Ultimate Guide to the Cuisines of Poland
Due to the large amount of Poles emigrating around the globe, some Polish dishes are quite well known outside Poland and particularly in the US. Borscht (Polish: barszcz), a beetroot soup or stew, and pierogi, pasta-like dumplings filled with mushrooms or meat, are both quite familiar. These are typically hearty dishes, and Polish food is usually associated with fatty, heavy food well suited to fortifying the Poles during the cold Polish winters. But, traditional Polish foods can often be far more refined, and a trip to Poland promises the reward of many culinary delights you won’t find anywhere else.
In the post-Communist era, Polish food is becoming ever more diverse. Western European and Asian influences are becoming a big part of the country’s restaurant culture, but you will still find the classics in abundance. No trip to Poland is complete without trying borscht, pierogi, gołąbki (meat and rice-stuffed cabbage leaves), bigos (hunter’s stew, made with a variety of meats, including different types of game), kotlet schabowy (pork schnitzel), rosół (chicken noodle soup) and żurek (sour rye meal soup). Polish delicatessens are also some of the best in the world, and their kiełbasa (sausages) cannot be missed, particularly the caraway-flavored, air-dried pork sausage kabanosy. Poland is also famous for its baked goods, and both szarlotka (apple cake) and makowiec (poppy seed pastries) just have to be tried.
Much of Polish food is influenced by the cultures of the nations that border the country (Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad), as well as Poland’s history of partition between the Germanic Prussian Empire, Austrian Habsburg Empire and the Russian Empire. This has led to many regional specialties, the result of a unique combination of influences in each region.
Polish Cuisine – Region by Region
Greater Poland (Wielkopolska)
Formerly part of the Prussian Empire, German influence is especially strong in the cuisine of Greater Poland, which is a region located in the west of the country. This region—an agricultural center of very fertile soil—is particularly known for its potato dishes. Perhaps the most famous potato dish from Wielkopolska is pyry z gzikiem—potatoes cooked in their skins and served with gzik (cottage cheese with chives). This is a dish often eaten on Fridays and during Lent, and it is very commonly found in the restaurants in Poznań, the capital of the region. Plendze ziemniaczane (grated potato pancakes) are another popular dish in this region, but surprisingly they are served sweet, with jam, sugar or cream. Kopytka (meaning “little hooves”), a gnocchi-like potato dumpling, is another use of Wielkopolska’s famed potatoes, while the local word for potato ( pyry) refers to potato dumplings stuffed with meat—a dish also found elsewhere in Poland.
Two soups are particularly associated with the cuisine of Wielkopolska: kwaśna,a sweet and sour soup with pork and prunes, and zalewajka, a vegetable soup. Another very famous soup from this region is Wielkopolska kremowa zupa cebulowa (Greater Poland cream of onion soup), made with potatoes, stock, cream and onions. Vegetables aren’t the only ingredient this region is known for—Wielkopolska also has some famous meat dishes. Kaczka z pyzami i modrą kapustą (duck with potato dumplings and red cabbage) is a real feast-of-a-dish, while kiełbasa tatarowa, a soft sausage spread, is another meat dish that is characteristic of the area.
Lesser Poland (Małopolska)
Lesser Poland incorporates the ancient region of Galicia, as well as the Tatra Mountains, each with their own specialties. From the late eighteenth century, Lesser Poland was under Austrian Habsburg rule and, as a result, its cuisine has some strong Austrian influences. Kotlet schabowy, now found throughout Poland, is a Polish take on the Austrian Wiener Schnitzel, while strudel jabłkowy is based on the Austrian apple strudel. Strudel jabłkowy comes from Galicia, a region now divided between Ukraine and north-eastern Małopolska, and the famous poppy-seed cake, makowiec, is also a Galician specialty. Małopolska also boasts Poland’s old capital—Kraków. Here you can sample krakowska—a thick, hot-smoked sausage, which is flavored with pepper and garlic. The region also produces kiełbasa lisiecka, a similar kind of sausage, which received Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status under European Union law in 2010.
Małopolska also encompasses the Tatra Mountains, a mountain range between Poland and Slovakia. Used throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for sheep grazing, the specialities of this region are still dominated by sheep’s milk products, mainly cheese. Bundz is the mildest cheese from this region; it’s left only a few days to mature, and it is particularly associated with the Podhale region in the foothills of the Tatras. Bryndza is matured for longer and has a more dense texture, and both versions of the cheese made in Podhale (bryndza podhalańska) and over the border in Slovakia (Slovenská bryndza), are protected as PGIs in EU law. Oscypek is quite a different type of cheese; it’s salty and hard, and it is now popular all over Poland (but for centuries it originated from and was exclusively made in southern Poland). Pressed into decorated spindle shapes and cured using hot smoke, Oscypek is extremely distinctive in appearance and flavor. Gołka is a very similar type of cheese and is made in the same way as oscypek, but with cows’ milk instead; it is crafted into an egg shape, rather than a spindle shape, to distinguish it from the sheep’s milk version. Cheese is not all the Tatras have to offer—bryjka, a dish made with only flour and lard, as well as kwaśnica (sauerkraut soup) and czosnianka (garlic and potato soup), are typically hearty dishes that once would have sustained the Polish highlanders of the region.
The ancient region of Kresy is no longer part of Poland, although it was part of the nation under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Second Polish Republic. These eastern borderlands were annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War and are now part of Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus. Many of the area’s inhabitants still claim a Polish identity; however, and some of the area’s dishes may be considered Polish cuisine, although others are more specifically influenced by the cultures of the nations of which Kresy is now a part. For example, Samogitian-style mushrooms (grzyby po żmudzku) come from the northwestern region of Lithuania after which they are named. Ruskie pierogi are filled with potato and cream cheese, and it is a dish influenced by Ruthenian cuisine (“Ruthenian” once being a word for Ukrainians). Kresy may not be part of Poland anymore, but its cuisine allows us a glimpse of what life was once like in this old Polish region.
Mazovian cuisine is quite diverse, perhaps because this east-central region shares no borders with other countries, and therefore is not strongly influenced by one foreign cuisine. Rather, the food in Mazovia incorporates elements of styles from across Poland. Since this region includes the cosmopolitan and increasingly culturally diverse capital of Warsaw, it is appropriate that this should be one of the most culinarily varied regions of Poland. However, the heavily forested Kurpie region of Mazovia does retain some distinctive dishes that incorporate forest fruits, wild mushrooms and honey—all of which are an important part of the traditional culture that is kept alive in the area. Zupa grzybowa po kurpiowsku (Kurpie-style mushroom soup) is well known throughout Mazovia; it is made with the “yellow knight” mushroom, which can be poisonous, but is highly prized for its unusual flavor. Mazovia also offers a variety of meat dishes, from zrazy wołowe—beef roulade stuffed with pickles, onions, bacon and mustard and served in its own sauce, to flaczki (more commonly known as ‘flaki’)—a tripe (pork or beef stomach) stew, which can be found throughout Poland and is a true classic of the national cuisine. Spiced with nutmeg, sweet paprika, marjoram and allspice, flaczki is much tastier than it sounds! Kawior po żydowsku (“Jewish caviar”) is a dish that reflects the Jewish past of Poland and is quite familiar in the US as “chopped liver”—chicken or calf liver, fried in fat with onions and mixed with hard boiled eggs and seasoning. Meat and potatoes, which are familiar throughout Poland, are also found in Mazovia, with kugiel being a potato cake with pork (based on the porkless kugel of Jewish cuisine), and pyzy z mięsem being meat-stuffed potato dumplings.
The northeastern region of Podlachia has a cuisine with strong Belorussian and west Ukrainian influences, as well as sharing several dishes with the food culture of Lithuania, which the region borders. One of the most unusual of these dishes is sękacz, a strange cake meaning “branched tree.” This cake is made by a gradual layering of dough, which results in a very distinctive “spiked” shape. In savory dishes, hearty amounts of bread and potatoes dominate in Podlachia. Chleb litewski (meaning “Lithuanian bread”) is a popular rye flour bread, and cebulniaczki is a kind of onion-filled bread (onion cebula). Meanwhile, chleb biebrzański is a real regional specialty. It is made with potatoes, and it is named after the region’s Biebrza River. But potatoes are used in plenty of other ways in Podlachia, including in babka ziemniaczana, which, as its name suggests (babka—cake or pie, ziemniak—potato) is a large potato cake. Potato dumplings, filled with meat, mushrooms, sauerkraut or even cheese, are known as kartacz. Potatoes are so important to the cuisine of this region that there is even a sausage made with them—kiszka ziemniaczana. This is made with pork intestines, stuffed with bacon, grated potato and onion, and plenty of seasoning. Since Podlachia is a heavily forested region, there are many dishes that use the game meats and fruits of the forest. Venison sausages, flavored with juniper (Old Polish-style venison sausages—staropolska kiełbasa z dziczyzny) and a roulade of venison with cherry sauce (roladki z jelenia na sosie wiśniowym) are just two of the more refined dishes that come from the forests of the Hajnówka region of Podlachia. The Białowieża Forest in this region also produces a number of forest herbs (leśne zioła) that are often used to marinate venison.
Masuria (Mazury) and Pomerania (Pomorze)
Masuria and Pomerania are the regions covering the north of Poland. Masuria and Warmia is a region dominated by forests and lakes, bordering Kaliningrad and Podlachia, and it shares many of the dishes of the latter region, including the remarkable sękacz cake and kartacz dumplings. Because there are lakes, Masuria has its own distinctive cuisine, which heavily features freshwater fish, like pike, perch and tench. Okoń po mazursku is Masurian-style perch baked with bacon, while szczupak po mazursku is pike cooked with dried mushrooms, onions, pickled cucumbers, cream and cheese. Another specialty, influenced by the Russian cuisine of neighboring Kaliningrad, is ucha—a soup made from locally caught freshwater fish, onion, celery, parsley and dill. Pierogi filled with fish are also popular in this region, as are creamed carrots with dill (marchew po mazursku).
With the Baltic coast at its northern extremity, Pomeranian food also uses a lot of fish. Śledzie, herring with onions and cream, comes from this region and can be found throughout Poland. Eel (węgorz), whether smoked, grilled or fried, is also a staple of the cuisine here. But poultry is also popular in Pomerania, and stuffed or smoked goose (gęś) is a specialty. The Kashubia area of north-central Pomerania also has its own version of goose blood soup (czernina—derived from the word for “black”), a dish also found in other parts of Poland. This dish can be served with dumplings, noodles or potatoes, and dried fruit may be added. Zupa z brzadu is another Kashubian soup made entirely with dried fruit, including plums, apples and pears. Pomerania is particularly associated with pierniki—soft gingerbread, filled with marmalade and covered with chocolate. This is a particular specialty of the city of Toruń, and is a strong sign of the German influences on this region that borders Germany and was once part of the Prussian Empire.
The region of Silesia, in the southwest of Poland, encompasses the major cities of Katowice and Wrocław, and it is a major industrial area. Like Pomerania, historically there has been a large German influence on Silesia’s food and culture, as it was formerly part of the Prussian Empire. Bordering the Czech Republic, the region’s food also has some Czech influences. Silesia has a rich agricultural heritage, and its foods reflect both the produce it grows and the hearty dishes of the old peasantry. Potatoes (ziemniaki or kartofle) and cabbage (kapusta) take center stage in Silesian cuisine. Kluski śląskie are a kind of Silesian dumpling made of mashed potatoes, grated raw potatoes and potato starch flour, and they have a strong German style. These are traditionally served for Sunday lunch with a rolada z modrą kapustą (thin cuts of beef stuffed with pickled vegetables and ham, unlike Masovian zrazy wołowe, which is served with red cabbage). The Silesian potato salad called szałot includes boiled potatoes along with vegetables, sausages, pickled fish and eggs. There is such enthusiasm for potatoes in Silesia that a Silesian version of żurek (sour, ryemeal soup) called żur śląski is poured over mashed potatoes! As a large producer of wheat, many dishes in Silesia are based on bread (chleb), as well as the poppy seed topped roll called żymła. Brołtzupa (derived from the German for bread—brot) or Wodzianka is a soup made from stale rye bread. But Silesia also produces other grains, including the barley needed for making beer. In the Silesian village of Żywiec, a brewery of the same name was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, and it is still in operation today. Be careful, though—it has an alcohol content of 9.5% compared to the 3-4% of a normal beer in the US!
Food for Special Occasions
The Catholic Church is still a very important force in Poland, and the feasts and fasts of the Church calendar still influence the rhythm of the Polish year. Food is absolutely central to the festivals of Christmas, Easter and the period before the fast of Lent, and all these occasions have their own special meals and dishes, as do several other special feast days. November 11 is Saint Martin’s Day, celebrated with particular enthusiasm in the Greater Poland region, especially in its capital of Poznań. Rogale is the food of the day—croissant-like pastries with poppy seed and almond filling, and these are often referred to as rogal świętomarciński (Saint Martin’s Croissants). In Poland, Christmas Eve is the main day of the festive season, and it is when the large Christmas meal is enjoyed. Taking place after sundown, this meal is known as Wigilia (meaning “the night before”), and it is a vast banquet, traditionally of twelve dishes (symbolizing the twelve apostles). Wigilia usually includes the classic dishes of borscht and pierogi, as well as uszka (meaning “little ears”)—tiny mushroom pierogi, sometimes served in clear borscht. Although this is certainly a feast, no meat is served, as this is part of the Catholic Church’s tradition of fasting on holy days. Fish is eaten instead, and carp (karp) is the traditional choice, having a strong association with Christmas for the Poles. As this is a celebration, there is plenty to drink too, and traditional honey vodka called krupnik is also enjoyed during the course of the Christmas Eve celebrations.
Just before Lent (Wielki Post), when Catholics fast in preparation for Easter and the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ, Poles celebrate Fat Thursday (Tłusty czwartek). This is the Polish version of Shrove Tuesday (sometimes known as “Pancake Day”), which is a day of feasting before the period of Lenten fasting begins. Doughnuts (pączki) are the special on this day, and these may be glazed or filled with a variety of different flavored jellies. After the weeks of Lenten fasting, Easter Sunday, which marks Christ’s resurrection, sees that fast broken with a huge breakfast. The main feature of this meal is the decorated eggs, known as pisanki, that are taken to church on Easter Saturday, along with a basket of foods for the breakfast, to be blessed by a priest in a ceremony called Święconka. In addition to the eggs, a huge array of smoked meats, sausages, ham, salads, herring, salmon, and freshly baked breads and cakes are eaten, marking the end of the somber period of Lent and the new beginning that Easter traditionally symbolizes.
A Typical Day of Dishes
As with any modern nation, it is difficult to define a “typical day” of Polish foods, particularly because of the differences between the way of life in the countryside and in the big cities. However, there are some broad trends that can be traced all over the country, and the Poles often have four meals a day. The Polish breakfast (śniadanie polskie) is a typical continental breakfast, with cold meats and cheese and a variety of breads, although eggs take a more prominent role than they do in Western Europe, with scrambled eggs commonly being served. This is certainly a breakfast that sets you up for the day and, as a result, lunch (obiad) is usually late. Sometimes, lunch is as late as 5 p.m., although many people will have a bread-based mid-morning snack too. Hot “fast foods” are popular for lunch —kiełbasa with a roll or even a Turkish kebab has become a hugely popular part of Polish cuisine. Sometimes, the Polish lunch is so late that it is the main meal of the day. It is more like dinner (kolacja) than the mid-day meal, comprising of a soup course, then a meat-based dish, and then a dessert, served soon after work finishes. Another meal will be eaten on the later side, which usually returns to the staples of breakfast—cold meats, cheese and bread. Although traditional Polish foods are still very widely eaten, Poles are influenced by international trends in the west. Sandwiches, salads and even sushi might be eaten during the work lunch break, and American, French or Italian foods may be enjoyed for the main meal of the day.