I consider myself a foodie. But my definition of “foodie” isn’t just about hedonism. It’s about using a country’s cuisine to unlock a greater understanding of its culture and its history. If you can zoom out to the bird’s-eye view, it’s clear that food is culture, and so much of a nation’s identity is wrapped up in its culinary reality.
I make a point to take food tours all over Europe as a way to indulge my curiosity about how food influences culture…and to indulge my palate. And the best one I’ve ever experienced was in an unlikely place: the Polish capital, Warsaw — which has, over the last few years, quietly transformed itself into Europe’s budget foodie mecca.
In Warsaw, I spent a fascinating (and delicious) half-day with Eat Polska, in the company of an excellent guide named Michaś. Now, Poland is one of my favorite countries. My grandfather was Polish, I’ve written guidebooks about Poland, and I’ve traveled to Poland more than 20 times for both work and pleasure. I thought I had a pretty good handle on this place. But Michaś opened my eyes to how the country’s epic history, hardships, victories, and persistent personality flavor every bite of every dish. Whether you’re going to the land of borscht, pierogi, and vodka — or a place better known for pasta or foie gras — a great guide can turn a food tour into a food tour de force.
After we met on a busy urban street corner, Michaś brought me to a traditional restaurant to build a foundation for the rest of the tour. We sat down to a table laden with bread smothered in lard, pickles, a bowl of bright-red borscht, and a shot of vodka. Just as I was about to dig in, he said, “Wait! Before you eat, look at this table. Only two items here are not fermented. Which ones?” After several wrong guesses, he gave me the answer: the salt and the vodka. Even the beets are fermented (for days, weeks, or even months) before they go into the borscht.
Michaś explained the importance of fermentation in Polish cuisine: Historically, Poland has been a poor land of hardscrabble peasants. Nourishment is a perennial challenge. And in a place with harsh winters, fermentation preserves nutrition — and, in some cases, actually increases the levels of important vitamins. (All that fermentation is why Polish cooking has such abundant umami flavors.)
When it was time for the vodka, Michaś explained the procedure: First, you eat a bite of bread with lard. Then the shot. And finally, the pickle. This routine is rooted in science more than superstition: The fat in the lard coats the digestive tract; the acidity and mineral salt of the pickle replace those killed by the alcohol; and both bites mask the burn of the vodka.
Strolling through a park to our next stop, we talked about the importance of thick, hearty soups in a peasant culture. These allow poor people to nourish their families, even if they lack protein. Most Polish soups are thickened with flour, cream, or chunks of vegetables — replacing the substantial-ness that would normally be provided by meat. “You could say that Poles were vegetarians — not by choice, but by circumstance,” Michaś said.
In olden times, meat was a major status symbol in Poland. That’s why Poles still sprinkle little fried chunks of bacon fat on just about every dish. Rather than hide it inside the dish, they perch their paltry protein on top for all to see.
Our next stop was a trendy foodie restaurant that takes some of the traditional recipes we’d just tasted, and modernizes them. Speaking of fermentation, they have an entire wall with jars of fermented produce, which looks a demented chef’s chemistry experiment.
The server brought out a plate of individually labeled sausages and cheeses. Now, there’s “Polish sausage”…and then there’s Polish sausage. And this sausage was delicious. Michaś gave me a guided tour through the subtle flavor differences of each one, as if sampling wines: Lightly smoked. Garlic. Marjoram. Peppercorns. Juniper. He explained why Poles smoke their ham hocks, rather than air-curing them, as in Mediterranean lands: It’s simply too wet here.
And he explained how the best sausage actually came about during the lean communist times. Back then, people had to raise their own livestock to supplement the paltry, poor-quality, government-rationed foodstuffs. (Most of the official production of Polish pork was exported. “The only things you’d find in a grocery store,” Michaś half-joked, “was shelves and vinegar. And sometimes mustard.”) Raising your own pig became a cottage industry…“farm to table” in the most literal sense.
In the spirit of “let them eat cake,” Michaś pointed out what really brought down the USSR: For most of the front-line protesters here in Poland, it wasn’t about political philosophy, or economic -isms, or craving democracy and freedom. At the end of the day, it was about feeding your family. If the communist system had succeeded in providing for all of its people, it may well still be the law of the land.
Since the end of communism, people can buy sausage in supermarkets rather than raising and butchering their own pigs. And so, traditional, organic, locally rooted farming has given way to modernized factory farms. These days, pigs are grown as big as possible, and pork is pumped with brine before it hits the supermarket. Poles may not be nostalgic for much from communism — but they do miss the delicious kielbasa from that age.
Our next stop was Bibenda, a hip bar with clever fusion food. The chefs pride themselves on deconstructing Polish classics, then reinventing them by pulling in elements from comparable dishes in other cultures. Digging into our dish — a reinvention of the Polish cabbage roll (gołąbki), but wrapped in a grape leaf — Michaś pointed out the subtle and surprising Turkish connection to Polish cuisine.
In the 17th century, when much of Eastern Europe feared the Ottomans, Poland maintained relatively good diplomatic relations with the sultan. (Even during the Partitions — when the state of Poland was divided among its neighbors, formally ceasing to exist — the Ottomans continued to recognize the Polish ambassador.) And to this day, Polish cooking retains a few surprising echoes of that history: Cinnamon. Raisins. Apricots. And what is the classic Polish cabbage roll, but a supersized version of the Turkish dolma (stuffed grape leaves) with a more locally sourced wrapper?
One of the themes in Polish history is that this vast, flat land — smack in between powerful neighbors Germany and Russia — has always been a crossroads of mighty civilizations. And you can taste that cultural mingling in the food. For example, Polish cooking uses more celery and cauliflower than its surrounding nations. That’s because, in the 16th century, King Sigismund the Old had a young Italian bride, who imported this Mediterranean produce to her new homeland.
And what about that quintessential Polish staple, pierogi? They’re so similar to Asian dumplings. (Think about it: The main difference between gyoza and pierogi is the seasoning.) Maybe that’s because pierogi arrived in Poland in the 13th century — exactly when the Tatars rode from Asia, all the way across the steppes of Russia, to ransack the Polish countryside.
Enjoying the last few bites of our meal, Michaś grows philosophical. “Of course, many cultures respect bread. Especially poor countries, where bread is the staple that keeps you alive. But here in Poland — so historically poor, and so very Catholic — it’s actually revered. Remember, bread is considered the body of Christ. Fifty years ago, people would remove their hats in the presence of bread. And they’d make the sign of the cross over a loaf of bread before cutting into it. Even to this day, if you drop a piece of bread on the floor, many traditional Poles kiss it before throwing it away.”
“In French, they have a style called à la polonaise — “Polish-style” — with buttered bread crumbs. That’s because Poles are determined to use the very last little bits of bread to its fullest. It’s not because Poles are cheap, but because we’ve had to make do with less, at many points in our history. There’s a local saying: Zastaw się, a postaw się…roughly, ‘Go in debt, but provide.’ Being poor is no excuse for not feeding your family.”
Many Poles still bake their own sourdough bread, using bacteria cultures more than a century old. In this modern age, there are online message boards to arrange for someone to “feed” your sourdough starter when you’re on vacation.
I asked Michaś about my favorite polish dish, bigos. Sometimes translated as “hunters’ stew,” this is a thick, rich, and incredibly flavorful mix of sauerkraut, mushrooms, sausage, and any kind of meat available. “It’s like American chili,” Michaś said. “There’s no one recipe; everyone makes it their own way. Even the ingredients can change — whatever protein you have available, you can put in the pot.” Also like chili, bigos tastes better the next day…or the day after that. Traditionally, you’d make a pot of bigos to use up any leftovers after your Christmas feast. After a long simmer, you’d put the pot outside to freeze overnight, then bring it in again to thaw. Sometimes you’d do this for many days — freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw — each time rupturing the cells of the plant matter inside, breaking down and marrying all the flavors. By the time it’s done, it’s incredibly delicious.
Nearing the end of our tour, I asked Michaś about the state of Polish cuisine today. “Many of the things we’re discussing today — the importance of bread; fermentation; hearty soups; and so on — are beginning to fade away to some degree, as modern life is changing our eating habits. On the other hand, artisanal, traditional foods are on the upswing. Many thirtysometings and fortysomethings — who came to the cities for work in the years after communism — are giving up on the rat race, moving to the countryside, and dedicating themselves to reviving these old customs. So I do have hope for the future of Polish cuisine.”
I heartily concur. After a few hours with Michaś in Warsaw, now when I bite into a Polish dish, I can practically taste Tatars and Turks shaping Poland; I can taste hardworking peasants cultivating a barren countryside; and I can taste a deep, soulful national pride that goes beyond salt and pepper.
If you’re inspired by the idea of using food as a way to better appreciate a place’s history and culture, you might enjoy my “Europe for Foodies” talk. I’ll be presenting this class next Saturday, March 3, at our Travel Center in Edmonds, WA (free for anyone in the Seattle area). If you can’t make it, check out my class handout. (Later this spring, we’ll be adding a video version of this talk to our Travel Talks page…stay tuned! In the meantime, you can watch Rick’s travel talk about eating in Europe.)
And, of course, the best food tours we discover — in Poland, or anywhere in Europe — go straight into our Rick Steves guidebook series.