Bizarre Polish Food

Because we are now media giants who have been mentioned on the evening news at least twice, all kinds of global corporations regularly get in touch with us asking how they too can become movers and shakers on Poland’s internets. As long as they can satisfy Scatts’ insatiably lust for Hummers, we try to help them out.

Hummers—we accept them as payment

This month, television production company Tremendous! Entertainment (corporate slogan: Yes, we really do have an exclamation mark in our name! Also in our slogan.) Wrote and asked if we could tell them about bizarre Polish food they could feature in an upcoming episode of their Travel Channel program: Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. The premiss of the show is that a bald man travels to various countries and eats things that most Americans would call an exterminator to deal with. Asia, multi-legged insects and unusually-coloured eggs feature heavily. Weird foods in Poland—”You’re going to struggle” was my initial thought. Polish food can be very nice, but it’s not exactly unconventional from a Western perspective. An example of the program here.

A bald man and friend looking enthusiastic about new culinary experiences—in Asia

Every country wishes it had bizarre food, but few outside of the Pacific Rim can deliver. Numerous times Polish people have taken me aside and explained confidentially about kaszanka and oscypek as if they were revealing a national weakness for human flesh—black pudding and sheep cheese, wow. They don’t even eat deep-fried Mars bars here.

Nevertheless, I promised to write a post about typical Polish food and, therefore, plan to take the opportunity to rant in my customary manner.

Fresh food
Polish people who move to the UK inevitably complain that the meat and vegetables taste like poorly-illustrated cardboard versions of the real thing, and they are absolutely right. Unfortunately these same Polish people leap to the conclusion that only tomatoes grown in Poland and pork raised on Polish restaurant scraps are worth eating. The real difference is between supermarket fare and locally-grown produce. Buy tomatoes in Poland and they taste like they were grown in your neighbour’s garden because, they were grown in your neighbour’s garden. On the other hand, go to your local Carrefour in Poland and you’ll find square metres of tomatoes that taste like incompetently-coloured water—just like in England. The difference here is between an economy where agriculture is still a significant contributor and an economy where we are far too busy trading in imaginary tomato futures to actually grow any. One day soon Poland’s food supply will be dominated by unscrupulous multinationals and the local producers of tomatoes, pork and dog sausages will long ago have hanged themselves in poverty.

Bread
God, I’m sick of Polish people going on about Polish bread. You’d think it could cure death at the very least. Here’s the lowdown: Polish bread is different from other European breads because it conforms to a recipe that was dictated by decades of shortages and rationing. It’s not better, it’s just what you’re used to. Go eat a genuine French baguette or an Italian ciabatta and then tell me there is something special about Polish bread that doesn’t just refer to it’s uncanny resemblance to warmed cement.

Polish bread—building material of the future?

Kotlet schabowy
To make kotlet schabowy take a perfectly good piece of pork, beat it with a large wooden hammer until it resembles a road-accident victim and then coat it in egg, spices and flour so that you can’t taste the pork any more. As long as your customers like the taste of seasoned fried egg and flour you can’t fail—there might as well be soundly beaten bits of shoe in there and, in many cases, there probably are.

Gołąbki
Gołąbki is the most sophisticated and tasty Polish food I’ve come across, and I’m convinced it’s not really Polish. It hasn’t got any pork in it for a start—Polish cuisine is largely pork-based, to an extent that begins to look like and anti-Jewish conspiracy. It also has rice, which is about as common as tiger-loin in the typical Polish kitchen. Of course, I may be completely wrong about this—kasza and pork would do just as well as rice and tiger.

Google image search does not understand ‘gołąbki’

Please add your recommendations for the most bizarre/typical foods in Poland in the comments—powers greater than us are awaiting an answer.

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Edit

I fell down rather badly in this piece with my Polish spelling. I have now replaced ‘gołębki’ with ‘gołąbki’ and ‘kasia’ with ‘kasza.’ It was late, I was tired and emotional, I have no other excuses.

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43 thoughts on “Bizarre Polish Food

  1. totalizator says:

    GołĘbki you say? Then you should try gołĄbki ;).

  2. dana says:

    gołąbki indeed! also would like to point you towards this article written by yours truly last year for our common buddy, the KP – http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1291

  3. Easy. Flacki and smalec. You could include clubbing a carp to death at Christmas and then eating it. I guess all the fish dishes aren’t very weird, broadly speaking, though I always do a double-take when there’s four different kinds of crappy, small fish bits in some sort of oil being served at a party.

    Poland really doesn’t have a lot of truly weird/bizarre food. As Jamie pointed out, though, it’s a combination of what people are used to versus what they tend to try when abroad. An idiot friend of mine was telling me how she gained weight when in the US because all she ate was McDonald’s for a few months when she worked there. I guess if all I ate here were kebabs with meat sourced from the nearest train station storage area I might also think the local cuisine was horrible.

    Oh and about Polish bread: I’ve had plenty of croissants, baguettes and the like here and they’re great. When Poles think of Polish bread, though, they are thinking of that spongy white or light-brown stuff that is tasteless and cheap. So when Poles go abroad and buy the cheapest load of bread they can find they’re surprised to see that it is cheap and nasty. Shock horror.

  4. dana says:

    & if indeed powers greater than us are reading, i really shouldn’t be so hasty as to forget to include my email address this time ;)
    p.s. that photo is definitely not typical polish bread! the polish bread people are so mysteriously in love with (i’m with you on this one) is just plain old rye… :(

  5. guest says:

    Real Polish bread looks different. This is a brick.

    And sourdough bread of course tastes better than a lame wheat baguette or wheat ciabatta.

  6. guest says:

    ps: You want bizzare Polish food ?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/aug/12/homeless-poles-rough-sleepers

    nuff said. Case closed.

  7. Jarek says:

    The thing with the Polish bread is more complex than what you wrote. In most parts of Poland the bread is not good (with Kraków being probably the place with the most horrible bread) But try normal bread, say, in Silesia, and you’ll be surprised. It is crisp, doesn’t turn into stone on the second day. Needless to say that it costs twice the price of the horrible sądecki bread in Kraków.

  8. Ewa says:

    Well, I like both baguettes and ciabatta, why not. But after three months in France I could kill for a proper bread, and I very much doubt the “proper” one you have ever seen, because it’s really not easy to find it in big cities (the comment about supermarket apply to the bakeries in Warsaw/Krakow/similar as well). As I am eating very little bread daily I am buying the expensive one, because I don’t need to have it cheap, and no baguette for you – I still prefer the Polish bread than white wheat breads anywhere :->

  9. Steve says:

    The idea of Flaki was strange to me, but the taste is good. Smalec is just old fashioned Dripping we used to have as kids in England. Great in small quantities as a free starter.

    My hates are kapusta and the assumption that meats need to be well boiled, presumably to cater for people who have no teeth. Have you seen one of these US films where a qualified chef works in an army kitchen and is horrified that the meat is boiled until it is grey and virtually tasteless?: high cuisine on any Stałopolska menu. Mind you, even this is good compared to the principle of preparing pork for pierogi, gołabki, etc. (Yes, gołabki, which I’ve almost always had with pork.) Take solid meat, grind it to a paste, boil it to loose any remaining structure, make sure it is a dull grey and completely tasteless, add kapusta (overcooked by definition) and/or overboiled onion to give it back some taste, wrap it in something to hide it and serve.

    OK, each to his own, but Polish meat is brilliant. Why aim for destruction in the cooking process?

  10. Plus, it’s kasza, not kasia (a type of girl)

  11. bob says:

    How about czernina?

    Goose blood soup.

    Sounds sickeningly gross to me. (My Polish wife has not even tried it – how about that Michael!?)

  12. EM says:

    Czernina/czarnina is a duck blood soup and it’s a bit of aquired taste but I absolutely love it!
    Another bizzare food for a foreigner can be a sour cherry/plum soup – yes, it does taste like a compot with noodles. And don’t forget about the all time favourite: ogórki kiszone. Also żurek can fit as a bizzare food – rye bread or flour fermentating in a jar for 3-4 days, then mixed with a meat stock, garlic, spices and some kiełbasa – delicious!!
    Smacznego!

  13. on kotlet schabowy:

    it’s all about the quality of the meat. if you got good pork (from some small farmer) then you will taste the pork.

    on the other hand if you got some piece of pork-like mass from the super market you could go with tofu as well.

    on Gołąbki:
    try “Gołąbki” in google and not “gołębki” @:]

  14. kuba says:

    Hmmm…gołąbki a bizarre food? So what about “zsiadłe mleko” (fermented milk), flaki (already mentioned) and zupa szczawiowa for example?

  15. Pistefka says:

    None of the “Polish” dishes mentioned here are unique to Poland, with the exception perhaps of Bigos and Zurek. (Sorry, no dots above “z”s on my keyboard.) Although I am sure they do a fairly similar type of fermented stuff – “bors” – in Romania.

    Stuffed cabbage rolls like Gołabki are eaten all over Central and indeed eastern Europe, and trace their ancestry back to the stuffed vine leaves that the Turks brought with them when they invaded.
    Kotlet Schabowy is the same as Wiener Schnitzel/Bécsi Szelet/Snitel de porc etc etc.
    “Polish” style bread can be rather tasty, but it is not unique to Poland.
    Flacki (tripe) is eaten all over the place, except by squeamish North Americans.
    Pierogi like things can be found in Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia and perhaps other countries. As can Barszcz czerwony.

    What is unique in Polish cuisine lies more in the details – what type of tomato sauce they have with their stuffed cabbage, the option to have beans in the barszcz, the hard boiled egg in the Zurek.
    I love Polish food (when done properly), but also enjoy Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Slovak cooking, and sigh deeply when any of them claim to be oh-so-unique.
    The stew is more complicated than that.

  16. island1 says:

    Good source. Tremendous! Entertainment people: go there.

  17. island1 says:

    Yes, flacki and smalec are the other two ‘extreme’ Polish dishes. And again, they are exactly the same a peasant dishes eaten elsewhere all across northern Europe. My favourite ever translation of smalec on a Polish restaurant menu: peasant grease.

  18. island1 says:

    “We have to explain to them that unlike the rats back home, in London they would be full of poison.” Erm… excuse me?

  19. island1 says:

    I’m not going all the way to Silesia to buy bread. I believe you.

  20. island1 says:

    I’m not convinced most Polish people know anything about this ‘proper’ bread. They just like the grey stuff because it’s what they are used to.

  21. island1 says:

    Overcooking is definitely an issue. Potatoes are routinely boiled for at least an hour, or until they become watery lumps of starch—whichever is the soonest.

  22. island1 says:

    This may explain why my gołąbki don’t turn out well, and why I’m being hunted by the police.

  23. island1 says:

    Ooh, that’s a new one.

  24. island1 says:

    I had a suspicion gołąbki were related to stuffed vine leaves—they seem so unlike typical Polish food.

  25. bob says:

    @EM – my wife says you are correct about the soup being from duck not goose. But at least it was close – both are waterfowl. (any sense that you may be a PiS person favoring the kaczior vs ges?)

  26. Garth says:

    So as someone who adores bread and is foreign, I have to say that bread in Poland is better than any other location I have tried in Europe. I do love baguettes when fresh but within a hour they are hard and next to useless. I found when in Krakow it was nearly impossible to find decent bread and in Warsaw I have only 2 bakeries that I have returned to and they make fantastic bread. It is what you are used to, but it is also about finding the best bread. There is cheap crap anywhere in the world, if you don’t search you won’t find it.
    In regards to weird foods, I guess there is Peacock I saw on a menu in Eastern Poland, true bigos is rare but delicious when you find it, Pyzy are pretty horrid although not scary. Overall I think that the food is pretty standard fare with the scariest thing in Poland being Bimber!

  27. airam says:

    How about ‘ogorki kiszone’ (soured cucumbers or gherkins) to go along with your ‘schabowy’ or having some ‘zsiadle mleko’ (soured milk) with your meal? Most of my non-Polish friends were horrified of the idea of eating food that gone off.
    On the other hand, there is Stilton and the likes on the UK menu.

  28. Garth says:

    Oh yeah I forgot about the drinks! Hot beer?! probably not so scary for the English, saurkraut juice!!! Bread beer (podpiwek)?! Some of these things are terrifying!

  29. EM says:

    @Bob – and that was a TERRIFYING thought!!! No, I’m not one of these PIS people; a duck (kaczor) is fantastic only when served hot on my plate:)

  30. Wiola says:

    Kaszanka, tatar or salceson.. in my opinion are pretty awful.

  31. Dyspozytor says:

    I’m not sure if zimne noszki is really ‘bizarre’, but it tastes wonderful and does wonderful things to your body.

    http://polishrail.wordpress.com/a-few-words-of-introduction/about/cold-feet-pig-trotters-in-aspic/

  32. zarazek says:

    Deep fried Mars bar? Love it! Too bad Poles haven’t thought of it yet.

    By the way, can you get it in other parts of the UK or is it only available in Scotland?

  33. island1 says:

    That’s breakfast sorted then.

    BTW, I notice you have a link to us but we didn’t have one to you—now rectified.

  34. adthelad says:

    Regarding bread – find a Jan Piekarz in Kraków and your probs will be sorted. Highly recommend the ‘Słowiański’ loaf – but also many more :)

  35. Another Ewa says:

    Good bread isn’t that hard to find – tryPiekarnia Mojego Taty in Kazimierz, Piekarnia Francuska (stands at both the Stary & Nowy Kleparz), Pan Kowalik (Krakowski Kredens and in Liszki) and the last kiosk on ul. Dluga, by the tram lines, do all sorts of amazing breads for a pittance.

  36. Outsider says:

    As others have pointed out, one would be hard put to name a Polish dish that doesn’t have an equivalent somewhere between the North Sea and the Urals. As for czernina, I suspect its use is limited to some God-forsaken rural regions because I’ve never seen it or even met anyone who tried it.

    However, I can think of something that is quite popular in Poland but potentially stomach-churning to non-Poles: woda z ogórków. It’s the muddy, garlicky, dilly brine in which ogórki kiszone are fermented. It can be drunk as a refreshing summer treat but it’s definitely an acquired taste. I like it myself and will occasionally drink it here in Belgium in front of some friends just to see them squirm with disgust.

    Polish cuisine is generally fine except for two things:

    1. Bugger all to eat for vegetarians. I’ve found that in Poland, saying you don’t eat meat will astonish people far more than admitting you’re a non-Christian or a teetotaler;

    2. Bugger all to eat in the summer. I’ve been served boiling hot krupnik and potatoes in 30-degree heat – the Polish stomach must be permanently stuck on winter mode. Asking for “coś lekkiego” will only get you a pound less of meat and starch on your plate and worried inquiries about your lack of appetite.

  37. Name says:

    No doubt nice patronising Mr Stokes was somewhat bashful on the subject of dog smalec when asked about unusual Polish foods.

    http://www.fakt.pl/Przerabiali-psy-na-smalec-,artykuly,49497,1.html

  38. island1 says:

    Do I detect a hint of sarcasm? The word’s ‘dog smalec’ never passed my lips.

  39. Grze$ko says:

    Flaki (Tripe) is available in mother England and all good Colonies. Usually as an oblong, plastic-coated instrument locally known as “sausage”.
    As to strange, “Salceson” is a bit strange, but not strictly Polish. In the land of the free it’s known under a truly lovely name of “head cheese” (YUM YUM!) and its Italian name escapes me at the moment.
    Golabki vary across Poland. In the east for example I was offered cabbage leaves filled with mushed potatoes.
    I really don’t think there’s anything truly Polish about Polish food. The food changes as you travel through the country with distinct flavours of neighbouring countries overlapping at borders.
    Even “tatar” (steak tartare) is found in many nations under different names…
    And just to straighten a couple things out:
    It is Flaczki not Flacki.
    Oscypek is made of sheep’s not goat’s milk.

  40. scatts says:

    Hummers! Hmmm….yummy.

  41. Titania says:

    it depends who boils those potatoes LOL
    and even so, polish boiled potatoes are by no means worse than the british mushy peas – weird looking green slush for the teethless people :)

    apart from that i think the article about the polisch bread is good.

    greetz from wales

  42. Dawid says:

    Ciabatta is great, no doubt about that – if it’s baked properly. Polish bread is great, no doubt about that – if it’s baked properly. In communism there were those industrial bakeries that mass produced low quality bread which the consumers called gliniasty (clay-like), but had to eat anyway. But even then it was possible to find some decent bread and rolls in smaller bakeries. Today you also need to find the right bakery to find bread that can actually be eaten and enjoyed on its own. Then it’s just like ciabatta or baquettes. I knew a Canadian once who used to say that Polish bread was just incredible. He might have tried to just be nice, or he really enjoyed it – both options seem believable to me.

    As for shocking Polish food – well, I can’t take any meals containing liver, lung or tripe, but my father loves them. This is probably the nastiest that Polish food can be, although it’s no balut, that’s for sure.

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