As someone who travels for food, I was less than ecstatic about visiting Poland. Even though I am of Polish ancestry, in my mind the food was synonymous with potatoes, cabbage, and a whole lot of butter – not exactly the light summer meals I was accustomed to in the south of France. I prepared for the worst…
After an exhausting day of travel I arrived in Gdansk. Not five minutes later, I was shoveling sweet strawberries with homemade whipped cream into my mouth while my mother enjoyed fresh chocolate pudding. Later that night, our host family served us homemade pickles, garden fresh veggies and buckwheat.
From the Baltic Sea cost city of Gdansk, the fairy-tale forests and horse stables of Olsztynek, to the romantic yet metropolitan capital of Krakow, Polish cuisine never failed to impress. Outstandingly diverse and shockingly refreshing, it’s way more than just potatoes (although we had our fair share of those too!). Vegetables rule the day, with beets, cabbage, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, cucumbers and tomatoes prepared in ways that had never crossed my mind – like lacto-fermented beets or hot pickle soup. Surprisingly warm in summer, fruits like strawberries, wild blackberries, apricots and cherries were abundant. Fish was readily eaten grilled, fried, marinated, pickled or smoked. Meat was used surprisingly sparingly as a component to a dish rather than the main ingredient. As for the bread in Poland, the hearty country loaves, diverse flours, and perfectly chewy bagels gave French bread a run for its money.
Preservation culture holds strong due to Poland’s climate (harsh winters) and political history (oppression, occupation and food shortages). Beets, cauliflower, carrots, even small fish are all pickled. Vegetables are also fermented or cooked and canned. Fruit is made into compotes or dried. Milk is transformed into cheese and sold immediately as fresh curds, conserved as cottage cheese, or smoked and aged.
But perhaps the best discovery of the trip was learning the root of my sweet tooth– every Pole has one! On each street, bakeries sold fresh cookies or jelly donuts. Every household had a cupboard devoted to packaged sweets like chocolate-covered marshmallows. And no meal was complete without ice cream, either in a cone, dish, milkshake, or even in a alcoholic beverage.
Alexis ZK is an undergraduate at New York University studying French and Food Studies. After spending a summer working on farms all over the US, she spent a year studying, eating, and working in France. Now, she has returned to the farms, this time focusing on wine and value-added products. Follow her adventures here.
Polish Smoked Whitefish Salad
This salad was modeled after a dish we had at dinner during my stay on a horse stable in Poland. Surprisingly refreshing, it gives a different impression of Polish cuisine, highlighting the wonderful fish found throughout the country.
3 small fillets smoked whitefish (Any whitefish, like Haddock, will do. You can also use 2-3 small cans).
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped into large chunks
1 medium cucumber, chopped into large chunks
1 cup pitted green olives, halved (save the liquid!)
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Dried or fresh parsley
Ground black pepper
Fresh lettuce, torn
In a large bowl, tear whitefish into large chunks (make sure to remove any bones). Add your chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and olives.
In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise and equal parts (3 tablespoons) reserved olive-liquid (the liquid that came in the can). Add in fresh ground pepper and dried parsley to taste (if using fresh parsley, chop it and add it to the fresh ingredients).
Pour the sauce over the fish mixture, and toss to combine (it’s ok – use your hands!).
Serve on a bed of fresh lettuce with crackers. This salad can be made in advance (up to one day) and stored in the fridge tightly wrapped. Leftovers are good up to three days in the fridge. Makes a killer sandwich, especially toasted.