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  • Writer's pictureDamian Brzeski

Polish national dishes - What to eat in Poland?

Polish cuisine is a real kaleidoscope of flavors and aromas that has been evolving for centuries, attracting influences from various parts of Europe and the world. Rich in traditions, it is like an open book of history in which each dish has something to tell.


From dumplings to cheesecake, Polish cuisine offers unique culinary experiences that reflect the cultural richness of the nation. In this article, I invite you to discover the most characteristic Polish national dishes that every gourmet should try.



A table full of Polish specialties

Polish cuisine - What is it really?


Polish cuisine, with its rich diversity and influences from numerous cultures, creates a mosaic of flavors that reflects the history and traditions of various nations inhabiting the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It is characterized by dishes prepared with satiety and intensity of flavor in mind, which is often associated with rich, although sometimes difficult to digest, meals.


Poland's geographical location and climate had a significant impact on the development of local cuisine, which is famous for the use of ingredients available in a given region. Pierogi, considered one of the most characteristic dishes, have gained recognition all over the world, emphasizing the universality of Polish cuisine.


The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as a multinational state, was a place where the culinary cultures of many nations intertwined, creating unique combinations of flavors. Polish cuisine drew from German, Jewish, Italian, French, and many other traditions, which contributed to its richness and diversity.


Polish cuisine is extremely regionally diverse, which is reflected in the wealth of dishes typical of particular parts of the country. From Silesian roulades, through Wielkopolska dumplings with gzik, to Kashubian kartacze - each region has its culinary treasures.


Characteristic ingredients and dishes of Polish cuisine


Polish dishes are dominated by local products - vegetables, cereals, meat, mushrooms and forest fruits. The diet was based on simple but nutritious ingredients that provided the energy necessary for work. Sauerkraut, a variety of meats, especially pork, and a wide selection of flour dishes are just some of the elements that distinguish Polish tables.


Pierogi are only a fragment of the rich offer of Polish cuisine, which surprises with a range of soups - from broth to żurek, through various cutlets - pork chop, minced meat, de volaille, to famous cakes such as cheesecake or apple pie. Lunch, traditionally consisting of soup and a main course, is the heart of the Polish culinary day.


Healthiness of Polish cuisine


Although traditional Polish dishes are often considered high in calories and heavy, the modern approach to Polish cuisine places greater emphasis on healthy, balanced versions of classic dishes, using a wealth of natural ingredients.


Polish cuisine, combining tradition with modernity, remains not only a testimony to history, but also a source of inspiration for seekers of new flavors, combining roots with the trends of contemporary gastronomy.


traditional Polish Christmas Eve table

Pierogi, the queens of the Polish table


Pierogi are considered by many to be the quintessence of Polish cuisine, but is this dish really originally Polish?


Although dumplings are a symbol of our native culinary traditions, celebrated for generations, and although in Poland there is a rich culture of their preparation, discussions about the best recipes and memories of the taste of grandma's dumplings, they are not the exclusive invention of our country.


Similar dishes can be found in many cultures around the world. Italian ravioli, Russian pelmeni, Chinese wonton, and even Mexican empanadas, although they differ in flavors and names, are united by the basic idea - stuffing wrapped in dough.


What we know in Poland as pierogi came to us from distant China, reaching our lands around the 13th century, probably thanks to Bishop Jacek Odrowąż.


Delighted by them during his stay in Kiev, he decided to bring this idea to Poland, where dumplings became a way to feed the poor during times of hunger.


Initially, dumplings were treated as a festive dish, served only on special occasions, and could take various forms and flavors. Over time, they gained popularity, becoming a permanent element of the Polish menu.


In particular, Christmas Eve dumplings, prepared without meat with cabbage and mushrooms, became one of the most characteristic dishes of this period. They also taste great with fish stuffing, for example with herring.


Today, pierogi are ubiquitous in Polish cuisine and available in countless variations - from traditional dumplings with meat, cabbage and mushrooms, through Russian dumplings, to sweet versions with fruit. Restaurants and dumpling shops offer new combinations, experimenting with different types of flour and fillings, from wheat, through spelled, to corn and rice.


Dumplings can be served in many forms: boiled, fried, grilled, sweet or salty, meat or vegan, which proves their extraordinary adaptability and versatility.


The name "Russian dumplings" has an interesting history and is closely related to the region of Eastern Galicia, also known as Red Ruthenia. In Poland and Ukraine, these dumplings are known under different names, which reflects their multicultural roots.


The traditional stuffing for Russian dumplings is a combination of cottage cheese and potatoes, with the addition of fried onion, pepper and salt.


In Lviv, it was popular to sprinkle them with cumin. An interesting fact is that in the past, in poorer homes, only potatoes and lard were added to the stuffing. The name "Russian dumplings" was sometimes replaced with other terms to avoid false associations with Russia.


To sum up, although pierogi are inextricably linked to Polish tradition and culture, their roots go back much further, which only emphasizes their universality and ability to combine different culinary worlds.


Polish dumplings

Broth, the queen of Polish soups


Broth, the essence of Polish cuisine, is a soup with a rich history. Its name, as Professor Jan Miodek explains, comes from the words "rozsolić" and "rozsół", which refers to the old methods of preserving meat by salting.


Traditionally, broth was cooked from various types of meat, and its recipe dates back to the 17th century from Stanisław Czerniecki's book "Compendium Ferculorum".


Czerniecki suggested using "all kinds of game", from beef to birds, with the addition of aromatic spices and herbs. Broth has been recommended for health for centuries, prepared from meat with vegetable additions, emphasizing the importance of tradition and well-being in Polish culinary culture.


The name "broth" has an interesting origin, which, as Professor Jan Miodek explains, is related to the process of salting and drying meat, used in the past to preserve it. The word evolved from "salt", which referred to the need to soak prepared meat before consumption to make it edible.


In the 17th century, the broth gained the name "Polish" thanks to a recipe from "Compendium Ferculorum" by Stanisław Czerniecki.


The baroque recipe used various types of meat, including wild birds, beef and veal, which, after cooking, were seasoned with a rich bouquet of spices and herbs such as parsley, dill, garlic and onion.


Pepper, mace, lime and rosemary were also added. The broth was served with pasta, croutons, figatelles, sausages and various vegetables, and even green wine.


In the 19th century, every cookbook began with broths, emphasizing their importance in the diet of healthy people, children, the sick, and everyday people. Broth, an essential in every pantry, was considered a key ingredient of the dinner, used for many purposes.


It was prepared from various types of meat, which gave it the name "royal". According to the beliefs of the time, the best broth should be cooked slowly in a stone pot for 3-6 hours to preserve the aroma and strength of the broth.


For centuries, broth has been valued for its health properties and was especially recommended to the sick and convalescents. It was believed that the ingredients of broth had a positive effect on digestion.


Traditionally it was prepared with veal or poultry. In the 20th century, stock cubes appeared as a novelty to save time and work, but the traditional stock remained irreplaceable.


Traditional broth or Polish ramen

Pork chop with potatoes and cucumber salad, what would dinner be without it?


Pork chop, a classic dish of Polish cuisine, is traditionally fried in lard, which gives it a unique taste and crunchiness. It is usually served with boiled potatoes and cucumber salad, i.e. a salad of raw cucumbers in cream, all poured with pan fat. This combination of flavors is the quintessence of Polish dinner.


Pork chop, often considered a staple of Polish cuisine, has a shorter history than many of us may think. Its presence on the Polish menu is not as long as it might seem, and its "Polishness" was controversial, mainly due to its German roots.


The history of the pork chop is deeply connected with the German schnitzel, from which it derives its culinary roots. The adaptation of this dish to Polish realities resulted in a change of the main ingredient from veal to the more available and popular pork, making it a delicacy appreciated on Polish tables.


It was only in the 19th century that pork chop gained popularity in Poland, when it began to be served as a cheap and nutritious dish for the working lower classes. Over time, however, pork chop became an inseparable element of the Polish table, overcoming all prejudices.


Traditionally, Polish pork chop is served with boiled potatoes and salad, often chosen in the form of cucumber salad.


Mizeria is a classic Polish salad made of raw, thinly sliced cucumbers, seasoned with salt, pepper and sometimes sugar, with cream or yogurt.


It's a simple, but extremely tasty and refreshing combination that goes perfectly with the rich taste of pork chop, of course traditionally fried in pork lard.


pork chop with potatoes and cucumber salad

Bigos tastes best when it's finished


Bigos, also called "Polish cabbage", is one of the most characteristic and loved dishes by Poles, which is definitely a traditional element of Polish cuisine.


Consisting of sauerkraut, various types of meat, and often also wild mushrooms and plums, bigos is a dish that develops a deeper flavor over time, especially after being heated several times. This rich, aromatic dish is a symbol of Polish hospitality and is often served on tables during many national and family holidays.


The history of bigos in Poland is fascinating and shows the evolution of this dish from its simple beginnings to its current form, rich in sauerkraut and a variety of meats. Bigos, initially without cabbage, was a mixture of chopped meat or fish, leavened with fruit or vinegar.


Over time, in the 18th century, "hultajski" bigos became the ancestor of the modern version with cabbage. In noble manors, leftovers of roast meat were added to bigos, and this dish was often taken on trips or hunts, which emphasized its practicality and taste.


Modern recipes for bigos draw on rich tradition, offering a variety of varieties, such as Lithuanian bigos, rogue bigos or hunter's bigos, differing in additions and proportions of base ingredients.


The key to perfect bigos is long cooking over low heat, which allows for full extraction of flavors, and even freezing the dish to obtain the perfect consistency and taste.


Polish Bigos

Baked beans, a delicious newcomer from France


We owe our independence and one of our national dishes to Napoleon. Baked beans are a classic, filling dish that combines a wealth of flavors thanks to the combination of white beans, sausage, bacon, and sometimes also meat, with a thick, aromatic tomato sauce.


It is characterized by a long cooking time, which allows for a perfect combination of all ingredients. This is a dish that can be successfully served as a main course at various family or social gatherings.


Baked beans, despite their name, have little in common with French Brittany, just like Greek fish with Greece. The name of the dish, associated with the rich cassoulet from the south of France, probably appeared in Poland in the 19th century, perhaps as a culinary legacy from the Napoleonic Wars.


It is speculated that it may be related to the royalist uprisings in Brittany. This is an interesting example of how dishes travel and adapt, creating local versions of familiar dishes.


Baked beans

Żurek, a spoiled soup, but so tasty


Żurek is a traditional Polish soup based on rye flour leaven, which gives it a characteristic, slightly sour taste. It is often enriched with white sausage, potatoes, sometimes egg and cream, which makes it a nutritious and filling dish.


Żurek is served especially during Easter, but is also popular all year round as a representative of Poland's rich culinary tradition.


The legend of the founding of Żurek


In a small Polish village lived a stingy innkeeper whose bad reputation quickly spread. In response to his behavior, the villagers decided to teach him a lesson by sending a glutton disguised as a rich man to the inn with the task of eating the worst soup prepared by the Innkeeper.


The innkeeper accepted the challenge, but his soup, despite bad intentions, turned out to be a success among the guests. Ultimately, he had to return the inn and the recipe, and was forced to leave the village.


According to another legend, żurek was created in one of the poor country houses, where a poor housewife was busy in the kitchen trying to cook something with few products. The poor old woman, with minimal ingredients at her disposal, accidentally created something that became an important element of Polish cuisine.


With a starting base of sourdough, to which she added potatoes, bacon, and mushrooms, she managed to prepare a tasty soup. This case shows how something unique can be born out of need and constraints, which over time gained popularity among others.


Sour rye soup served in bread

Stuffed cabbage, but without pigeon meat


Gołąbki is a traditional Polish cuisine dish, consisting of meat stuffing with rice or groats, wrapped in cabbage leaves. They can be prepared in various ways, with the addition of tomato or mushroom sauce.


The cabbage rolls are baked or stewed, which makes them extremely juicy and full of flavor. This dish often appears on Polish tables during important celebrations and holidays.


The name "gołąbek" most likely comes from the way in which the dish is prepared - the meat and additives are wrapped in cabbage leaves, which resembles the shape of small birds such as cabbage rolls.


In many Slavic cultures, the names of dishes are often associated with nature and animals, which may explain why this dish received this particular name.


It is possible that the name " gołąbek " comes from the Ukrainian word " hołubci ", which literally means "dove".


Initially, cabbage rolls in Central and Eastern Europe were made from simple ingredients such as buckwheat and potatoes, which corresponded to the cultivation of cabbage in the region. Over time, in Poland, the traditional version of cabbage rolls evolved, adopting a meat filling instead of the Lenten stuffing, with rice replacing groats.


They are considered both festive and everyday dishes, emphasizing their versatility in Polish cuisine. The controversy over the choice of cabbage leaves is minor, highlighting the culinary diversity of similar dishes around the world.


Popular versions of cabbage rolls around the world include: Greek grape leaf dolmadakia, Romanian sarmale, Croatian sarme, Swedish kåldolmar, Finnish kaalikääryleet, German Krautwickel/Kohlrouladen, and also glubkis in some areas of the United States.


Each of these versions adapts the traditional dish to local preferences, changing the stuffing ingredients to include rice, various types of meat or spices.


Doves

Military pea soup, also tasty in civilian life


Pea soup is a traditional Polish soup based on dry peas, often enriched with smoked meats such as sausage or bacon. It is a filling dish, known for its nutritional properties, perfect for colder days.


Army pea soup, considered a classic next to broth and tomato soup, is today prepared thickly so as to keep the spoon upright after stirring . Its history dates back to the times when it was a basic peasant dish, although then in a meatless version, made of groats and potatoes.


In 1972, a recipe with smoked meat and vegetables appeared in "Kuchnia Polska", which revolutionized pea soup, making it more filling. The addition of meat makes it an energetic meal, often preferred for its satiety and simplicity of preparation.


Pea soup is very popular, especially in winter, when traveling around Poland you can often come across small roadside restaurants that specialize only in serving pea soup.


Military pea soup

Cheesecake, not only with raisins


Now that you've had your fill just from reading, it's time to move on to dessert. I hope you left yourself some space, because the most traditional Polish cake is as filling as the other dishes.


Cheesecake, one of the most popular and beloved Polish desserts , is rich in its variations, but each of them is based on cottage cheese as the main ingredient. Traditionally, it is enriched with eggs, sugar and often vanilla, and may also contain additives such as raisins or lemon peel.


Baked until golden brown, often on a shortcrust base, the cheesecake can be served with fruit, whipped cream or chocolate icing. It's a classic ending to any family dinner or holiday feast.


Cheesecake, considered one of the most classic baked goods in Poland, is an inseparable element of holidays and family celebrations. Although its preparation seems simple, the secret lies in the quality of the ingredients, which are key to obtaining delicious taste and texture.


Cheesecake has a long history, dating back to ancient Greece, where it was a symbol of victory. Its popularity spread with the Romans, leading to the creation of various regional variants. In Poland, cheesecake became known thanks to the influence of Vienna, evolving into numerous local varieties.


In Poland, cheesecake became popular thanks to John III Sobieski after his return from Vienna. Then we met the so-called Viennese cheesecake. A little later, a Polish version from Krakow was created, distinguished by a characteristic checkered icing.


Choosing the right cottage cheese is crucial for the consistency and taste of the cheesecake . The ideal cottage cheese should be fat or semi-fat with a minimum amount of whey, which should be squeezed out before use.


Although ready-made cheesecake mixtures are available, nothing can replace high-quality natural cottage cheese, preferably straight from the farmer. Experimenting with different types of cheese, and even substitutes like tofu, is becoming popular, but the traditional Polish cheesecake is based on real cottage cheese .


Cheesecakes come in various forms and flavors all over the world. In Japan, they are famous for their extremely light consistency thanks to baking in a water bath, resembling a soufflé.


In Spain, Basque cheesecake is popular, with a characteristic "burnt" appearance but a creamy interior. The Germans have royal cheesecake with a chocolate base and crumble.


These examples show how diverse interpretations of this dessert can be around the world, with over 1,000 recipes varying in ingredients and preparation methods.


Viennese cheesecake

As you can see, Polish Cuisine combines flavors from all over the world. Poland has always been at the crossroads of many trade routes, it was also on the border of Asia and Europe, and for part of its history it bordered the Ottoman Empire.


Polish national dishes are a combination of cuisines from all over the world, so everyone will find familiar flavors in a slightly different version.

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