Art & Culture
Review of Polish Food (with a dash of some personal biases)
By Alicja Paruch
Volume 2 Issue 5
March 28, 2022
Image provided by Hotels.com
As the people slowly come back to the regular, pre-pandemic habits, such as going out to eat, I would like to rate some Polish dishes commonly served in Polish restaurants.
Overall, Polish food tends to be rather heavy, and filling. It often consists of potatoes, pork, sausage, and what really makes most of the dishes stodgy for some is the frequent reliance on oil. The desserts on the other hand, usually are healthier than the ones sold in the US (which use large amounts of sugar) and focus on subtle flavor combinations.
Naleśniki z serem/Cheese crepes - thin crepes with a sweet white cheese filling, often drizzled with honey, or heavy cream and fruits. I honestly want to say this is one of my favorites, but most of these are. This however does have a nice balance of sweet and salty flavors with a hint of sour from the fruit. These are considerably healthy and make for a good appetizer.
Chleb z smalcem i ogórkiem kiszonym/Bread with lard and pickles - This is the Polish version of the bread with butter appetizer in Italian restaurants. Simply smear the lard on the bread and top with the pickle. Simplicity is key. As you can predict, this is less healthy than the crepes, but it’s a staple everyone should try at least once.
Barszcz Biały/White Borscht - A chicken-based broth with kiełbasa (sausage), vegetables, hard or soft boiled eggs. This soup has a similar, but more sour, counterpart called “żurek” and these are often a part of the traditional Easter breakfast. This soup is quite filling and fatty, but the rich flavors of the soup always have me hungry for more.
Barszcz Czerwony z uszkami/Red Borscht with dumplings - This borscht on the other hand is traditionally made without any meat, because it is usually served for the Christmas Eve supper at which people don’t eat meat. The vegetable broth is enriched with beets, where it gets its beautiful burgundy color and a deep earthy flavor. Accompanied by cabbage and mushroom filled dumplings, this is a relatively healthier choice than the white borscht and still full of flavor, and to me, and most Poles, is the smell of Christmas.
Barszcz po Ukraińsku/Ukrainian Borscht - This is a cold-served soup with a chicken-based broth with beets, some sour cream, and heavy cream. It is a nice and refreshing dish to have during hot summer days and the addition of mint just elevates the flavor. Personally, I associate this with my childhood memories of my mom calling me over to eat something while playing in the backyard. It is close to my heart, and even though it’s cold, it definitely has warm memories attached to it. This is also a relatively healthy dish and is definitely worth getting!
As a side note, we, as Polish people, do not exclusively eat different types of borschts. These are soups I saw mostly served in Polish restaurants that I would consider foreign to non-Polish
Gołąbki/Stuffed cabbage with tomato sauce - Steamed cabbage leaf stuffed with rice and meat topped with tomato sauce. This is a surprisingly healthy dish with nice mellow flavors of the meat and a sharper contrast of flavor of the tomato sauce. This Polish staple makes for a good, light dinner. The name “Gołąbki,” in literal translation, means little pigeons, but do not fret, no pigeons were hurt in making your dish!
Placki ziemniaczane po Węgiersku/Hungarian pancakes - fried potato pancakes (kind of like thinner hash browns) topped with a rich beef and vegetable goulash. This is definitely a heavier of the bunch but is my comfort food on a rainy day. The crispiness of the potato pancakes and the creaminess of the sauce blend so seamlessly, as if they were made for each other.
Kluski Śląskie/Silesian dumplings - soft and chewy potato dumplings often topped with a pork or beef sauce. This is a texture dish, so if you’re not open to new textures, I can’t guarantee you won’t be averse to it. If you don’t mind them though, the combination of the thick meat sauce and the velvety dumplings will satisfy your hunger for new experiences.
Pierogi - The famous dumplings! They can be served with potatoes and white cheese (they’re commonly called “Russian dumplings,” but they don't originate from there), cabbage and mushrooms (often served at Christmas Eve), or minced meat. The potato pierogi are hands down my favorite type with the potatoes and cheese blending nicely into a beautiful harmony of flavors. Personally, I haven’t had cabbage and mushroom pierogi in a long time because I don’t like mushrooms, but for people who like them, this will taste great! As much as others love the rich meat pierogi, I often find them a little dry, unless done properly, which is not often done at restaurants. Another very important factor of pierogi is the quality. Since they have become a well-known polish staple, many companies have made frozen versions of them. I do not find that wrong, it is the natural way of modern commercialization, but what I do find sad is when restaurants serve them to their clients. You can easily tell the difference between a homemade one and a store bought one. If your pierogi have more filling than dough, and the filling is well-seasoned, then they are most probably hand made. On the other hand, if the dough overshadows the filling in its quantity and thickness, and the filling is perfectly smooth and bland, it is most definitely store bought. Pierogi are often topped with caramelized onions, sour cream or sometimes bacon bits. I personally love the contrast of the coldness and taste of sour cream against the warm and creamy dumplings, but I also see the appeal of adding the extra sweetness of the onions or the savory flair of the bacon against the smooth potatoes. There are so many ways one could go with pierogi and you will not be disappointed when you find your favorite.
Bigos/Hunter’s stew- is a delicious and hearty dish made of sauerkraut, vegetables, sausage, mushrooms, pork or beef, and prunes. This savory dish lives close to my heart, as my grandma makes it for me fairly often. It is yet another heavy dish, and is usually served with bread, which only increases its calorie count, but the salty and umami flavors, with the occasional hint of sweetness from the prunes surrounded by the slightly acidic flavor of the cabbage have me thinking about when I’ll have it again.
Karpatka - This dessert is similar to a napoleon pastry but has a sweet origin story. The name “karpatka” comes from the name of a Polish mountain range “Karpaty,” because the pastry the cream is surrounded in looks like a mountain range after it is baked. The sweet filling nicely complements the pastry creating a very enjoyable experience.
Chrust or faworki - This desert might be hard to find at a restaurant, but it is a Polish delicacy. Very thinly rolled dough, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar is a dessert served most commonly for Fat Thursday (February pre-Lent Christian celebration). It is best served fresh and still slightly warm.
Ptasie Mleczko - You won’t find this at a restaurant, but in your local Polish store. This candy is the most popular (and one of the best in my opinion) Polish candy. It’s a sweet marshmallow covered in chocolate. Wedel, the company that makes Ptasie Mleczko, manufactures many flavors of the candy, from the original (and arguably the best) vanilla flavor, to chocolate, caramel, or even lemon.
Thank you so much for reading and allowing me to share my love for Polish food with you. Growing up in Poland, it was my everyday life, and after moving it has made it even more special. The comforting flavors bring me back to some of my fondest memories, looking up at my grandma and seeing magic happen in her kitchen. Food has a lot of power to keep one grounded and I know I can always come back to it after a harsh day.
I hope this review will help you choose a dish of your liking next time you end up at a Polish restaurant. There are of course many that I have not covered but be daring and try new flavors as well!