Polish Cuisine Guide

June 12, 2019 | By Dave Mattingly

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Polish Food is a cuisine that is traditionally based on the consumption of meat (particularly pork), winter vegetables and heavily spiced foods. As early as 900 AD, the Roman Catholic influence was felt in Polish Food when fasting was enforced, greatly affecting the Polish diet. Since meat was restricted, meatless meals and fish found their way into traditional Polish dishes. In the Middle Ages, Polish Food relied heavily on grains such as millet, rye and wheat, berries, herbs and spices. Beer and mead (a drink made by fermenting a solution of honey and water) were common accompaniments to a traditionally highly caloric meal. Cereals and flatbreads were typically eaten by commoners. Meat and groats (hulled grains such as oats, barley, buckwheat or wheat) were also prevalent foods during these times. Poland enjoyed good trade relations with Asia, so the prices for spices were often lower than in other countries. Spices such as pepper, nutmeg, and juniper were used in large amounts in medieval Polish Foods. The large areas of forests in Poland provided berries, nuts, wild honey and mushrooms. In addition, due to the cold winters, the Polish found ways to preserve fruit, fish and vegetables such as peas, broad beans and turnips through drying, pickling or fermenting.

During the Renaissance years, influences from Italy were seen in Poland when Italian Queen Bona Sforza became the second wife to Sigismund I of Poland in 1518. Italian chefs migrated to Poland, and soon, foods such as cabbage, lettuce and leeks were more widely used. Being one of the largest countries in the world up until the Partitions (territorial divisions) in the latter half of the 18th century, Poland and its cuisine was influenced by its many regions. Foods from countries such as Lithuania, Armenia, Hungary, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Italy and France all became a part of traditional Polish Foods. Hungarian goulash, Ukrainian borscht and pastries from France are just a few examples of the dishes that have become well established in Poland.

After World War II, Communist occupation ensured that any restaurants that remained in the 1940s and 1950s were state owned. Inexpensive meals prevailed such as soups, pork chops, potato pancakes, potato gnocchi and pierogis in addition to meat cutlets and potatoes or other vegetables. Meat, chocolate, sugar and other products were rationed due to a shortage economy and imports were restricted, leaving only domestic winter fruit and vegetables available during most of the year. Traditional Polish meals were mostly reserved for the Christmas Eve feast, which called for the preparation of 12 traditional Polish dishes. Communism ended in Poland in 1989, and as a result, many foods became available again, new restaurants opened and traditional Polish cuisine returned along with other modern influences such as fast food. Previously only available in coastal regions, many varieties of fish became more commonly available as well as vegetables and other fresh foods.

Polish Bread Bread has held an important place in Polish cuisine, and has had religious importance as far back as ancient times. Traditionally, a loaf of freshly baked Polish Bread was marked on top with the sign of the cross, while newlyweds and important guests were greeted at the entrance of homes with bread and salt. Polish Bread is also blessed during holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Today wheat and/or rye are the main ingredients in Polish Breads. Supplemental ingredients are also found in Polish Breads such as onion, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, raisins, prunes or lard.

Polish Soups
Soups are a very popular first course meal in Poland, which may be due to Poland's cold climate and the shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables at times during the year. Polish soups run the gamut of flavors textures and consistencies. While some are a light starter, others are hearty enough to substitute for the main course. Some of Poland's oldest soups contain lentils, while Borscht (Barszcz), made from beets, and is one of Poland's most popular soups. Chlodnik, made from beets, cucumbers and dill is a cold soup similar to Borscht that is distinguished by its red or pink color, while Rosól (meat broth) is also popular. Zupa Grzybowa is a soup made from a variety of mushrooms, while Zurek is a soup made from soured rye flour and meat.

Polish Main Dishes
Polish Food is a cuisine of many different regions. Fresh water fish is favored in Northern Poland, while potato influenced dishes are popular in the Northeast. Pierogis (polish dumplings) are prevalent in the east and central regions of the country. The Masurian region in Northeastern Poland sees influences from Germany and Russia in its diet. The Western region of the country is known for its duck dishes. Pierogis are one of the best known and most loved of Poland's traditional dishes. Pierogis are stuffed dumplings that are stuffed with a variety of foods, including sweets such as cherries, strawberries or chocolates, or more frequently meat, mushrooms, sauerkraut, potatoes or mushrooms. Originating in the 1800s, a breaded pork cutlet called kotlet schabowy is coated with breadcrumbs and similar to Austrian/Viennese Wiener schnitzel. Pickled and smoked fish, including herring are also popular. Golabki, or cabbage rolls, are seasoned meats, onions, and rice or barley, wrapped in boiled cabbage leaves which are then baked in a tomato sauce in a casserole dish.

Polish Sausages
Available in many varieties, Kielbasa (Polish sausage) is a staple in Polish cuisine and an ingredient in many Polish recipes. Kielbasa, meaning "sausage" in Polish, is eaten throughout the year, hot or cold, in sandwich, soups, main dishes, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Kielbasa is typically made with pork, beef, lamb, turkey or veal. The Polish often garnish Kielbasa with fried onions. Each region in Poland has its own Kielbasa specialty:

  • Kielbasa Lisiecka, produced in the Malopolskie region of Southern Poland received PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) protection in 2010, which protects its name and quality of its production.
  • Kielbasa Weselna, wedding sausage, is a double smoked u-shaped pork sausage that has a dark color and slight garlic flavor.
  • Kielbasa Jalowcowa is a pork sausage made with crushed juniper berries smoked over juniper wood.
  • Kielbasa Krakowska, named after Krakow, one of Poland's oldest cities, is one of Poland’s most famous sausages, and is made with seasoned pork and pepper and garlic.
  • Kielbasa Wiejska is a u-shaped pork and veal sausage made with marjoram and garlic.
  • Kielbasa Mysliwska, meaning "hunter sausage" is a short pork sausage that is smoked and dried and made with crushed juniper berries.
  • Kabanosy is a thin stick air-dried sausage typically made of pork, caraway seed, garlic, salt and pepper. Kabanosky is smoked and air dried to obtain a firm texture, and is popular for hiking or camping as it needs no refrigeration.
Polish Desserts
The most popular desserts in Poland include cakes, cookies and pastries. Babka is a spongy yeast cake often baked for Easter Sunday in Poland that is made with raisins and a fruit topping, yet modern recipes often call for chocolate or cheese fillings. Other popular cakes include cheesecake (a delicacy in Poland), sponge cake and poppy seed cakes. Sernik is a cheesecake typically made with sweet curd cheese prepared on a crust that may be baked or unbaked and is commonly topped with fruit, nuts, fruit sauce or chocolate. Makowiec is a poppy seed swirl cake often made with raisins, walnuts or almonds and has an orange peel icing. Kolaczki are cookies with a fruit or sweet cheese filling that are dusted with sugar, served at Christmas and throughout the year. Pastries such as Paczki have been found in Poland since the Middle Ages. Paczki (singluar: paczek) are deep fried pieces of dough filled with a variety of fruit or crème fillings. Wild rose hip jam is a common filling. Piernik is gingerbread in the form of cakes or biscuits made with such spices as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and anise that has an intense flavor and dark brown color. Kisiel is a clear thick fruit dessert, or soup, that is usually served hot.

Polish Cheese
Polish Cheeses have traditional represented a mix of traditions and styles reflecting the individual regions in the country. At one time, the dairy industry served only a domestic market, but as modernization has spread throughout the country, improving cheese quality and variety, many of Poland's cheeses have garnered international attention.

Semi-soft with a mild, slightly sweet flavor, Podlaski is a yellow cow's milk cheese that is ideal for cooking or as a table cheese, especially when served with fresh fruit and a piece of hearty dark bread.

A semi-soft mild cheese, Morski has a smooth texture, making it an excellent melting cheese. Delicious on a grilled ham and cheese sandwich made with dark and hearty Polish bread.

Smoked Kurpianka
Smoked Kurpianka is a cow's milk cheese formed into the shape of a sausage. This semi-firm cheese has a mild smokiness and a touch of garlic in its flavor with an edible rind.

With a texture similar to Mozzarella, Lubelski is a mild and relatively dry cow's milk cheese that melts well. Excellent in salads, on pizza or melted into desserts, such as Sernik, a Polish cheesecake, made during the Easter holiday.

A baby Swiss variety of cheese, Koldamer is a semi-firm mild and nutty cow's milk cheese. Koldamer is a great table or melting cheese, and perfect in salads, soups, melted on meats or in quiches.

Smoked over oak chip embers, Damski is a semi-soft and sweet yet smoky cheese. This reddish cow's milk cheese melts well and makes a wonderful grilled cheese, and pairs well with celery, fresh bread, hazelnuts or tart green apples.

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