Polish off the plate

Beneath Poland’s sour cream and meat-and-potatoes mainstay lie layers of stories of besting frugality and beating history


Andrzej Staszel-Furtek outside his hut, where the ‘oscypek’ is smoked. Photo: Prachi Joshi
Andrzej Staszel-Furtek outside his hut, where the ‘oscypek’ is smoked. Photo: Prachi Joshi

I can scarcely believe the prices—0.80 Polish zloty (zł) for a bread roll (1 zł is around Rs17), 5 zł for soup. “Poland is like doing Europe on the cheap,” laughs my guide Marta Weigel.

I am at Pod Temida in Kraków, a bar mleczny, a self-service “milk bar” that serves cheap but wholesome food. In the stark interiors dotted with formica tables, more functional than pretty, I see a mix of pensioners, students and tourists digging into traditional Polish fare. “Milk bars were first established in the late 19th century and later became very popular during the world wars and afterwards, when Poland became a Communist state in the Soviet era,” says Weigel.

At a time of low incomes and strict rationing, this was a place where people could get a full hot meal—mostly vegetarian, with dairy, eggs, and soups—at astoundingly low prices. Milk bars began disappearing after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, as Poland embraced capitalism, but a few of them survive, poignant and still popular remnants of the country’s Communist history.

The tumultuous past is ever-present wherever I eat in Poland, with the wars and communism having had an irreversible impact on local food. As I attempt to make pierogi (Polish dumplings) at a cooking class in Warsaw, chef Michał Piosik tells me that the country’s location, bang in the middle of the East-West spice route, gave rise to a spice-heavy Polish cuisine in medieval times. “Everything from pepper and paprika to cumin, coriander and nutmeg was used,” he adds. The world wars put a stop to the spice trade and later, during Communist times, the flavours became more spartan, using just salt and pepper. Of course, today’s Polish cuisine uses a fair bit of seasoning, but the heat factor—usually imparted by paprika, more commonly associated with neighbouring Hungary—has all but disappeared.

Traditional Polish cuisine is essentially Slavic, similar to the food of its Central European neighbours, as well as big brother Russia, with potatoes and meat being the mainstay. The 18th century partition and annexation of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria introduced Germanic and Hungarian influences into its food: Think hearty stews and sausages. From the 13th century to World War II, Poland was also home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe; their breads and noodles (eaten in soup) also became part of Polish cooking.

Though the two world wars and communism forced the focus on sustenance rather than gourmet quality, pre-war Polish dishes are seeing a revival of sorts. Perhaps the most well-known Polish dish today is the pierogi, similar to Italian ravioli and Chinese dumplings in that they are made by filling pockets of unleavened dough with a savoury or sweet filling. My introduction to the pierogi happens the hard way: I have to actually make it myself. At the cooking class, I follow Piosik’s lead and knead the mixture of flour, water and egg into a firm but pliable ball and then roll it out into a large, flat, slightly thick disc.

“We will be making pierogis with three different fillings: the classic pierogi ruskie with potato and cottage cheese, another with meat and onions, and the third will be a sweet pierogi with seasonal berries,” says Piosik.

The ‘pierogi ruskie’. Photo: Marek Koprowski
The ‘pierogi ruskie’. Photo: Marek Koprowski

I sauté chopped onions and mix half of it with uncooked pork, while the other half goes into a mixture of mashed potatoes and cottage cheese for the pierogi ruskie. I cut out circles of the dough with an inverted cup, stuff them with different fillings and fold them into half-moon shapes. For the sweet pierogi, I place a few blueberries and raspberries in the dough pocket, sprinkle powdered sugar and then press the seams together to seal it.

All the pierogis then go into a large saucepan of boiling water for a few minutes; you know they are done when they start floating upwards. I carefully remove them from the saucepan, marvelling at the fact that not a single one has split.

“Traditionally, all pierogis are served with sour cream. For the savoury ones, we also add finely chopped bacon, onions and parsley,” explains Piosik. The savoury dumplings are rich and meaty (as is most Polish food), with the sour cream cutting through their heaviness.

“The most distinctive taste of Polish cuisine is sour,” says Marek Koprowski, my food guide in Wrocław, who takes me around the city for a taste of authentic Polish dishes. My first sip of zurek confirms this. Soup is the staple of Polish meals, whether it’s the hearty and warming ones for the brutal winter or cold ones for summer. Żurek is a sour rye soup made with fermented rye flour, potatoes, sausage or some other meat, and often a boiled egg. Since I’m eating at a traditional restaurant, the soup arrives in a bread “bowl”. It’s filling, slightly sour but also flavourful owing to the meat fat that’s rendered into it.

In Warsaw, I encounter the other favourite Polish soup, the barszcz or borscht, with beetroot and sour cream. It’s served cold and makes for a refreshing start to a summer lunch. This is followed by a side order of placki ziemniaczane, potato pancakes made with grated or mashed potato, flour and egg, shallow-fried and served with the omnipresent sour cream. Here I eat it doused in a buttery mushroom sauce, though at the Warsaw cooking class I saw a slightly modern take on it: a topping of sour cream, salmon and dill. The placki is another reminder of the significant Jewish influence on Polish cuisine.

‘Kotlet schabowy’. Photo: Prachi Joshi
‘Kotlet schabowy’. Photo: Prachi Joshi

Pork is the most popular meat on Polish tables. In Warsaw, I try the kotlet schabowy, a breaded and fried pork chop similar to the Austrian schnitzel but thicker. In more frugal times, the meat was mixed with vegetables to make one of Poland’s national dishes—bigos. Different chopped meats are mixed with sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) and shredded fresh cabbage, onions and seasonings, and slow-cooked to make this thick stew.

Near the picturesque village of Zakopane, I meet Andrzej Staszel-Furtek, a shepherd who makes oscypek, a smoked cheese typical of the Tatry Highlands (the “Polish Alps”, the highest mountain range in the Carpathians, the natural border between Poland and Slovakia). Staszel-Furtek follows a two-and-a-half-century-old recipe to combine sheep milk with a small amount of cow milk to make cottage cheese, which is rinsed and drained several times. He then presses the cheese into decorative wooden moulds and soaks them in brine for a couple of days before curing them with smoke for a week or two. The colour of the cheese varies from pale white to golden brown, depending on the length of curing.

Staszel-Furtek brings out an oblong block of cheese, the shape of a short thick sausage, with a geometric etching. The cheese is pale yellow, indicating that it has been smoked for a short period. He slices the cheese and offers me a taste: It is firm and dense without any discernible rind, and has a moreish, salty-smoky flavour. Later, while wandering through the Gubałówka Market in Zakopane, I find several cheesemongers offering grilled slices of oscypek slathered with cranberry marmalade—the combination of smoky, salty and sweet flavours elevates this simple cheese to another level.

‘Nalewka’, a traditional Polish liqueur. Photo: Polish Tourist Organisation
‘Nalewka’, a traditional Polish liqueur. Photo: Polish Tourist Organisation

That night I find myself at a lively restaurant in Zakopane, my feet tapping to upbeat highlander folk music and watching a quartet of Gorals (a Polish highlander tribe) perform an energetic dance. I raise a toast to them with a shot glass of nalewka, a traditional Polish liqueur made with a vodka base infused with fruits, herbs, spices and sugar, and then aged. The potent liqueur (usually 40-45% alcohol, but some homemade ones are as strong as 75%) makes for a perfect post-dinner aperitif. During my 10 days in Poland, I sample various flavours of it, from hazelnut and walnut to cherry and plum, but my favourite turns out to be pigwowa or quince, which yields a beautiful amber brew with an aroma of baked fruit and a rich, smooth finish. No wonder then that a bottle finds its way into my suitcase on the journey home.

***

How to get the best in Poland

SHOP

■The Saturday Flea Market at Kraków’s Plac Nowy is perfect for picking up curios and seasonal fruits.

■Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in Kraków’s massive market square sells quality glassware and amber jewellery.

■Hala Targowa in Wrocław is the place to go to for fresh produce, meats and cheeses.

■The Gubałówka Market in Zakopane is a charming daily market that sells fresh produce and local handicrafts. In addition, there’s an entire alley of ‘oscypek’ cheese vendors.

■You can buy ‘nalewka’ at any 24-hour liquor shop, and even at supermarkets. Look for the brand Soplica, which offers a host of infused vodkas.

EAT

■In Warsaw: Polka (Świętojańska 2) by celebrity chef Magda Gessler for a slightly refined take on Polish cuisine.

■In Kraków: Restauracja CK Dezerter (Bracka 6) for ‘zurek’ and local fish dishes.

■In Wrocław: Kurna Chata (Odrzańska 17) for rustic fare.

■In Zakopane: Bąkowo Zohylina Wyźnio (Józefa Piłsudskiego 28A) for regional highlander cuisine.

LEARN

■Get a taste of local Polish delicacies on Wrocław Food Tours. These include several tastings, along with a side of Polish history and culture. Tours start at 140 zł (around Rs2,500).

■At Polish Your Cooking in Warsaw, you can try your hand at popular Polish dishes under the expert guidance of local chef Michał Piosik. Classes start at 199 zł.

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