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My favorite Polish word is smacznego. That’s “smatch”- like match with an S, “nego” like “leggo my Eggo!”. . . Smacznego! It’s fun to say, and basically translates to “enjoy your meal”. It is the Polish “bon appetit”. It is delightfully bestowed by restaurant servers, as they place your meal on the table. I love it. If the server figures out we are English-speaking people and skips “smacznego” and goes straight for “enjoy your meal”, I am legitimately disappointed. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again now, I’ll never be a food blogger. I love food too much! It disappears before I can photograph it, almost every single time. Culinary adventures are some of my favorite adventures. I love trying new things. It has been a delight getting to know Polish fare. I’ll never be a food blogger, but in the name of exploring, and for the love of food, let’s talk Polish cuisine, both on, and then off the beaten path.
So let’s start with the basics and go from there. Of course you know pierogi, Poland’s famous dumpling. Usually boiled, I prefer them then pan fried in butter which adds a crisp to the chewy bite. There are a ton of different types of fillings that vary by season and region, but three basics are Rustica, Mieso, and Ser. Rustica is a mix of mashed potatoes, onion and something very close to cottage cheese. It’s a lot of carb. Mieso is meat, generally very finely ground, seasoned pork, mixed with kapusta- that’s cabbage. Ser is “cheese”, in Polish, and this filling is like sweetened cream cheese. If you accidentally buy them for dinner, thinking they will be a savory meal, like cheese ravioli, your kids will think they’re having dessert for dinner and they will think you’re the best mom ever. You don’t ever have to tell them it was a mistake. You don’t have to look hard for pierogies in Poland, they’re everywhere- at grocery stores (fresh and frozen), markets, restaurant menus, and their very own shops called Pierogarnia.
Ok, so kapusta, that I mentioned above. Kapusta is the Polish word for cabbage. There is a lot of cabbage consumed in Poland. Kapusta is also the name for what might be more commonly referred to as German sauerkraut. It seems like kapusta in various forms is basically served with, and in, everything. Bigos is a delicious cabbage stew. Cabbage leaf rolls stuffed with meat, are called Golabki (and in the mysterious way of Polish pronunciations, said “gowumpki”). If you order tacos in Poland, chances are, they will be topped with fresh cabbage. There’s an Indian restaurant we like, and I had to laugh when my tandoori chicken came on a bed of kapusta and potatoes. Only in Poland. I like my kapusta best as the sauerkraut version, pan fried, (everything is better fried, right?) with little bits of kielbasa. Kielbasa is the polish word for sausage. If you’re in the USA, you’re probably used to seeing kielbasa as Polish sausage, but in fact, there is no one type of Polish sausage. There are a million different types of kielbasa in Poland.
If you see a sign for “Bar” in Poland, it is much more likely that the sign is pointing you in the direction of a Bar Mleczny, and not your nearest dive. The literal translation is “milk bar” and these cafeteria-style restaurants are all over. They are where you want to go for traditional, homey, Polish food. Bar Mleczny(s) during the communist era were government-subsidized, inexpensive lunch counters serving traditional Polish cuisine. They have endured, probably evolved, but only a little, and are where you can still go to to find some of the best, real, Polish food.
Alright we’ve covered a few basics. But there’s so much beyond Pierogies and cabbage! Poles are big on soup. My four-year old preschooler eats soup at school, every day, at 2pm. A different zupa (soup) each day of the week. His favorite is the kind with ” ‘tatoes and cawwots”. But I know for a fact that he also eats barszcz (borscht) there. He calls it “pink soup”. I also know for a fact that if I served it at home, he wouldn’t touch this with a ten foot spoon. I have two favorite Polish soups. Pumpkin soup and Zurek. The pumpkin soups are simple, smooth and creamy, usually topped with pumpkin seeds. Zurek is a little more complicated. It’s a sour rye soup with halved hardboiled eggs and pieces of sausage. Don’t knock it ’til you try it! Think sour like sourdough, it uses a fermented rye starter that gives it a slight, but distinct, tang. It sounds different, but give it a whirl!
Of course there are regional specialties that you have to try. Two in Szczecin are Pasztecik and Paprykarz. They are very different, but both were born of Soviet Era necessity. Pasztecik is described as a “savory donut”. It is fried dough- in the shape of a Mexican tamale, or long john donut- stuffed with either ground meat, cheese and mushrooms, or cabbage (of course) and mushrooms. I’d call this a Polish “fast food”. You can find them at counters in the mall, or little shops, specifically serving (and usually simply called) Pasztecik. They were first produced in Szczecin, in 1969, by a machine brought in to quickly mass-produce food for Soviet Union soldiers stationed in Szczecin.
The second regional specialty from Szczecin is Paprykarz. It is kind of a seafood canned hash, although it can be freshly prepared. Made of ground fish, stewed with rice, tomato paste, onion and spices including a generous amount of paprika. I’ve read, or heard by word of mouth, a few different versions of how Paprykarz Szczecinski came to be. It too was born in this Northwest Polish city in the 1960s, to use up scraps of fish at a state-owned seafood company in Szczecin. Inspired by a dish Polish fishermen-sailors had eaten while fishing the seas off West Africa, but also cousin to a Hungarian goulash called paprikash. It is nourishing and cheap and can be bought at the store and eaten right out of the can and thus became popular with students and hikers. More gourmet versions can be found served at restaurants in the city.
Other dishes that seem universal, but have been given a Polish twist, are Zapiekanka and, hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs. One of the millions of kielbasas in Poland. They are served in warm baguettes with a perfect hot-dog sized hole punched in the middle, in to which mustard and ketchup is squeezed. Get them at gas stations (yes, gas stations), for the perfect road trip lunch. The baguette is closed on one end so ketchup cannot escape and end up in your lap. Zapeikanka are referred to as Polish pizzas and are also served on baguettes, sliced lengthwise and baked with toppings like cheese and meat. You can also get these as gas station lunch option no. 2. But I like them best at festivals or food stands. My other favorite festival food I first tried at Polish Christmas markets last year, is a smoked salted goat cheese called Oscypek that is sooooo good, served melty and delicious, topped with berry jam.
I saved dessert for last. Poppyseed desserts are common. I once ordered what I thought was going to be tiramisu cake, but turned out it was just so heavy on the poppyseed that it appeared chocolatey. It was okay, but when you’re expecting rich tiramisu treat, poppyseed has a hard time cutting it. I’ve never seen so much ice cream (Lody) consumed as I have in Poland. It is amazing. I didn’t think anyone loved ice cream more than I, but Poland has humbled me. I’ve never seen so many people casually sitting down to an ice cream sundae at 10am on a Tuesday. Which, is when I think we all could really benefit from an ice cream sundae break. Try it next Tuesday, bet you’ll have a better week. Next to Lody is Gofry, Poland’s “Belgian” waffle, eaten by hand and topped with anything from powdered sugar, to chocolate syrup and whipped cream. You’ll often see Lody and Gofry served in the same location and you won’t have to look hard to find a place serving them nearby.
Are you hungry? Smacznego!
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