Whether a city trip to Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, or a relaxing holiday on the Baltic Sea's shores: In Poland, various adventures and Polish food are waiting for you. It would help if you did not miss these Polish specialties when traveling.
From fresh salads and hearty meat dishes to sweet cakes, Polish cuisine offers everything a craving stomach desires. For the most part, soups, hearty stews, and meat dishes dominate in Poland. The sea’s vicinity and the numerous lakes and rivers sprinkling the country brought the fish on a classic Polish menu. There are also dough-based products such as dumplings or sweet cakes, with versions adapted to vegetarian preferences.
Regional differences are usual – you may see completely different menus during a vacation in the northern Szczecin versus, let’s say, on a southern Wroclaw trip. This keeps it exciting on a culinary level. Nevertheless, Polish cuisine is diverse everywhere you go, so you won’t ever get hungry while sightseeing or on an active holiday.
History of Polish Cuisine
Many dishes in Poland, such as the national bigos dish, were mentioned as early as the 15th century – therefore built-on a long tradition. Vodka production also has a similarly long background, although vodka is still predominantly associated with Russia.
Mushrooms and many spices such as saffron have played an important role in the Poles’ food culture. The former is based on the high availability of the country’s abundance of forests, like the Giant Mountains (Krkonoše). Dried fruits and honey have been used to season fillings and marinades for generations. Dill, pepper, and marjoram form a general base of spices in Polish cuisine for potatoes and vegetables.
Typical eating habits
In Poland, people like to eat hearty and rich lunches – regardless of certain meal-times. There is usually no “coffee and cake time.” Instead, a piece of cake or a dessert is eaten whenever they feel the need for a snack. Candies score important points when meeting friends.
Breakfast and dinner, on the other hand, are a bit narrower. The Poles prefer to eat fresh bread in the morning, sometimes together with sausages or topped with cheese, depending on one’s preferences. Quark is also popular for breakfast. Dinner looks very similar and is enhanced on special holidays with specialties such as scrambled eggs. Warm meals are usually served at lunchtime.
Starters and soups
When it comes to starters, Poles are hard to beat. Whether fresh salads or bread nibbles, meat-based soups, or invigorating stews – you are often so full after the first course that you will barely withstand the main course.
Placki Ziemniaczane (containing meat)
The specialty consists of grated potatoes, crushed and mixed with eggs and spices that have previously been fried in animal fat. Ultimately, potatoes together with the egg mix form a sort of pancake. To add a little sweetness to the whole thing, a hint of sugar may be added at the end.
Salatka Jarzynowa (vegetarian)
The Palatka Jarzynowa is a delicious salad for vegetarians, even for vegans, depending on the preparation method. This is often served with rye bread. It consists of carrots, cucumber, apple pieces, potatoes, peas, and a little mustard. In the vegetarian (but not vegan) variant, eggs and mayonnaise are also added.
The Mizeria salad is a wonderful refreshment during the hot days of your vacation because – consists of a mix of cucumber, lemon juice, dill, and onions. Since sour cream is also included, it is suitable for vegetarians but not for vegans.
Are you in the mood for a hearty treat as a starter? Then try zapiekanki – slices of bread covered with your desired toppings, similar to pizza baguettes. Mushrooms and cheese are popular as toppings.
Tip: Zapiekanki are not only suitable as a starter, but also as a light snack.
Soups in Poland
Polish soups have a long tradition. For many, they are THE typical food in Poland. Most of them are based on meat broth, very rarely vegetarian.
Barszcz (mostly meat)
Barszcz or borscht are considered Polish national dishes, but they are popular in Russia and most Eastern European countries. The Polish version consists of naturally soured beetroot. It has to be fermented and prepared together with onions. Depending on the taste, carrots or other spices are added.
When the soup is ready, it is clear and displays a deep red color – but Poles also puree it. Possible additions are dumplings filled with meat or mushrooms. Barszcz is often served with a side dish similar to a croquette.
Already knew? Barszcz is also offered as a drink and then served in a cup. This variant is prevalent in the Szczecin area. Then there are small pies.
Żurek (meat or vegetarian)
Żurek is based on fermented rye meal. Requires a certain fermentation time, then enriched with marjoram and various ingredients. They don’t use vinegar for acid formation – the rye meal is “ready to use” as soon as it has a pleasantly sourish bouquet. Possible ingredients for the Żurek soup are still sausage or potatoes and eggs.
Rosół (containing meat)
Rosół is considered a popular and easy-to-prepare soup that is similar to the classic chicken soup. A whole chicken must simmer in hot water for about 1.5 hours with garlic, celery, carrots, parsley, onions, and leeks. The seasoning is done with bay leaves, curry, and paprika. After the cooking time, the soup is sieved, and some of the chicken is added. It is served with homemade pasta as a typical side dish. The resulted consommé is healthy and delicious!
Most Polish main courses are meat-based. Meats such as beef, pork, and game are particularly popular, sometimes even exotic meat, such as rabbit meat. There are dishes using several types of meats, and the main courses can also be complemented with fish.
Bigos (containing meat)
Bigos is a stew made from different types of meat and sausage, sauerkraut, white cabbage, other vegetables, and spices. It is known for its long cooking time – in the end, the sauerkraut’s taste differs based on the different types of meat. Together with the cabbage and the meats, the spices such as allspice grains and bay leaves and vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, or mushrooms cook together in one pot. Depending on the region, bigos is served with potatoes or bread. Sometimes the national dish is also served in the bread.
Pierogi (meat or vegetarian)
Pierogi are also one of the typical national dishes that you will discover in all regions of Poland. The fillings also differ. There are, for example:
- “Pierogi z kapustą i grzybami” with onions, herbs and mushrooms
- “Pierogi z mięsem” with meat and onions
- “Pierogi ruskie” with potatoes and cheese
- Sweet “pierogi z jagodami” with blueberries
The dough itself consists of flour, egg, water, oil, and salt. Round shapes are cut out of this, the filling is placed on top, and the dumpling pocket is closed so that ultimately a semicircular shape is created. Once closed, they cut some decorative edge around it. The dumpling-like bags are boiled for around three minutes each and sometimes served with chives. For the filling, for example, potatoes have to be boiled and mashed. Another common filling compound is made with spices and cheese.
Pieczeń na dziko (containing meat)
Behind this Polish dish is a marinated roast made from pork, lamb, or beef. The meat is marinated in a mixture of lemon juice and white wine, seasoned with spices such as allspice and bay leaf. The Poles usually serve it together with dark gravy and onions.
Gołąbki (containing meat)
This dish translates as “pigeon,” but the cabbage roulade actually contains pork, mushrooms, rice, and onions. The ingredients are inserted in-between cabbage leaves and ultimately fried in fat. Sometimes they add tomato sauce.
Zrazy (containing meat)
The base of this meaty treat is a slice of beef fillet. It is used to wrap a mix of mushrooms, cucumber, onions and bacon, and sometimes breadcrumbs. Then the finished roll is grilled or fried.
Fun fact: The Polish nobility often consumed zrazy for breakfast.
Kotlet schabowy (containing meat)
Friends of the classic schnitzel should pay attention now because shabowy is presented as a sandwich. The meat is fried with or without the bone. Typical side dishes are, for example, potatoes, cucumber salad, braised white cabbage, or coleslaw.
Zając w śmietanie (containing meat)
This dish looks back on a long tradition and serves “unusual” meat: it is a roast hare marinated in vegetables and buttermilk. Finally, the dish is fried in its own juice and garnished with mushrooms and sour cream.
Sandacz po polsku (containing fish)
One of the popular fish used is pikeperch, freshly caught in the Polish Baltic Sea. According to Polish tradition, the fish is completely gutted and cooked together with various types of vegetables. The base for this is the pikeperch’s own juices. The typical side dish consists of chopped eggs. The dish is usually topped with melted butter.
Carp dishes (containing fish)
Carp is a classic Christmas dish in Poland that is served in different ways. The Karp po warszawsku consists of carp stuffed with vegetables, apples, and wine. The Karp po żydowsku is refined with almonds, carrots, and raisins. In Poland, the fish for this dish is commonly covered with flour, then fried and served with a suitable fish sauce.
Sweets are just as popular in Poland as the hearty main courses. Cakes are eaten almost every day – and not even at set times. Pastries or eclairs filled with fruit jelly can also sweeten your holiday.
The Makowiec is a poppy seed cake served as rolls. It consists of a mix of poppy seeds and yeast dough. For the filling, they use ingredients like nuts, raisins, dark fruits, and honey.
Already knew? Makowiec is a popular dish around Easter time.
This cake is an apple tart with a crust made from egg yolk and butter. It is as sweet as it gets and enjoys a similar tradition in Poland as the “American Pie” in the USA.
Sernik is a cake made with white cheese and chocolate icing. The cheese makes it special: it is extracted from curdled sour milk.
These mostly heart-shaped cookies are made of gingerbread and are either filled with jelly or covered with chocolate icing. Of course, those with a sweet tooth prefer the version that includes both!
Pierogi can also be mentioned as dessert. Sometimes they end up being made with sweet fillings made from strawberries or cherries. The resulted filled dumplings are served with sugar or cream.
Paczki looks like filled donuts: fried dough balls filled with jam, delicious at any time of the day.
Eclairs actually come from France but have become an indispensable part of Polish pastry shops as “Eklerka.” They are coated with chocolate and have a filling of light and airy whipped cream. You can get this snack all year round, so you can grab it whenever you feel like it!
The classic drink for the main course in Poland is simply mineral water. Sometimes, they serve buttermilk or soured milk. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings are dominated by black tea with lemon, often served in a glass. Coffee is prepared with or without milk and sugar, often served in a glass instead of a cup or a mug.
When it comes to alcoholic beverages, you will probably come across beer and vodka in most areas. The regional beers have a slightly milder taste than the average American beer, but the alcohol content is higher. Vodka, on the other hand, is developed using sweetgrass (holy grass in the UK, and bison grass in Poland). This gives it a special taste.
Vegetarian & vegan
You have already noticed: a lot in Poland contains meat. But meat-free travelers can also find enough to eat. For example, they can choose from numerous types of braised vegetables. To name a few: cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower, and chickpeas are all heavily represented. Besides, a sweet or savory omelet is just right for a vegetarian to start the day.
Even the salads are well represented because food like Mizeria and Sałatka Jarzynowa are vegetarian. For the latter, you should ask not to use hard-boiled eggs to be suitable for vegans. And don’t worry: Poles usually respond to special inquiries in a helpful and friendly manner, and terms like “vegan” are usually understood. Pierogi filled with a mushroom, lentils, or spinach puree is also vegan. There are also delicious variants with cranberries and apples for the dessert.
- Restaurant Polish food: Piotrus - Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
- Polish potato pancake: Jason Quinn - Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
- Polish Mizeria: Mariuszjbie - Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
- Borscht with beetroot: cello5 - Pixabay
- Polish Rosół soup: Mariuszjbie - Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
- Pierogi: Kake - Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Generic
- Gołąbki: Quinn Dombrowski - Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic
- Polish style carp: Olaf.herfurth - Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
- Dessert Szarlotka: anialaurman - Pixabay
- Sweetgrass vodka: Céline Harrand - Flickr | Public Domain Mark 1.0
- Polish bigos: Ratoncito Perez - Wikimedia | Public Domain Mark 1.0