Cuisine Spotlight: Uncovering the secret of Polish food

Kasia Holowka examines the landscape of Polish cuisine

Polish cuisine is often overlooked when talking about the best European culinary traditions, but what singles it out from the rest are the incredible aromatic dishes, which every Polish person would be able to recognize with their eyes closed. They are a melting pot of different culinary traditions from ethnic groups who at various points lived in Poland. Hence Germanic, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Tatar-Turkish influences can be found in Polish cuisine. The result: dishes with a distinctive taste and aroma, which varies from region to region. 

 So, what should you be on the lookout for on your next trip to Poland? And for those who haven’t thought about visiting, these dishes will make you pull up the Ryanair website in a flash.

“If you love spicy and fermented foods, bigos is definitely for you”

“Bigos” is a popular one-pot dish, which is usually prepared using meat and sauerkraut as a base, although it can vary from region to region. You can expect to find this served with fresh cabbage, sausage or pork fat, and garnishes such as dried prunes, bay leaf, tomato puree, and allspice. If you love spicy and fermented foods, bigos is definitely for you. Though served all year round, this dish is traditionally associated with the wintry months, especially because it is filling, warming and full of rich and sweet flavours.

“Gołąbki” or, directly translated,  “pigeons” is a popular way Poles trick foreigners into thinking they’re eating actual pigeons from the street. In reality, it’s just minced meat, wrapped in cabbage and cooked in its juices, sometimes with the addition of tomato puree. Though come to think of it, it does suspiciously look like an actual pigeon… 

If you’re a vegetarian, like me, and think that you’re going to struggle to find something for yourself in Poland, don’t worry. The most popular Polish dish is, in fact, meatless. 

“Poles eat them all year round, but usually, salty pierogi are eaten in the colder months, whereas sweet ones are a summer treat”

“Pierogi” or dumplings are what Poland is best known for. They can be served both salty and sweet. My personal favourites are the so-called Russian dumplings (named after a region, not the country) filled with cheese and potatoes, and sweet pierogi filled with blueberries, served with cream and sugar. There are of course many other variants but, believe me,  these are the best ones and are definitely worth trying. Poles eat them all year round, but usually, salty pierogi are eaten in the colder months, whereas sweet ones are a summer treat. 

“Sałatka jarzynowa” or literally vegetable salad (to make sure people know Poles eat vegetables) is one of the few salads in Polish cuisine. It is made from cooked root vegetables, usually left over from cooking broth or chicken soup, with the addition of apple and pickled cucumbers and mayonnaise. I know what you’re thinking, what is an apple doing in a vegetable salad? It’s best to try it out for yourself, the fruit actually adds a tart twist, making the dish surprising and all the more enjoyable. 

“Polish desserts, baked or not, are often served with seasonal fruit, which is great because it keeps things interesting all year round”

Now let’s move to the really interesting bit: desserts. Poles love cakes but they also pride themselves on their desserts being “not too sweet”. Whatever you might think, it is a compliment if a Pole says that about your baking and will be happy to hear it about their baking as well. Since the sweets are not too sweet, people tend to eat them throughout the day –  for breakfast, dinner, and as snacks. Polish cakes include apple pie, honey cake, poppyseed cake, yeast cake with crumble and fruit, thrush, various cheesecakes, as well as poppyseed or meringue cake. Polish desserts, baked or not, are often served with seasonal fruit, which is great because it keeps things interesting all year round.

 “Sernik” or cheesecake is one of the most popular desserts. It is prepared with cottage cheese, egg, sugar, and additives like rum flavouring, vanilla, or nuts. It can be baked in different variations: with or without a crumbly bottom, on biscuits, with white chocolate, cocoa, or peanut butter. It is one of those desserts, which never gets boring. In fact, the food rating site TasteAtlas gave it 4.5 stars, positioning it as the best in the world. 

If you’re not a fan of cheesy desserts, “Makowiec” is the perfect alternative. It is a  Poppyseed cake, with a filling prepared from poppy seeds, sugar, almonds, raisins, and spices. Although it is traditionally a Christmas pastry, it is popular all year round as a dessert for special occasions. Personally, I could eat it every day for breakfast or tea. The ingredients make it quite heavy, which is why rather than after a meal I would recommend it on its own. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and want something with a familiar taste, “Babka” or yeast cake resembles a scone in its texture and taste, though it is shaped like a small volcano. In the past, it was the most famous Polish cake, which has permeated into other countries’ culinary traditions. Babka is primarily baked for Easter, as an important part of the holiday table. It can be eaten with butter and jam, or on its own. 

It may come as a surprise but Poles enjoy not only baked goods but also quick, few ingredient desserts. These are quick to prepare and can be bought in shops all around Dublin! They are my personal favourites, because as a student, let’s face it, I don’t have time to turn my kitchen into a full-on bakery. If you’re looking to try something from the foods mentioned, these are the easiest to get your hands on. 

“Budyń” or pudding is a classic of Polish cuisine. It is a sweet dessert prepared on a base of milk, sugar, and flour. Not many prepare it from scratch as it can be easily found in every shop. It comes in a sachet, which you simply pour into a pot of boiling milk and stir till it becomes thick. It can be served cold or hot, often with the addition of whipped cream or fruit, chocolate glaze, or jam. I like it hot with cereal, but nobody in Poland understands my vision. 

One of the globally recognised desserts is “Galaretka” or Jelly. Poles like to prepare great amounts of it in big bowls, mixing different colours and tastes. It can be served with or without fruit and always makes for a light dessert ideal for summer days. It is prepared from gelatin, fruit juices, and sugar. I have fond memories of it as my grandma always prepared a rainbow jelly with each layer being a different colour. 

“Kisiel” is my personal favourite. It is thick and sticky and is made from pureed fruit, potato, corn flour, and sugar. Kisiel is sometimes served as a light and refreshing dessert or as an accompaniment to other sweet dishes. I have it whenever I’m sick and I swear it works as a medicine! It only takes a minute to prepare, is best eaten hot, and is a great alternative to jelly. 

If any of these strike your fancy, let’s look into where to find Polish food in Dublin. Shops like Polonez (a chain) or other smaller businesses, like the Traditional Polish Bakery, which prepares fresh baked goods everyday. Almost everything mentioned above can be bought there.  

There is a dearth of Polish restaurants in Dublin, but I know one called “Smaczne go!”. They have delicious pierogi and panko chicken. The service is kind and helpful if you want to try something you haven’t heard of in this article. They have 4.9 stars on Google reviews and serve traditional Polish dishes. I highly recommend going and trying the food how it would be normally prepared in a Polish household.