Sorry, Poland, but your food isn’t gorgeous.
It’s delicious, don’t get me wrong. I could happily subsist on a diet of just pierogi for the foreseeable future. But photogenic, it just isn’t. During my recent trip to Krakow, my Instagram feed was devoid of food photos, because I struggled to find a shot that was crisp and colorful and not brown on brown.
Now that that’s out of the way, and I’ve offended the many readers of Polish heritage who grew up on these dishes, let’s talk about the taste.
Because in the end that’s what really matters, and Polish food has flavor in spades.
The king of Polish food has to be the pierogi. Essentially a large, thick ravioli, the pierogi is traditionally filled with mashed potatoes or some kind of braised meat. They are typically not served with a sauce, but left to speak for themselves, or if dressed, might have a small spoon of sour cream, or a sprinkle of sautéed onions or bacon. Meat pierogi with bacon on top? Yes please!
Less common is the sweet pierogi, filled with seasonal fruit and served in a small lake of sweetened cream. As you would expect, it’s totally delicious and the strawberry filling I tried was sweet and tart and bright.
Another well-known contribution of Polish food to the world must be vodka and its accompaniments. In Poland, where cheap vodka is the drink of choice for many, the harsh alcohol taste can be hard to shake. So, shots are followed up with a small bite, typically something salty, which masks the vodka flavor almost entirely. Now, if you happen to be sipping on a fancy vodka somewhere, or have a particular affinity for the taste of vodka, you might not want to cover up the flavor.
But the rest of us would rather not feel the burn, so to speak.
The traditional bite of choice is pickled herring. If you don’t love pickled fish on its own, give it another try right after a shot of vodka. It is totally different, mostly a bright saltiness, that is very much appreciated in this particular combination.
Soup is almost its own food group in Poland. During my few days in Krakow, I tried four different soups. Four! In general, soups in Poland are hearty, meaty and usually have a mound of cabbage and root vegetables to add substance and vitamins. My favorite sample was bigos, also known as hunter’s stew. Full of sauerkraut, kielbasa and pork, it would be the perfect end to a long day spent hunting in the cold.
Or a good way to end a day meandering around Krakow!
One exception to the intense soup options was this beetroot soup served up in a small cafe, but even this seemingly light version was served over a generous spoonful of mashed potatoes.
I enjoyed a visit to a local market, where I found proof that Poles love their fruits and veggies, even though I didn’t have a single salad during my entire visit. I’m not sure what percentage of this bounty is eaten fresh versus braised down into a hearty soup, but that’s a question for a different day.
Cooking seasonally is central to the food culture in Poland, and during the long cold winters, dried fruits, beans and lots of preserved meats help get families through the dark months. Hence, all the pickled cabbage, and smoked sausages, the foods for which Poland is the most famous.
I loved sampling fresh sauerkraut and pickles, with just the lightest pickling. The kraut was still a bit crunchy and the pickles had a nice snap to them.
It reminded me that even a dish as single minded as pickled cabbage can have endless variation.
Finally it’s worth mentioning that Poland is in a bit of a boom on the beer front, with craft breweries popping up all over. During a work event, I got to sample plum beer and cherry beer, both dense, cloudy and somewhat sweet with fruit. I really enjoyed the unique combinations, but these beers are not particularly ‘chug-able’ – my single adjective to describe my favorite beers.
I got a lot more mileage out of some of the other beer offerings. On a warm afternoon, some new friends and I sat around an outdoor courtyard, sampling beer and relaxing in the sunshine. It was the perfect way to wrap up a food marathon and to appreciate Polish food culture in all its delicious glory.