Polish Food Culture: 9 Local Dishes You Must Try

Polish food culture
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Poland, the nation of potatoes and pierogis, might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of European cuisine. The reigning legacies of long-time Mediterranean favorites like Greek and Italian dishes have obscured Polish food culture for decades. But steeped in history and family tradition, Polish cuisine has been blossoming on the European scene, and we’re here to find out why.

‘Compendium Ferculorum’ is the oldest Polish cookbook. Published in 1682, it’s clear to see how much has changed in Polish culinary practice over the years. Yet, some distinguishing characteristics of the Polish palette still ring true. One memorable passage instructs the reader to pour vinegar down the throat of a live chicken and leave it for five hours. This lewd guidance may be a far cry from our modern kitchen behaviors, but it calls to mind Poland’s culinary affinity for pickling. 

Although, Polish food is so much more than vinegar-doused delicacies. Abundant in meat, grains, starch, and heritage, this hearty diet warms in the coldest winters and brings families together. So let’s take a look at some of the must-try dishes that will give you a taste of Polish culture. From sour and sharp to umami aplenty, these comfort foods are sure to put a few hairs on your chest.    

Zurek

Polish food culture
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It is only fitting to start this list by paying homage to Poland’s age-old culinary art of fermentation. Dating back centuries, this rye soup is a national classic, and you can find regional variations across the country.    

The most widely accepted recipe combines white sausage, potatoes, smoked meat, and root vegetables in a distinct sour broth made from fermented rye flour. Served with a hard-boiled egg, this soup is smokey, creamy, and sharp all at once. Zurek is traditionally eaten at Easter but is enjoyed by tourists and locals all year round. This soup is generationally transcendent, and every Polish family will swear by their unique variation.

If you’re visiting Krakow, be sure to try zurek w chlebie. The traditional soup is served up in bowls of bread in the historic Old Town of Poland’s second-largest city. Slawkowska Restaurant dishes up authentic zurek and word-class steak in a friendly atmosphere on the edge of Krakow’s central square.  

Pierogi

Pierogi ruskie
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Undoubtedly, pierogi is Poland’s most iconic comfort food, and it is always on the menu. These beloved dumplings are filled with everything from meat and cheese to fruit and chocolate before being boiled or fried and topped with sour cream. 

Pierogi ruskie is the most popular variety in Poland and Central Europe. These dumplings are similar to ravioli and are stuffed with potatoes, cottage cheese, and onion, usually to be served with bacon, different sauces, or by themselves. You can find pierogi ruski everywhere, from Polish milk bars to restaurants abroad.  

Pierogi was first introduced in Poland in the 13th century from the Far East. The dish was popular among the poor, with the simple dough made from wheat flour and eggs being cheap to produce and easily satisfying. Pierogi is always served on family occasions in Polish households, especially at Christmas. The tender, unleavened dough has everyone coming back for more. 

Sauerkraut 

Polish food culturre
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Although an incomplete dish compared to others on this list, Sauerkraut is an unrivaled staple in Polish pickling culture. It is consistently enjoyed as an appetizer or sharing bite. In fact, don’t be alarmed if a plate piled high with the sour cabbage arrives in advance of your ordered dishes. Sauerkraut is complimentary in most Polish restaurants and served alongside pickled cucumbers.

Sauerkraut might be a German word, but the Chinese were fermenting cabbage long before Europeans. The tradition was passed to the Poles by the Tartars and adapted to have its own distinct characteristics. Sauerkraut is now considered a superfood by many as the live bacteria and probiotic content improves gut health and strengthens the immune system. Although, when it comes to sauerkraut’s popularity in Poland, tradition and low-cost production take precedence over the health benefits. 

Polish sauerkraut combines shredded cabbage and carrots or beetroot and cabbage. The vegetables are layered with salt and left to ferment in a jar. Stewed sauerkraut in onion and chicken stock is a popular Polish dish, often served with smoked meat. 

Kotlet Schabowy

Polish food culture
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Not to be confused with Wienerschnitzel, schabowy is served nationwide, but you can find the most recognized variations at Polish milk bars. This breadcrumb-coated cutlet may bear a strong resemblance to its Austrian counterpart, but it came to Poland in the 19th century as a pork alternative to the breaded European delicacy.

A milk bar, or a bar mleczny, is a self-service restaurant that catered to a traditional Polish audience in the Communist era. Still popular, milk bars serve cheap and local food in a relaxed, cafeteria-like atmosphere. A milk bar should be your first stop for authentic schabowy, large portions, and an honest representation of Polish food culture.

Usually served with mashed or boiled potatoes and a sauerkraut salad, kotlet schabowy is a typical Polish Sunday dinner. The meat is characteristically thin, and the cutlet is fried in lard until the breadcrumbs are golden brown with a crunch. 

Bigos

Polish food culture
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Often translated as hunter’s stew, Bigos is an iconic and soulful dish that combines three staple ingredients in Polish food culture. First up is sauerkraut, and the longer fermented, the better. Sauerkraut contributes the sharp and pungent flavor that is distinctive of bigos. 

Next is meat. Most commonly used is beef and pork, but modern variations of bigos see chicken tossed in too. The more meat, the richer the final product. Finally, fresh cabbage and root vegetables complete the hearty stew.

Bigos has been deemed Poland’s national dish, and for good reason. With its origins rooted in Medieval hunting times, the most authentic bigos can be enjoyed in the historical southwestern region of Silesia. For a unique dining experience, visit Stol na Szwedzkiej in Wrocław, which has no menu and just four tables. Ask the chef for his best bigos, and it will not disappoint.       

Czernina

Polish beet soup
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Czernina is another comforting Polish soup with a rich cultural history. Sweet and sour in taste, the broth is made with duck blood, sugar, and vinegar. The recipe dates back centuries, with a significance that is firmly rooted in Polish familial relations.  

Traditionally, when a man asked for a young bride’s hand in marriage, her family would answer with czernina, the shade of which would determine their response. Czernina that was more golden in color would signify “yes,” while a dark broth would indicate a negative response.

While the serving of czernina is now not quite as tense, the recipe still uses poultry blood, and the final product differs in shade depending on richness and region. The traditional recipe relies on fresh duck blood, drained and kept in vinegar. Served with homemade noodles, this old Polish recipe is still enjoyed as an Easter staple.  

Kaszanka

Polish food culture
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No part of the animal is neglected in Polish kitchens. And as we’ve seen, blood has a special place in the local cuisine. Like czernina, kaszanka is a prime example of the myriad of meat that goes into traditional Polish dishes. 

This blood sausage differs regionally, but kaszanka typically combines blood, offal, buckwheat, and diced onions in a pork intestine casing. Not dissimilar to a British black pudding, kaszanka is often sliced and stewed or tossed on the barbeque in summer. 

Kaszanka typically uses the liver, lungs, fat, and skin of a pig, flavored with black pepper and marjoram. This curious medley of offal is not for the fainthearted. Yet, kaszanka is enjoyed all over Poland and often eaten cold. 

Oscypek

Polish food culture
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It might look like a dessert, but oscypek is a type of smoked cheese made exclusively from the salted milk of sheep in the Tatra Mountains of Poland. Only traditional “bacas” shepherds and Tatra cheesemakers can produce oscypek, making it a sought-after delicacy and a reason tourists flock to the Tatra Mountain region.

Nevertheless, the cheese can be found nationwide from the capital Warsaw right down to Podhale and the border of Poland and Slovakia, where the Tatras reside.   

The cheese, similar to goat’s cheese, is enjoyed raw, fried, or grilled in pasta dishes and salads, but is often served with cranberry jam from street stalls. The sweet berries balance the strong and salty flavor of the cheese. It might be an acquired taste, but it’s a must-try if you’re in the Podhale region.

Racuchy

Racuchy polish pancakes
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Savory delicacies may dominate our list, but don’t get it twisted, Polish food culture is by no means short of foods to satisfy your sweet tooth. From the same family as pancakes, racuchy is crispy on the outside and sweet and fluffy within. 

Racuchy can be made using the same recipe as crepes or American pancakes, but popular variations include yeast and apple sauce for thick and savory alternatives. In fact, racuchy is often served with cheese or fish on Christmas day in many Polish households or dusted with icing sugar as a dessert.

These sweet pancakes are another dish that originated in the Silesian region of Poland, and you’ll find the best racuchy in Katowice. Visit Żurownia Restaurant for a modern twist on racuchy where it’s served up with apple mousse in a friendly atmosphere.  

What is traditional Polish food?

Traditional Polish food combines sweet and sour flavors with rich, heavy ingredients to create satisfying dishes that are good for the soul. Polish cuisine is often defined as comfort food and it is abundant in meats, vegetables, wheat, and grains. Family and tradition are at the heart of Polish food culture. Over the years, traditional Polish food preparation, stemming from cost-saving practices, has evolved into the wholesome culinary values that are shared across Poland today.  

What are some Polish snacks?

Polish food culture is plentiful in both sweet and savory snacks. Some of the most famous savory Polish snacks include grilled oscypek, a salty sheep’s cheese that’s served as street food in Podhale, and pickled cabbage and cucumbers, which are complementary in most Polish restaurants. Blood sausage is another popular snack that’s eaten at barbeques but also enjoyed cold.

The best sweet snacks in Poland are racuchy and krokiety, which are both varieties of pancakes, but the latter is a thinner, crepe-like snack that can be served with sugar or meats. Rurki, Poland’s answer to Italy’s cannoli, is another delicious sweet treat. The thin pastry is rolled and filled with whipped cream. You can find variations of this cream pastry snack with its crisp and flaky shell all over Europe.   

What is a typical Polish breakfast?

A typical Polish breakfast is made up of filling foods to set you up for the day. Semolina porridge, or kasza manna, is a popular choice. Rich and creamy, it’s easily digested and jazzed up with fruit, jam, and sauces to suit any palette. 

Potato bread is another typical breakfast component in Poland. Mashed potatoes are included in the dough to keep the bread moist for longer. After being toasted, you can top with cottage cheese and chives. Polish pancakes, such a krokiety crepes, and apple racuchy are also typical sweet breakfasts in Poland. 

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Esmé is an English literature graduate and freelance writer. Originally from London, Esmé is lucky enough to call Bali home. Her travels have taken her from the far corners of the East to the islands of the Caribbean. When she's not writing, you'll find her lying on a beach somewhere, lost in a crime novel.