Poland's food traditions survive the fads and fast-food onslaught
Poland's food and restaurant scene has changed dramatically since the grey days of the communist era. I remember a visit to Warsaw in the early nineties when the dining options were strictly limited. It's a different story now as the Polish capital takes on a cosmopolitan air with trendy bistros and restaurants opening one after the other. So in this special food edition of Insight Central Europe we've set out to discover whether Poland's traditional dishes are still cutting it with the international upstarts.
On Warsaw’s busy Marszalkowska Street diners can choose from Italian, Greek and Asian restaurants. And in other parts of the city you’ll find plenty of MacDonalds, Burger King and other fast food chains. In the past 20 years the city’s choice of restaurants has expanded dramatically and Poles have enthusiastically embraced the diversity. But in the face of this foreign food onslaught Polish traditional dishes have been holding their own… A dish that for many people epitomizes Polish cuisine is ‘bigos’. That’s how the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz described it in his epic poem Pan Tadeusz:
Bigos is not an ordinary dish,
For it is aptly framed to meet your wish.
It’s founded upon cabbage, sliced and sour,
And the best portions of selected meat;
It should then simmer, until heat
Draws from its substance all the living juices….
The tradition of this hunter’s stew goes back several centuries and bigos has never lost its popularity.
"Bigos is a must, something that you have to taste when you come to Poland. We don’t eat it very often as it’s quite a heavy dish. The beauty of it is that there is not one recipe for it".
Ola Lazar, who runs a website for gourmets, told me that as a heavy dish ‘bigos’ is an exception in Polish cuisine and that contrary to popular view Polish cooking is not all fat and greasy sauces.
"Beetroot soup for example is a very light dish. There are lots of dishes that are light, such as the summer soups. We tend to have heavier dishes on Sundays for family celebrations when we need to feel that we’ve eaten a lot. It’s a must for family gatherings but in the cuisine as such you can find anything you want. It’s up to you whether you pick a light dish or a heavier one".
A variety of soups, smoked meats and game, pickled mushrooms and cucumbers and wonderful cakes such as gingerbread and poppy-seed cake are among the traditional Polish dishes. Despite an abundance of other cuisines, the restaurants offering traditional Polish food are doing well.
"Polish food is not dying; in fact it’s becoming extremely popular. Definitely there’s been progress, there are many good Polish cooks and the cuisine is far from dying. It’s much approved of I would say".
Stan Pruszyński owns a Radio Café in the centre of Warsaw. It’s a restaurant in fact and ‘Radio’ in its name refers to Radio Free Europe. Polish journalists who used to work for the station meet here on various occasions. On my visit there the other day Stan helped me make my choice.
"It’s a very mixed menu. We have ‘zrazy wołowe z kaszą gryczana’ that is meat rolls stuffed with cucumber and buckwheat."
‘Zrazy’ is definitely a typically Polish dish, isn’t it?
"I’ve never heard of it anywhere else. When well made it’s an excellent dish".
I can also see the pancakes here…
"In Poland pancakes are very important. You can eat them either sweet or not sweet".
How popular are these Polish dishes with your customers?
"They’re extremely popular. The big selling item on the menu are the ‘pierogi’, various kinds of ‘pierogi’. Most of the dishes we sell are Polish dishes".
My choice was the ‘pierogi’ – half-circular dumplings stuffed with a combination of mashed potatoes and farmer’s cheese. Before the dish arrived at my table, Stan Pruszyński took me to the kitchen….
This is the place where all these wonderful dishes, including typically Polish dishes, are being prepared? "Absolutely". Isn’t it a beetroot soup here?
"Yes, beets are being boiled for the borsch indeed. And one of the ladies is making salad. You can see here already to be served – the ‘zrazy’, baked potatoes and some ‘kasza’ which is very important in Polish cuisine and it’s very healthy".
I hope Stan has whetted your appetite to try some of the best known Polish specialities. And mind you, they may be not that alien to other nations’ palates. Located in the centre of Europe, Poland has been at the receiving end of cultural traits from all directions.