Stories behind the Polish cuisine.

‘If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart’. Cesar Chavez

Proverbs give a great insight into culture as they reflect attitudes and wisdom existing in a community. Because our existence depends on eating and drinking, it is not surprising that there are a great number of proverbs about it. The explanations of some of them are listed below.

‘Bez pracy nie ma kołaczy’- there are no cakes without work,

‘Być jak pączek w maśle’- to live like a doughnut in butter,

‘Chcąc człowieka dobrze poznać, trzeba z nim beczkę soli zjeść’- you have to eat a barrel of salt with someone to know them well,

‘Głodnemu chleb na myśli’- a hungry person has bread on their mind,

‘Każdy sobie rzepkę skrobie’- everyone peels their own turnip,

‘Nie dla psa kiełbasa’- a sausage is not for dogs,

‘Nie z każdej mąki będzie chleb’- bread cannot be baked from every flower.

It is said in Poland that having a guest is like having God in your house. It is worth remembering as paying a visit to a Polish family often ends with overeating.

A menu in a restaurant serving Polish food

A menu in a restaurant serving Polish food

Popular elements of the Polish cuisine

Fermented vegetables

Sour cabbage known as sauerkraut is rich in vitamins and other nutrients. According to some studies it prevents cancer and treats ulcers (“What Are The Benefits Of Sauerkraut Juice?”. Livestrong.Com. Retrieved 2013-04-15). It is a common ingredient in Poland, Germany and other central European countries. According to some sources it was brought to Europe from Mongolia by Tatar people. Although more and more often people buy it stores, there are many households that make their own sour cabbage. The way in which homemade sour cabbage is made is very specific. A group of people tread the cabbage until it releases juice. Then it is salted, pressed in a barrel and after some time it ferments.

Another fermented vegetable that is very common are pickled cucumbers. There are three types of pickles that are available in stores or are made at home in Poland. Those are full sour pickles and half sour pickles. Both types are rich with garlic, dill and they are naturally fermented in brine. What is interesting is that water from sour cabbage and cucumbers used to be drunk as a hangover remedy. Vinegar pickles are the third type of pickles and those are most commonly seen across the world.

Polish dill pickles bought in a store.

Polish dill pickles bought in a store.

Milk

There used to be milkmen coming from house to house delivering fresh milk. Such milk contained a lot of fat, which made it possible to make home-made curd. Home-made diary such as sour milk, sour cream, kefir and buttermilk are more nutritious and much more digestible for adults than regular milk. Sour milk is also used to make white cheese by separating whey from congealed diary. Whey is a very easily digestible form of protein, and so it is consumed by body-builders. It is also used in some dishes.  Nowadays European Union’s laws strictly regulate milk production and distribution, which dramatically reduced the number of milkmen and the amount of non-pasteurized milk. Fortunately, traditional Polish dairy products are still widely available in stores.

A stand in Zakopane with traditional Polish cheese OSCYPEK.

A stand in Zakopane with traditional Polish cheese OSCYPEK.

Honey

Honey was used as a sweetener until the 19th century. During communism in Poland natural honey was extremely expensive. At that time man-made honey was the only option available in stores. The oldest alcoholic drink in Poland was made of fermented honey. Nowadays one needs to pay attention to the information on the jar to make sure that the honey comes from Polish hives. It is very important since the majority of honey in Poland comes from China and India. Because these countries have environmental issues, their honey may contain toxic substances.

Lard

Although many people in Poland are concerned about adverse effects of hydrogenated vegetable shortening in vegetable oils on health, nowadays lard is less widely used for frying than it was in the past. Lard with scratching and fried onion is still widely used as a spread.

A roasted pig during food festival in Kraków.

A roasted pig during food festival in Kraków.

Game

For many centuries game was hunted and eaten by aristocracy and land owners  who were called ‘szlachta’. Szlachta used to gather in the woods and hunt together. The animals that were usually hunted included deer, boars, hares and pheasants. One of the common methods was battue hunting. Hunting was one of the main types of their entertainment, which is described in detail in the national Polish epopee ‘Pan Tadeusz’ written by Adam Mickewicz (out of the three national bards: Zygmunt Krasiński, Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz- he is the most important one). During communism szlachta ceased to exist. Hunting was restricted those who belonged to the hunters’ associations controlled by local authorities. They were given the right to shoot down an assigned amount of animals. This model has remained until nowadays. The old tradition of hunting has been paired up with various methods of preparing meat dishes. Pates made of game are the food special at those homes where hunting traditions have remained. They are rarely available in restaurants.

Fish

Fishing is a common way of spending free time in Poland. Using fishing rods used to be extremely rare until the end of the 19th century when it started to be considered as a leisure activity.  Fishing takes place in the Baltic Sea, in rivers and in artificial water basins. The last ones are especially useful before Christmas when people desperately look for carps. Carp was brought to Poland from China centuries ago, but due to the food shortages during communism and the government’s order to breed it, it ended up on Polish Christmas tables in the 20th century. Nowadays other types of fish are replacing carp. The most commonly consumed types of fish include cod, salmon, mackerel, trout, flounder and herring. Pickled herring is an original Polish snack which is often accompanied by shots of vodka.

IMG_0735

A typical fish pond.

Sweet options

Sweet dinner options include steam buns with fruit and rolled crepes with jam. These are sweet main course dishes. Baking has always been a reason of pride for Polish women. Some cakes are seasonal and depend on available fruit. There are also types of cakes that are typically baked for Christmas and Easter. These are cheesecakes, poppy seed cake and apple cake.  Other common cakes are also yeast cake with berries, brownie and ‘babka’ which has a characteristic shape.

Bakeries in Poland typically sell different types of sour dough bread, rolls, sweet and sour rolls with stuffing and cakes.

Sour dough bread is widely baked and eaten in Poland.

Sour dough bread is widely baked and eaten in Poland.

Starvation

After the Second World War Poland suffered shortages of basic life resources including food. The 70’s was the exceptional time as one of the communist leaders took large loans from the Western banks and the quality of life improved for a decade. Unfortunately, these loans had to be paid off. This financial burden was combined with low efficiency of state owned enterprises and the necessity to export all the goods to the Soviet Union in the first place. It was a deadly accumulation. In the 80’s Polish people experienced starvation along with a dramatic decrease in standards of living.

It may cudgel one’s brains how Poles survived this severe scarcity of goods. Nowadays their solutions can be observed in the majority of countries in the world, especially in Africa and Asia. People used to catch frogs and crawfish in the wild. The government started rationing food and issued a coupon books. Coupons were taken to a ration shop and they provided family minimums for meat, sugar and some other basic foods. Being vegetarian became fashionable, which was supported by the government due to the lack of meat. People still talk about the times when they earned money, but the only thing that they could pay for was mustard and vinegar as the store shelves were empty. Because the government still pursued the communist rules imposed by the Soviet Union, trading was not allowed and yet punished. People who lived in houses used their backyards to grow vegetables and to build hen houses.

Many households in villages still keep hens.

Many households in villages still keep hens.

Those who lived in blocks of apartments were not that lucky. It is worth mentioning that a large part of the Polish society lived in this type of housing. Blocks of apartments were built across Poland to provide housing for the workers of state owned enterprises. Some cities were built entirely around such blocks. In the times of starvation these people used the space on balconies and in garages to breed animals and provide their families with food. Fruit that does not naturally grow in Poland, such as oranges, were imported to Poland only for Christmas. When it comes to ‘fancy’ drinks people found ways to replace it. For example, coffee was made of grain and it was called Inka. In fact Inka is still available and drank in Poland).

Herbs that grow on Polish meadows became crucial for spices, medicines and drinks. Linden leaves were brewed instead of tea leaves. As far as medicines are concerned, there was a shortage of these too. Chamomile, linden, nettle and milfoil were used for various afflictions. Garlic replaced antibiotics while cough syrup was made by keeping pine tree’s twigs in sugar and alcohol and other ingredients (such as  glycerine) until the liquid absorbed the flavor.

Today’s trends

The new busy life style of the 90’s did not allow people to have time for taking care of their gardens. Many backyards got reduced to grass and some flowers. However, nowadays a reactivation of gardens can be observed. Mini-orchards and even mini-farms are all the rage. They are considered as a healthy alternative to international food chain stores.

The common fruit trees found in Polish gardens are plum, apple, pear, apricot, sweet and sour cherry trees. Fruit shrubs include gooseberries, black and red currants, raspberries and grapes. Because the warm season is short, making homemade preserves is a common practice. It can be said that all the Poles grew up on grandmas’ jams, juices, fruit tea, syrups and dried fruit (plums and apples). Making wine on a small scale is a hobby of many heads of the household. Typically, wines are made of cherries, red and black currants, goose berries and briar.

Most commonly grown vegetables are carrots, parsley-root, celeriac, kohlrabi, radish, potatoes, beetroots, cabbage, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes as well as parsley, dill and chives.

Bread used to be baked from rye, but in the 70’s the government decided to import wheat from USA. Wheat bread replaced the rye one for many years, but nowadays good bakeries pride themselves on bringing rye back to life.

Mushrooms

Boletus is considered as the king of mushrooms.

Boletus is considered as the king of mushrooms.

Mushrooms that are widely available are champignons. But this is not enough to satisfy Polish palates. In autumn people still set off to the woods to pick various types of wild mushrooms (in spite of the yearly warnings about the danger of poisoning). Wild mushrooms have much more flavor than champignons. They are cooked fresh or preserved. Fresh cooking usually involves frying them with eggs or potatoes. Also mushroom soups and sauces are very common. Drying and pickling are popular preservation methods.

Traditional Polish soups

Żurek- it is called sour soup in English. It is made of thickly ground rye flour. It is a specialty of the Silesian region of Poland, the old traditions and speech of which are very well preserved.

A traditional Polish lunch. Sour soup, a grilled sausage with onions and sour dough bread.

A traditional Polish lunch. Sour soup, a grilled sausage with onions and sour dough bread.

Barszcz- the English translation of this word is borsh- beetroot soup. It is a common dish in the part of Europe inhabited by the Slavs. Each region, however, has its own variations of it. The Polish version is without vegetables or cream.

Rosół- it is chicken broth. Polish folk medicine regards it as a panaceum for any aliment.

Kapuśniak- this soup is made of sour cabbage and vegetables with a rich addition of caraway. Although sour cabbage does not smell nicely when it is being cooked, the dishes made of it are very tasty.

Dill soup- the method of cooking this soup is unique as it is based on whey.

Sorrel soup- sorrel for this soup is picked from meadows with one’s own hands. It is a very unique soup.

STRANGE DISHES

Bigos- it is a stew- like dish based on sour cabbage. The traditional recipe says that before it is served it should be heated up every day and kept in the frost for thirty days. This long process enhances its quality.

Duszonki- it is made of cabbage, potatoes, onion, beacon and sausages. These ingredients are pushed into a cast iron pot. Then the pot is placed in the bone fire for two hours. Slightly burnt cabbage gives the dish a very distinctive flavor.

The real Polish sausage

The real Polish sausage

Pork jelly- it is a very popular appetizer or a snack. It is a nutritious dish made of vegetables and pork parts that include a large amount of connective tissue. It is very rich in fat and minerals, especially Selenium, Zinc, Potassium, Phosphorus and Iron, as well as some vitamins: B12, B6 and others.

Pork jelly

Pork jelly

Flaki- it is a soup-like dish made most commonly of beef intestines.

Gołąbki- the name literally means ‘doves’. The reason why the dish is called this way is its shape. To avoid any confusion, I wrote the recipe for it:

1 white or Italian cabbage

800 g of minced turkey or pork

200 g of boiled rice

2 onions

2 egg whites

500 g of tomato sauce

Half glass of milk

2 spoons of crumbs

3 spoons of grape seed oil

Salt, white pepper

1 l of bouillon

- wash the cabbage and remove the outer layer and the stump and separate the leaves. Place the leaves in boiling water for about 5 minutes. Take them out, drain, let them cool down and remove the thickest veins.

- peel the onion, chop it and gently fry with 1 spoon of oil. Mix the meat with rice, onion, egg whites, crumbs and milk. Add salt and pepper. – this is one of many options of preparing stuffing!

-pick the largest cabbage leaves and put stuffing on them, wrap each leave around the portion of stuffing and roll it.

-cover the bottom of the baking pan with the remaining cabbage leaves. Place the rolls tightly next to each other as layers. Pour the bouillon over them to make sure they are covered and boil them for 40 minutes.

-in the mean time prepare the tomato sauce

- drain the doves and fry them gently

-doves are served with the tomato sauce

Some of the food related traditions

- Welcoming guests with bread and salt. A curious detail is that once salt was used as a mean of payment.

- If a family did not want to approve a man’s proposal to their daughter, they treated him with czernina- soup made of duck blood. They did it instead of telling him their opinion directly.

- A typical Polish dinner consists of three dishes: soup, meat and a cake. The usual drink is kompot- home made fruit tea.

- The Christmas Eve’s supper should consist of twelve dishes and no meat should be eaten on that day.

Foreign food in Poland

During communism the only foreign dishes came from other countries occupied or influenced by the Soviet Union. Those were Russian dumplings, Czech knedle (a type of dumplings), and also some Hungarian dishes such as bogracz (gulyás ) and leczo (lecsó).

Foreign restaurants appeared in the 90’s. Italian cuisine was a first mover. Also, Italian pastas and sauces appeared in stores. Nowadays Italian food, Sushi and Turkish Kebabs prevail, as far as foreign cuisine is concerned.

Polish cuisine abroad.

Polish cuisine abroad.

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