Poland, on the boundary between Western and Eastern Europe, has a rainy temperate climate and, predominantly, an agricultural central lowland landscape. In the southern upland area are the beautiful Tatra Mountains. To the North - a region rich from the grain and timber trade – is a vast area of forest and glacial lakes, and the beaches of the Baltic coast. Each region contributes distinct elements to traditional Polish fare: the lowlands provide cereals for staples (kasza, breads, and dumplings); the forests of the South yield game (pheasant, venison, rabbit, hare, goose, and duck); and the coast and lakes bring fish.
As with many central European countries, Polish fare was traditionally meat-rich and hearty: well suited to the harsh winters. In the late middle ages, dishes were heavily spiced with juniper, saffron, nutmeg, and pepper from Asia. Cereals were a staple: wheat; barley; millet; and rye; also lentils. From these were made kaszas – thick gruels, each different grain conferring its characteristic flavour and texture, the most popular being buckwheat. These were often flavoured with plum or mushroom, and served either unaccompanied or with meat. Cucumbers, both fresh and pickled, featured widely; and garlic, caraway and parsley were in use prior to their appearance in Western Europe. In the early 1500s, the Italian queen popularised vegetables; and cabbage, celeriac, leek, lettuce, carrots and celery became much more common. Until partition, the predominating culinary influences were from Hungary, Turkey and Lithuania. With partition, Russian and Germany culinary influences became stronger, and the chequered history of invasions - principally by Germans, Russians, and Austrio-Hungarians - and the ensuing boundary changes, contribute much to the melting pot of Russian, German, Austrian, Jewish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Czech influences that we now find in modern-day Polish cuisine.
Meat still features strongly in the Polish diet, along with winter vegetables and dumplings or pasta. It is served hot with gravy, or cold with pickled vegetables and horseradish sauce or mustard. Pork is common, served plain with cabbage and potatoes or rice, or perhaps minced, mixed with rice, and used to stuff cabbage leaves (golabki). Other typical dishes include Poland’s Russian-influenced national dish – bigos - a hearty hunters’ meat and cabbage stew, and kotlet schabowy - pork cutlet usually coated with bread crumbs and fried. Like many dishes in Polish restaurants, golonka (pork knuckles roasted or boiled with vegetables), are priced per 100g of meat. Roast suckling pig is traditionally stuffed with buckwheat. Veal (czernina) is another favourite, often with mushroom sauce (Cieļecina po staropolsku) or with cabbage and raisins. Beef may be stewed in sour cream sauce (zraz zawijany).
Sausage (kiełbasa) is a great favourite in Poland. Made to traditional recipes in many colours, shapes, and sizes, some are flavoured - for example with juniper or garlic – and some are smoked with juniper or fruit wood. Popular are pork frankfurters (panòwka); smoked garlic sausage (gruba krakowska); a thin, air-cured, chicken sausage (kabonos); and a garlic and herb variety (wiejska). Greater Poland’s white sausage was a German introduction, during partition. Other cured meats are also common, e.g. a sweet, rich cured ham served as a starter with cheese and pickles, or for breakfast.
For vegetables, the cabbage (kapusta) remains king: served raw in salads; boiled as an accompaniment to fish or meat; made into soups (e.g. kapusniak); or pickled and fermented like sauerkraut. Peppers appear frequently, stuffed with rice and meat, or pickled. The Polish diet is rich in root vegetables – carrots, swede, turnips, parsnips, and beetroot. A popular salad – surowka – is shredded beetroot, carrot, and celeriac dressed with sugar and lemon juice. The use of cereals as a staple did not shift in favour of the potato until the economy declined and there was a crisis in grain production; however, buckwheat kasza is still traditionally part of a Christmas supper.
Soups are ubiquitous in Poland. Barszcz - perhaps the best known - is generally based on meat stock and beetroot; it comes in many regional variations. Żurek, made from chicken broth and fermented rye flour, is served with boiled egg and sausage. Krupnik, another cereal-based soup, is made with lentils. Wild mushroom soup (Zupa grzybowka) is sometimes served with miniature pierogi-type dumplings known as “ears” (uszka). Czernina - “Black soup” is prepared with duck or goose blood. Chlodnik is a summer beetroot or fruit soup served cold. Cabbage features widely in soups – kapusniak is based on brined cabbage. Other popular vegetable soups include sorrel and pea soups; horseradish soup – zupa chrzanowa – is traditionally eaten at Easter in Silesia.
Poles are very fond of dumplings. Best known are pierogi: crescent-shaped ravioli-like pasta parcels stuffed with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings, and then either boiled or fried till crispy. Pierogi ruskie are stuffed with cheese, potatoes and fried onion;
pierogi z miesem are filled with beef or pork; pierogi z kapusta contain cabbage; and pierogi z serem are a dessert version filled with sweetened cottage cheese and raisins.
Pierogi leniwe (“Lazy pierogi”) are unfilled. Other dumplings include those stuffed with meat (kołduny) or fruit (knedle). Pyzy (dumplings made with steamed potato) are served alone or stuffed with meat, a favourite being pyzy śląskie - Silesia’s “dark dumplings” - made from potato-flour and grated potatoes.
Of fish, herring from the Baltic is central to the Polish diet: either pickled; as rolmops; in olive oil; with onions; or with sour cream. From the lakes come carp (karpia), which is often accompanied by horseradish sauce; salmon (losoś), which is frequently smoked; and trout (pstrag), usually served with boiled potatoes.
For snacks, pretzels (precles) are a popular street food, as is zapiekanki – Poland’s version of a pizza. Smalec – originally peasant food - is now served as fried lumps of pork fat dipped in salt and served with bread.
Polish desserts and cakes tend to be rich and heavy. Many come for the South, which was formerly under Austrian rule, and many are yeast based (e.g. baba; drożdżówka). Common are a Swiss roll–like poppy seed cake (makowiec), doughnuts (paczki), gingerbread (piernik), cheesecakes (sernik), sweet pierogi, and a Polish version of apple pie (szarlotka). Almonds feature widely, as do flavourings of honey, cinnamon, cloves, lemon, and vanilla.
As far as drinking goes, Poles are best known for vodka (wódka), which is regarded somewhat as an institution. Vodka comes with a variety of flavourings: bison grass; pepper; cherry; lemon; and honey. One even contains gold particles, and another is 75% proof. Generally, clear vodkas are served neat and cold, whereas the flavoured varieties are served warm. Historically, Poles drank beer and mead (miód). In the 16th century, the rich imported wine from nearby Hungary, and only subsequently did vodka become poplar among the working classes. Other spirits include plum brandy (Śliwowica), and a rough grape brandy. Mead continues to be popular, made frequently by monks, with varying ratios of honey to water. Poland now offers an excellent selection of beers (piwo) including Tyskie, Zywiec, Okocim, Warka, Lezajsk and Elbląg, and still imports wine from Hungary, and also from Bulgaria. Both wine and beer are frequently served mulled with honey and spices. Soft drinks include tea (herbata) which is served black, in a glass; coffee (kawa) served black and bitter; and many fruit and herbal infusions.
Poland’s historic and geographic diversity has resulted in distinct regional cuisines. Around Krakow the Austrio-Hungarian influences have led to a preponderance of goulash, liver sausage, and veal and, in Galicia, to Central European influenced dishes such as pork brawn with mustard sauce, white barszcz, and cheesecakes. From Silesia come potato dishes including dark dumplings (pyzyśląskie) and poppy seed makówki. The Russian influence is strong in Eastern Poland, with dishes such as kulebiak - a yeast dough parcel of fish, cabbage, eggs and rice. Masuria, in Northern Poland, shows German and Russian influences. Here, a fish soup containing crayfish is popular. From the Tatra and Podhalanian mountains come ewes’ milk cheeses: bundz and oscypek; and from the Beskin mountains comes knuckle of pork and vegetables stewed in beer.
In the home, breakfast in Poland is traditionally hearty, with boiled or fried eggs, a variety of smoked meats, cheese, pate and sausage, and, originally – soup. The main meal (soup, a main course, dessert) is generally taken mid-to-late afternoon.
With the harsh conditions under communism, Poland lacked a restaurant culture for much of the 20th century. Dining out was too expensive, since restaurants were geared towards tourists or rich business people, and alcohol was prohibitively expensive. Instead, lunch rooms and milk bars offered soups, noodles, and cutlets with potatoes to the workers. There were shortages of basics, importation was restricted, and food was rationed. Vegetables were restricted to what could easily be grown – root vegetables, cabbage, onions and apples. It was not until the collapse of communism in 1989 that restaurants reopened and the supply of foodstuffs improved. Since then, many restaurants and bars have opened as culture blossomed, and the tourist is now able to choose from a wealth of different eateries. Bars serve pre-prepared food - frequently salads - by weight, along with soups and sandwiches. Cafés offer drinks and desserts. Around the coast and lakes there are seasonal fish stalls and, in season, open air barbecues offer that traditional Polish delicacy - roast sausage.