s careful handmade preparation. The stuffings can be of many types, three of the most common ones being Potato, cheese, onion (Pierogi Ruskie), Mushroom (Pierogi z Grzybami), Minced Meat (Pierogi z Miesem).
Eating Tip : The best Pierogi is of course the home-made variety, especially the ones made by a Polish mommy or grand-mommy. However, I must say I’ve had a fair share of superb Pierogi from some restaurants in Krakow and Gdansk. I prefer the steamed version to the fried one, but that is quite a personal choice. The worst kind would be the kind you buy frozen from a supermarket, so try and avoid it if you can.
3 Czerwony Barszcz | Red Beetroot soup/zupa
That’s another dish, where the first spoonful that reaches my mouth always makes me go mmmMMMMMmmmmm. This zupa is heaven in your mouth, light, clear, yet rich in color like red wine, the sweet base flavours of beetroot with tinges of lime or vinegar, and your body will soak it up like rain on parched land. Rich in iron, and full of nutrition, this savoury soup can’t get any healthier. Often served with Uszka (similar to Italian Ravioli) inside the soup itself, the soup totally compliments the climate in Poland, be it summer or winter.
Eating Tip : Have it in a cup or bowl, as a starter. If you have it in a cup, then chug it along with your main meal. I prefer it hot, although a cold Barszcz is also available (known as Chłodnik, and cooked with kefir or yogurt)
4 Zurek | Sour Rye Soup
Another Zupa from Poland, that delights my taste buds is the incredible wholesome Zurek or Zur. The delicate sour flavour of Zurek comes from fermented rye flour and bread crusts, and is pleasant on the palette. Thrown into it can be a whole lots of vegetables, but a boiled egg and boiled Polish sausages are a must. Zurek can also be served inside a loaf of bread (my eyes popped out of my head when I saw this for the first time), and you can break the sides of your bread-bowl, dipping it into the soup as you go. How Novel ! Zurek is a full meal by itself, and is more a cold weather soup. So for my small frame it gets quite heavy in the summer, but it is such a hearty and soulful bowlful, that I would not refuse it even in warm weather.
Eating Tip : If you don’t have a big appetite, you should not order this as a starter. This can totally fill you up as a main.
5 Sliwki w Boczku | Prunes Rolled in Bacon
This should be rated as one of the best appetizers in the world. Oh my GOODNESS, it can’t get much better than this. There are very few tastes that can compare to this little bombshell. You’ll find an explosion of rich tastes in your mouth, the sweetness of the prune, the saltiness of the bacon, the delicate crunchy taste of meat and the fibrous mushy texture of the prune. It’s also really easy to make, and is a great party snack.
Eating Tip : This is an appetiser, so you’ll risk filing your belly with this before your mains arrive. The oven baked version is a better one than the fried version as the juices really blend into each other. Try to savour each one, holding it for a few seconds on your tongue and letting all the flavours collide in your mouth before chewing and gulping.
6 Sledzie | Raw Herring
I realise as I write this that some of my favourite foods in Poland are really the appetisers. This is another cold speciality, you’ll find in any supermarket, usually in large glass jars or plastic cases in oil and onion. Like in any Baltic nation, you’ll also find this in every Polish refrigerator. Other varieties will be in dill and cream or a spicy pepper oil.
Eating Tip : Best had a snack, just with bread and some lemon juice squeezed over. The flavours are pretty strong, so a couple of them usually suffice. Also, maybe not a good idea to have during a date. The mix of onion and fish in the mouth…. Yummy to eat, but not so yummy to taste when you kiss.
7 Galaretka z Miesem | Gelatine with Meat
Galaretka was another special Polish discovery for me. The first time I had it was when my friend Magda made it in her home in Gdansk. Apart from being visually really pretty, this little thing is another package full of good health. Stuffed with boiled chicken or Pork, boiled peas and carrots, parsley, and had with a dash of lime.
Eating Tip : Break with a fork, squeeze lime over it, and have it plain or on bread. Yum.
8 Bigos | Hunter’s stew
Nobody can forget the robust, heart-warming and nourishing feeling of a warm bowl of Bigos on a cosy evening when it’s not so warm outside. Bigos is a really special dish as it is stewed over 2 to 4 days, with both fresh cabbage and sauerkraut. I tried Bigos on my first trip to Poland, home-made by my fiancé’s mom. A fixed set of spices (bay-leaf, an allspice, black pepper) is used along with sausage, mushroom, onion, and sometimes prunes or dried apples. Red wine can also be added to the stew. Everyone has their own special Bigos recipe, and no two are really the same.
Eating Tip : Bigos is best eaten with bread or potatoes. If you’re not living with a Polish family, then try and look out for a ‘Karczma’ or an Inn, to avail a traditional Bigos, otherwise a good Polish restaurant will definitely have it, as it’s one of the tourist must-haves.
9 Kluski śląskie | Silesian Dumplings
Another one of those pleasant surprises in the mouth, Kluski śląskie has some of the most delicate flavours I’ve ever tasted in my life. The texture actually reminds me of a particular type of Japanese red bean sweet, a perfect romance between soft and chewy. The dumplings are made of a 1:3 ratio of cooked potato and starch, and thrown into boiling water, and if made well, they can literally be melt-in the mouth. They are usually served with simple meat sauces. This is something hat I love about Polish food, the simplicity of ingredients, that, incidentally, is really the healthiest thing you can give to our digestive system.
Eating Tip : Best eaten before a more savoury dish, as the delicate flavours might seem too bland if eaten after.
10 Pączki | Polish Doughnuts
I had to throw in one sweet in this list, and for me, very few sweets beat the amazing texture and taste of Pączki. The first of these I had was from a Piekarnia (Bakery) in Gdansk, for an early morning breakfast, where we (My fiancé, Magda and myself) picked up some fresh bakes to have with our coffee, sitting at the docks near the old town. I thought “Doughnuts, how special could they be.” I picked up a rose-jam Pączki for myself. The first bite….. was soooo tender and melt-in-the-mouth, I could not believe it. It was an exta long mmmMMMM. Really. I may have been lucky to have a really good batch. The rose jam was incredible, but more than anything else, the texture of the bread of the doughnut itself was a bit too heavenly to believe.
Pączki have been known in Poland at least since the Middle Ages. Although they look like bismarcks or jelly doughnuts, pączki are made from especially rich dough containing eggs, fats, sugar and sometimes milk. They feature a variety of fruit and creme fillings and can be glazed, or covered with granulated or powdered sugar. Powidla Sliwkowe (stewed plum jam) and wild rose hip jam are traditional fillings, but many others are used as well, including strawberry, Bavarian cream, blueberry, custard, raspberry and apple. Wikipedia
Eating Tips : Have them as fresh as you can, you’ll find the best ones early in the morning in a Piekarnia !
As I finish this list, I realise there is way too much more. But you shouldn’t bite on more you can chew, so this is it for now. For later, you’ll find separate faves, as my 5 fave desserts, or 5 fave soups, etc. Smacznego, and don’t forget to take it easy on the eating as you explore the many tastes of Poland !