Updated: Dec 20, 2018
In every place where I set my foot, always and inevitably comes the moment when the needs of the stomach prevail and hunger triumphantly proclaims its victory. I am now in Poland, where I arrived after a few months of absence, I put up myself in a decent hotel and slowly that moment is coming. But before I go in search of a place where I could eat, partly to kill my awe-inspiring thoughts about food, partly to renounce hunger, I will try to host a culinary and social tale about eating habits of Poles.
I will start with a few facts from history that may seem to be unrelated to the subject, however... In 1795 three countries – Russia, Prussia and Austria – took advantage of the internal disputes, inability to carry out reforms and Poland’s military weakness to finally divide (annexed twice in 1772 and 1793) its territory among themselves.
Poland lost its independence for 123 years, vanishing from the map of Europe.
The outbreak of World War I, ironically, turned out to be beneficial for Poland. It was on the post-war ashes that Poland regained its independence in 1918. Over a century long period of partitioning had a considerable impact on how Polish cuisine looks today.
The influence of the three powers is not limited to culinary issues. Crossing Poland in a wider sense, from its western to its eastern border or vice versa, it is easy to notice the differences in culture and architecture that result from the long divisions of its lands.
Some of Polish dishes remained closely associated with the regions, thus some popular in one part may be completely unknown in another. On the other hand, some of them, perhaps as a result of migration, have become popular throughout the country and in slightly diversified forms, and now form the so-called Polish cuisine.
It is good to start your day with breakfast. Prepared in a Polish home, it usually is completely different from those in southern Europe. It can be abundant and nutritious. It may vary but usually consist of eggs prepared in different ways (e.g. fried, soft or hard boiled, scrambled eggs), sausages, a large amount of bread, cold meats, sandwiches, cottage cheese called “quark”, which is found only in the eastern part of Europe. I recommend that you try it, it will not poison you. It is delicate in taste and can be eaten both sweetened with marmalade or jam or with a pinch of salt.
I also mentioned bread. It is quite an important component of Polish meals and an element of nutrition in general. Sometime it is the main ingredient of breakfasts and dinners eaten at home. Poles attach great importance to the quality of bread. Good bread should be made from starter dough, though in the mass production of bread, chemical additives are often used in bakeries.
Until recently, on the daily chart of Poles' meals, lunch was the most important meal of the day. Why until recently? With the fall of socialism, the opening of Poland to new cultures, frequent travels, social migrations, etc., the model in which Poles eat has evolved and unified. It does not mean, however, that it has changed completely.
A typical Polish dinner is usually eaten at the time of late lunch and usually consists of two dishes - soup plus a second dish. Usually it does not include starters. At the end of the dinner a dessert is served - most often homemade cakes. I would be lying if I said that everyday dinner in a Polish home look the way above. No.
Lack of time and growing pace of life made meals eaten on normal working days, become similar to those eaten around the world. The traditional dinner was replaced by quick snacks. The young generation, especially those living in big cities, adopted the patterns of "fast west" and often uses bars serving lunch sets. But the practice of celebrating dinners is still alive in Polish homes, although to a large extent it has been limited to Sundays and holidays.
Poles eat relatively rarely in restaurants. I suppose that this is due to limited wallet resources. Lunch for the whole family in a restaurant is still a bit expensive for most families. Poles, therefore, celebrate lunches for the family at home. Interestingly and not often found among other nations, even relatively unknown people from outside of the family may get invited to such occasions. Therefore, if you were lucky and you have a Polish friend who invites you to his home for a Sunday lunch, you can be sure - you will not leave as hungry person, and you will be closer to death from overeating. Every housekeeper will take as point of honor to put as much food into you as possible.
What may turn out to be a surprise when visiting many Polish homes is that you could be expected to take off your shoes. I cannot comment on the origin of this “custom”, but certainly it is not a religious rite. It is best to ask your hosts at the beginning of the visit about the necessity of taking off your shoes, rather than uncertainly go from foot to foot. It often happens that the host offers slippers. For Poles this is a normal situation, but for the person who encounters it for the first time, it can be somewhat embarrassing and a bit of a surprise. You may sometimes get the impression that in Polish homes, the hosts have a set of slippers in any size, as if they were running a store....
After the fall of the so-called "iron curtain" and unavailability of almost everything on the scale that the inhabitants of prosperous countries cannot imagine, Poles were overwhelmed by the cuisines of other, sometimes distant regions of the world. We experienced fascination with Italian food, Chinese cuisine, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese etc. It seems as if the benefits of one’s own backyard have been forgotten a bit. However, this is currently changing and Poles are more and more eager to return to their traditional dishes. Polish cuisine is undergoing a renaissance.
In times of my early youth, places associated under a common name - "milk bar" - enjoyed great popularity. The name suggests that it is a bar where only dairy or vegetarian products are served. Not necessarily. One can enjoy a decent meal - also meat - at a reasonable price.
Unfortunately, the mentioned period of Poles’ fascination with everything that was not Polish left its mark and the milk bars have fallen into disfavor. They were considered a relic of the socialist era, which everyone wanted to forget as soon as possible. They quickly lost customers and many of them disappeared notwithstanding the competition. Maybe dairy bars were a relic of the past system, but the very concept of simple and inexpensive food was worth continuing.
Luckily, the demand for simple and home-like food has returned. Milk bars are once again very popular. Moreover, their strong argument is the relatively low prices for very good meals. Many Poles table in them on a daily basis, and the social cross-section can be very diverse. From a wealthy businessman to a poor student. Foreign tourists are very often surprised by the size of the dishes and their low price. I remember when a few years ago I was in Gdańsk, in one of the similar bars I encountered a group of Dutch people who loudly expressed their delight, both at food and prices.
My advice is: keep an eye or ask you Polish friends for the nearest "milk bar". And although currently the name "milk bar" does not function formally, every Pole asked on the street will certainly know what you are asking for and will direct you.
I mentioned earlier the phenomenon of the popularity of domestic and traditional cuisine returning to Polish homes, and as the result many places serving Polish dishes are cropping up. They are usually characterized by a similar style, which in its assumption refers to Polish folk traditions and culture. They are good and not so good, but when you visit such restaurant I recommend you try the king of Polish dishes - bigos.
It is a specific and typically Polish dish. Some of my foreign friends love it, others would not dare to swallow it. There is no proper recipe for bigos. Every
home, every cook, it is different and there are no two identical of the same taste.
Bigos is by definition a dish of hunters. Why? Because it was a meal easily prepared by tradition the hunting party ended, especially on cold days, cook bigos. Maybe it was in old times, but today it is probably a forgotten tradition.
I am going to describe briefly how it is prepared by my mother: It consists of two types of cabbage – sauerkraut and chopped fresh cabbage, in the proportion of 2-1. The cabbages are cooked separately and only after a few dozen minutes they are jointed together. Then mushrooms, dried plums, raisins and a significant amount of previously fried and cooked various kinds of meat are added. Everything is cooked on low heat, watered with red wine, with the addition of dried juniper fruits and cloves. Bigos is cooked slowly to extract the aromas and flavours of all the ingredients. I will admit, I do not know how true it is, but quite popular opinion is that good bigos should be cooked over three days. In any case, the one my mother prepares as we say in Polish is “palce lizać” another words yummy-yummy and moreish. Hungry? Well, I am.
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