Polish food, with its reliance on local ingredients such as potatoes, cucumbers, beets, mushrooms, buckwheat and apples, reflects the country’s long agrarian tradition. The necessity of making food last the winter means the cuisine is rich in pickles, preserves, smoked fish and meat. Foraged wild foods, such as mushrooms and berries, add seasonal character to dishes in uniquely Polish ways.
Chleb (bread) has always meant more than sustenance to Poles. It’s a symbol of good fortune and is sacred to many; some older people kiss a piece of bread if they drop it on the ground. Traditional Polish bread is made with rye, but bakeries nowadays turn out a bewildering array of loaves, including those flavoured with sunflower, poppy and sesame seeds, and raisins and nuts.
Every substantial meal in Poland traditionally begins with zupa (soup), and Poland has some good ones. Rye is a staple ingredient in what will likely become a staple order of yours: żurek. This soup is made with beef or chicken stock, bacon, onion, mushrooms and sour cream, and given a distinctive tart flavour through the addition of kwas (a mixture of rye flour and water that has been left to ferment for several days). It’s often accompanied by a hard-boiled egg or kiełbasa (Polish sausage) and served inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread.
As Polish as żurek, but perhaps not as unique, is barszcz (or barszcz czerwony), a red beetroot soup known in Russia as borscht that can be served as barszcz czysty (clear borscht), barszcz z uszkami (borscht with tiny ravioli-type dumplings stuffed with meat) or barszcz z pasztecikiem (borscht with a hot meat- or cabbage-filled pastry).
Pierogi (or ‘Polish raviolis’) are square- or crescent-shaped dumplings made from dough and stuffed with anything from cottage cheese, potato and onion to minced meat, sauerkraut and fruit. They are usually boiled and served doused in melted butter.
Pierogi are highly versatile and can be eaten as a snack between meals or as a main course for lunch or dinner. They’re a budget traveller’s dream. No matter how fancy a restaurant is, the chef will usually be able to whip up an order of pierogi for anything from 15zł to 25zł.
They can also be a vegetarian’s best friend: many of the more popular versions, especially the ubiquitous pierogi ruskie (Russian pierogi), stuffed with cottage cheese, potato and onion, are meatless. Just remember to tell the waiter to hold the bacon bits. Popular variations to look for:
- pierogi z mięsem – stuffed with spicy minced meat, normally pork
- pierogi z serem – with cottage cheese
- pierogi z kapustą i grzybami – with cabbage and wild mushrooms
- pierogi z jagodami – with blueberries
- pierogi z truskawkami – with wild strawberries
What would a trip to Poland be without sampling some of the country’s signature sausages? Kiełbasa is normally eaten as a snack or part of a light lunch or dinner, served with a side of brown bread and mustard. It’s usually made with pork, though other meats, like beef and veal, can be added to lend a distinctive flavour. The sausages are generally seasoned with garlic, caraway and other spices.
The most popular type, Wiejska kiełbasa, is a thick cylinder of pork, spiced with garlic and marjoram, that probably comes closest to the type of kiełbasa known outside of Poland. Some other popular varieties:
- kabanosy – thin pork sausages that are air-cured and seasoned with caraway seeds
- krakowska – as the name implies, these originated in Kraków, though they’re found throughout the country; usually thick and seasoned with pepper and garlic
- biała – thin white sausages sold uncooked and then boiled in soups like żurek staropolski (sour barley soup with white sausage)
If there’s one dish more genuinely Polish than any other, it might just be bigos. It’s made with sauerkraut, chopped cabbage and meat, including one or more of pork, beef, game, sausage and bacon. All the ingredients are mixed together and cooked over a low flame for several hours, then put aside to be reheated a few more times.
As with French cassoulet, this process enhances the flavour. The whole operation takes a couple of days and the result can be nothing short of mouth-watering. Every family has its own well-guarded recipe, and you will never find two identical dishes.
Because it’s so time-consuming, bigos does not often appear on a restaurant menu and the version served in cheap eateries and cafes is often not worth its name – though you can find worthy variations at Polish festivals and fairs.
Polish menus appear to be an egalitarian lot, usually featuring a range of dishes made from beef, chicken and pork, as well as other meats like turkey or duck. But don’t let that fool you. The main event is almost always wieprzowina (pork), and Poles have come up with some delicious ways to prepare it:
- golonka – boiled pig’s knuckle, usually served with horseradish and sauerkraut
- kotlet schabowy – breaded pork chops
- schab wieprzowy – succulent roast loin of pork
- dzik – means wild boar, a rare treat but one worth trying if you get the chance
Poles love their wódka (vodka) – only the Russians drink more per capita – and make some of the best in the world. While drinking habits are evolving in Poland, and most Poles normally relax over a glass of beer or wine, vodka remains the drink of choice when it comes to holidays, special occasions, or simply times when only vodka will do.
The most popular type of vodka in Poland, as with much of the rest of the world, is czysta (clear) vodka, but this is not the only species of the wódka family. Look around for some of these varieties:
- Wyborowa – a brand of wheat-based clear vodka
- Żytnia – a brand of rye-based vodka, with a whole spectrum of varieties, from sweet to extra dry
- myśliwska – means ‘hunter’s vodka’ and tastes not unlike gin
- pigwówka – flavoured with quince (not too tart, not too sweet and our favourite of the moment)
- wiśniówka – flavoured with cherries
- cytrynówka – flavoured with lemon
- pieprzówka – flavoured with pepper
- Żubrówka – a brand of vodka flavoured with grass from the Białowieża Forest on which bison feed (or as local wags have it, ‘on which bison peed’)
Generally, clear vodka should be served chilled. Flavoured vodkas don’t need as much cooling, and some are best drunk at room temperature. While all vodkas were traditionally drunk neat and – horror of horrors – never mixed as cocktails, that too is changing and some experiments have been very successful. Żubrówka vodka and apple juice – known as a tatanka (buffalo) – is a match made in heaven.
How to Drink Vodka in Poland
Serious vodka drinking normally follows a few standard rules. Vodka is usually drunk from a 50ml shot glass called a kieliszek. It’s downed in a single gulp – do dna (to the bottom), as Poles say. A small snack (often a pickle or piece of pickled herring) or a sip of mineral water is consumed just after drinking to give some relief to the throat. Glasses are immediately refilled for the next drink and it goes quickly till the bottle is empty. Poles say, ‘The saddest thing in the world is two people and just one bottle.’
As you may expect, unless you're a seasoned drinker, at this rate you won’t be able to keep up for long. Go easy and either miss a few turns or sip your drink in stages. Though this will be beyond the comprehension of a ‘normal’ Polish drinker, you, as a foreigner, will be treated with due indulgence. If you do get tipsy, take comfort in the fact that Poles get drunk too – and sometimes rip-roaringly so. Na zdrowie! (Cheers!)
There are several brands of locally brewed Polish piwo (beer); the best include Żywiec, Tyskie, Okocim and Lech. Beer is readily available in shops, cafes, bars, pubs and restaurants – virtually everywhere – and is almost always lager (as opposed to dark or wheat beer).
In addition to Polish beer, labels from the neighbouring Czech Republic, such as Staropramen, Pilsner Urquell, Bernard, Holba and Primátor, have become quite popular. We're not choosing sides here, but even Poles generally regard Czech beer as (slightly) superior. There's a small but growing microbrew community in large cities like Warsaw, Kraków and Gdańsk.
Don’t ask us why, but you’ll soon see that Poles (particularly women) like to flavour their beer with fruit juice, usually sok malinowy (raspberry juice). It’s then drunk through a straw.
There are regional specialties across the country – freshwater fish dishes in the north, aromatic duck preparations in Wielkopolska, large dumplings called kluski in Silesia that are often served with bacon (kluski śląskie ze słoniną) – but nowhere are these regional dishes so well defined as in the Podhale at the foot of the Tatras. Among some of the things to try here are kwaśnica (sauerkraut soup), placki po góralsku (potato pancakes with goulash) and the many types of oscypek (smoked sheep’s milk cheese) that come in oblong shapes with distinctive stamps on the rind. Buckwheat groats (kasza gryczana) are a delicious side dish – and a nice change of pace from the more-common rice or potatoes. They are typically found in rural areas or in simpler restaurants around the country.
While many Polish staples are served year-round, each season brings something a little special. Watch out for:
Strawberries Strawberry season arrives in late spring; look for them layered on ice cream, poured over cakes and stuffed inside pierogi (dumplings).
Berries The Polish summer yields raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. These national treasures are usually poured over pancakes or stuffed inside pierogi.
Mushrooms Poles are crazy about mushrooms, and the cool damp mornings of early autumn are perfect for picking. Mushrooms are used in soups, as a stuffing for pastries and in sauces.
Beetroot soup Beets are a staple of Polish cooking and the cold winters bring a renewed appreciation for this oft-overlooked red root. Beetroot soup is a cherished part of the traditional Christmas Eve meal.
Dare to Try
In addition to the standard-fare items like beef, chicken and pork, Poland has plenty of options for more adventurous palates:
- smalec – fried pork fat topped with crackling and spread on large hunks of bread
- nóżki w galarecie – jellied calves’ trotters
- flaki – seasoned tripe cooked in bouillon with vegetables
- karp w galarecie – carp in gelatine
- czernina staropolska – ducks’-blood broth with vinegar
When to Eat
Poles tend to be early risers and śniadanie (breakfast) is taken between 6am and 8am. Polish breakfasts are similar to their Western counterparts and may include chleb z masłem (bread and butter), ser (cheese), szynka (ham), jajka (eggs) and herbata (tea) or kawa (coffee). Hotels and pensions normally offer a szwedzki bufet (Swedish-style buffet), consisting of these items as well as slices of cucumber and tomatoes, pickles and occasionally something warm like a pot of scrambled eggs, kiełbasa, parowki (frankfurters) or pancakes. Normally, the only coffee available is instant, but some places are starting to offer mini espresso machines (hoorah!).
Obiad (lunch) normally kicks off a bit later than you might be used to, around 1pm or 2pm, and can stretch to as late as 3pm or 4pm. It’s traditionally the most important and substantial meal of the day.
The evening meal is kolacja (supper). The time and menu vary greatly: sometimes it can be nearly as substantial as obiad, but more often it’s just sliced meats with salad or even lighter – a pastry and a glass of tea.
Where to Eat
Normally you’ll eat in a restauracja (restaurant), a catch-all expression referring to any place with table service. They range from unpretentious eateries where you can have a filling meal for as little as 20zł, all the way up to luxurious establishments that may leave a big hole in your wallet.
The menus of most top-class restaurants are in Polish with English translations, but don’t expect foreign-language listings in cheaper eateries (nor waiters speaking anything but Polish).
A cheaper but usually acceptable alternative to a restaurant is a bar mleczny (milk bar). This is a no-frills, self-serve cafeteria that offers mostly meat-free dishes at very low prices. The ‘milk’ part of the name reflects the fact that no alcohol is served. You can fill up for around 15zł to 20zł.
Milk bars open around 8am and close at 6pm (3pm or 4pm on Saturday); only a handful are open on Sunday. The menu is posted on the wall. You tell the cashier what you want, then pay in advance; the cashier gives you a receipt, which you hand to the person dispensing the food. Once you’ve finished your meal, return your dirty dishes (watch where other diners put theirs). Milk bars are very popular and there are usually queues.
Meals of a Lifetime
Poland is filled with great restaurants. Big cities like Warsaw and Kraków have the lion’s share, but some of the very best meals can be found in some of the country’s tiniest hamlets.
Restauracja Tejsza The Talmudic house behind the synagogue in the eastern town of Tykocin is home to Poland’s best home-cooked kosher – and arguably the best pierogi (dumplings), too.
W Starym Siole Open-air dining in the Carpathian village of Wetlina, with grilled fish and great wines.
Restauracja Jadka Wrocław treasure presents impeccable modern takes on Polish classics, silver-service table settings and Gothic surrounds.
Warszawa Wschodnia Housed within an atmospheric former factory in Warsaw's grungy Praga district, this eatery brings a 21st century sensibility to the Polish classics, melding them with a French influence.
Carska Silver-service restaurant in what was once the tsar's private railway station in Białowieża.
Bajeczny In Kalisz, a great example of how an old communist-era bar mleczny can be updated to an attractive budget option.
Gothic Conveniently (and surprisingly) situated in Malbork Castle itself, this is one of the north’s top restaurants.
Sąsiedzi High-end Polish restaurant in Kraków's Kazimierz district with a lovely, secluded garden.
Velevetka The best place in Gdańsk to sample authentic Kashubian fare such as duck with apple sauce and Baltic fish dishes.
Spiżarnia Warmińska Great new organic place in Olsztyn where most of the ingredients are locally sourced and seasonal.
Dining out in Poland is fairly straightforward and not much different from eating out anywhere else. Expect slower service, perhaps, than you might get in other destinations, particularly if it’s a crowded place. To speed things up, you’re welcome (even encouraged) to grab your own menus when you enter a restaurant; there will likely be a stack by the door.
Many places, particularly outdoor cafes, are self-service, so if no one comes to your table right away, it might be a sign you’re expected to fetch your own drinks and make food orders at the counter.
Polish restaurants are not particularly kid-friendly. Children are always welcome, of course, and some places even have special children’s menus, but you won’t usually find high chairs or even lots of room to push a stroller through in many places.
Service leans toward the officious, rather than the overly friendly. Expect competent and often excellent results from the kitchen. Occasionally, though, your order may be misunderstood by the server or botched in the kitchen. Unless it’s a major mistake, though, refrain from sending food back as it inevitably creates ill will and will delay the meal even more. Tip 10% of the tab for good service (slightly more for an extraordinary experience).
Cook Like a Local
If you’d like to take your appreciation of Polish food to the next level, try a one-day course at Polish Your Cooking in Warsaw. Students cook two classic dishes and sample several others. Packages include breakfast and lunch and start from 199zł per person.
Essential Food & Drink
Barszcz Famous beetroot soup comes in two varieties: red (made from beetroot) and white (with wheat flour and sausage).
Bigos Thick stew with sauerkraut and meat.
Pierogi Flour dumplings, usually stuffed with cheese, mushrooms or meat.
Szarlotka Apple cake with cream; a Polish classic.
Wódka Vodka: try it plain, or ask for myśliwska (flavoured with juniper berries).
Żurek Hearty, sour rye soup includes sausage and hard-boiled egg.