This is the beginning of a love story, or several love stories actually.
The first time I visited Poland was during the spring of 2012 and to be honest, the sole reason of this visit was the fact that my friend, in whose kitchen I resided at that time, and I found ridiculously cheap flight tickets to the mysterious sounding and suspected crazy party town of Wrocław. It was a random decision: neither of us had been to Poland before, nor did we have any idea of what to expect. On top of that, it was also my first time couchsurfing, which resulted in being hosted by a nice Polish girl who lived in a very characteristic socialist housing block in the Wrocław suburbs.
I immediately liked this girl because she didn’t pay for public transportation and I sympathize with that. Ever since I have been riding public transportation worldwide for free in her honour. Sadly she got fined when we were cruising the city on the tram together, but according to her calculations it was still more profitable to pay the odd fine than to buy tickets every time. Another reason for her likability was the fact that she introduced me to the first Polish dish I ever tried: a magic pickled cucumber soup. And thus, without knowing, this event marked the start of my deeply rooted love for couchsurfing, Poland and Polish cuisine.
Let’s be honest, Poland isn’t exactly known for its refined and widely admired cuisine. But who cares when you are being served a bowl of steaming hot comforting soup from which you can taste the love it was prepared with and somehow reminds you of your grandparents’ cooking? Maybe that is the charm of Polish food and the key to truly appreciating it: hearty nostalgia, authenticity and unpretentiousness.
The image that many yet to be enlightened people have of Polish cuisine is an unimaginative, bland fare of potatoes, cabbage, heavy cream and sausages. Eating to survive, rather than living to eat. It actually makes sense when you look at Poland’s tough history of aggressively behaving neighbours and the necessity of rationing scarce products during the socialist era. Many foods were available only by restricted amounts and had to be preserved because of limited access to fresh produce.
But following the migration of Polish people all over Europe and beyond, their food has become more integrated and a polski sklep (Polish shop) is not a rare sight anywhere in western or northern Europe. Tesco has a Polish section in their ‘world foods’ aisle, Polish sausages are available pretty much everywhere and restaurants and food trucks serving traditional and modern Polish cookery are opening up in numerous places. And did you know that the bagel was invented in Poland in the 17th century by the well-respected Dr. Władisław Bagel?
The aforementioned trip to Wrocław casually also awakened my love for pickled vegetables, a convenient trait for those who like to spend time in Eastern Europe. However, I wasn’t fully convinced by the rye bread with garlic infused lard which was served with the excellent wheat beers on the city’s central square. Still, my appetite for Polish food culture was unstoppable and thus I went on my second visit, to the great city of Kraków. My hosts were an incredibly hospitable Polish guy, whom I’d met a couple of weeks earlier under unbearable circumstances in Kazakhstan (talk about unimaginative national cuisine), and his lovely wife. It was then that I got introduced to the concept of the bar mleczny, or milk bar.
Now, I don’t eat milk products but I instantly liked these simple canteen-style restaurants which used to be very popular during socialist times. They are similar to the stolovaya, which can be found in former Soviet countries, and can vaguely be compared to Ikea restaurants – but thankfully without those pointless little Swedish flags in your meatballs. The food is as simple yet satisfying as the concept: think filling, warming soups and stews, meat cutlets, herring, potato and buckwheat-based dishes, and sides of beetroot salads and pickled vegetables.
Winter food? Perhaps. Boring? No way! Food doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘sophisticated’ to be delicious and besides, what makes food sophisticated anyway? As if a potato turns into a refined piece of art after being touched by a Frenchman yet after the Slavic treatment it is still just a lump of starch. As if!
And I haven’t even discussed the possibly most-beloved and best-known Polish dish of all time yet. Italians call them ravioli, Russia has its pelmeni, Ukrainian do varenyky, Georgians eat khinkali, in Turkey and Central Asia they make manti and in China they eat dogs. And jiaozi. All of them are delicious, but Polish pierogi are arguably the most versatile member of the dumpling family. Stuffed with a variety of savoury (meat, potato, cheese, sauerkraut, mushrooms, spinach) and sweet (fruits, dairy) fillings, they have been feeding Polish mouths for centuries and got an iconic, fully embraced status in countless nations after Polish migrants introduced them in their new homelands. On behalf of a sizeable proportion of the world population I would like to say “Dziękuję!” for that.
Convinced yet? To familiarize yourself with kuchnia polska, having Polish flatmates is always a good start. Besides usually being utmost friendly and fun people, you will be sure there is always some delicious home-cooked food around, which they are more than willing to share with you. I have many happy, fuzzy memories about truckloads of kapuśniak (cabbage soup) on cold winter days and chilled vodka-infused watermelon during hot summers. Not sure if this last one would classify as a Polish dish though, but if the vodka is Polish, why not. Nevertheless, do keep in mind that trying to out-drink a Pole will inevitably end in tears, with or without watermelon.
Poland doesn’t disappoint in the drinks department, either. Of course there is the infamous vodka, available in all shapes, flavours and sizes, but some of the local beers ain’t bad either. The Grand Prix American IPA by the Ciechan brewery is one of the best IPAs I’ve ever tasted, and if you have a sweet tooth, try the honey beers. Even recovering alcoholics need not dehydrate: Polish tomato juice ranks among the best in the world – although I would like to give some credit to Moldova in this respect as well.Now, three and a half years after my first Polish experience, I find myself returning to Poland whenever I get the chance and the continuation of exploring local food is a considerable part of that. In Warsaw I ate potato pancakes, Gdańsk gave me delicious bean soup and a heartwarming home-cooked family feast, and in a central bar mleczny in Poznań, a friend and I were waiting for our pierogi for about an hour in an exceptionally uncomfortable and slightly hostile environment whilst being surrounded by the city’s human drainage point. Still, a better midnight snack than a zapiekanka (enormous open-faced baguette with several toppings) from Kraków’s neighbourhood of Kazimierz is hardly imaginable, and bigos (sauerkraut stew with meat) is the ultimate comfort food suitable for any occasion.
As you can tell, the love story continues, and since happiness is better when shared, I encourage everyone to try unknown foods from underdog cuisines. Skip the Kazakh one though, unless you fancy a diet consisting exclusively of fatty mutton and fermented camel’s milk, and start with the Polish. Yes, it may have the tendency to be a tad heavy, but when in Rome, do as the Poles do: loosen your belt and enjoy. Not a huge fan after all? A shot of heavy-duty local vodka will neutralize your taste buds – or kill them forever.