You are planning a trip to Poland ? Or maybe you are just curious of what Polish cuisine could be ? Here is a subjective though complete guide to Polish food for beginners !
As I was explaining to you in the introductory post, polish food is various and joyful. It’s very different from the classical “gastronomy” type of food because what Polish people eat every day is the same thing that will be served in restaurants. Contrary to, let’s say french cuisine, where everyday food is really different from restaurant food. In Poland this difference doesn’t exist, even though restaurants tend to innovate and serve traditional but remixed dishes. If you are planning a trip to Poland, or if you are just curious to discover polish food, read the rest of the article !
POLISH CUISINE: Traditions
Polish culinary traditions have evolved a lot because of all the changes that occurred in the country’s history. Polish borders changed throughout the past because of several occupations, wars and treaties. During those geographical evolutions, polish culture was strongly influenced by foreign cultures: eastern culture (Tatar culture for example), russian culture, german, french, italian and jewish. Italian culture strongly influenced polish cuisine thanks to Bona Sforza, who was married to the King Sigismund the Old in the 16th century. For example, she introduced fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, cauliflower or red cabbage which have been very popular ever since. In Poland, there are a lot of regional dishes, because there were many nationalities among the country, each having its traditions.
When mentionning eating habits, I think it’s important to mention how and at what time people eat. We universally know that english people tend to eat early, and spanish people eat later. For Poland, it’s a bit tricky, because these habits have changed a lot in the past decades with the evolution of the work day. People used to eat a very quick lunch around 11 and then a big “dinner” around 4 or 5. Now, people eat more at western times, breakfast in the morning, lunch around 12am and 1pm and a dinner around 7 or 8 pm. Therefore, if you want to go to a restaurant for lunch, you should try to go there between 12am and 2pm. It is very likely that a lot of places will close early in the afternoon !
Classic elements of Polish cuisine
Polish food is based on a few elements that are sometimes very different from other cuisines:
Potato: generally cooked in water and mashed (without adding milk) with baby dill spread on top of it (according to what people like). The potato is used as a side dish as well as a dish on its own with “placki ziemniaczane*” (see below).
Cabbage: exists in all its forms – raw, hot, in soups, as garnish… You will find it in “pierogis*” as a garnish or in “bigos*” as the main ingredient.
Pickles: usually marinated. You will find them in a salad, raw as a side dish for the “Smalec*” or in a soup, like the traditional cucumber soup for example.
Buckwheat: Like the potato, buckwheat is a traditional side dish for a meat dish for example but can also be found in soups or “pierogis*”.
*All the dishes I am mentionning are present in the list below
POLISH CUISINE: Dishes
Polish culinary habits
Like in every country, polish cuisine has its specificities that may surprise you ! The first one is a salted breakfast. Those of you who are used to sweet things for breakfast will have to adapt because in Poland we eat generally sandwiches with ham or cheese with a tomato or a cucumber on top ! Personnally, this is my favourite type of breakfast, not too sweet and big enough to prevent from being hangry before lunchtime.
Among particularities of polish food, we can certainly count salted jelly with fish or meat that is served mainly for christmas eve dinner. It looks very funny, and I have always rather liked playing with it than eating it!
For those who, like me, don’t feel ready for meat jelly, there is one last surprising dish in Poland: horseradish. It is a white paste that looks a little bit like white wasabi. It is made from the roots of horseradish, a plant of the cabbage family. It has a bitter, but appreciated taste, and it is used to spice up some dishes or salads, like the beetroots salad for example.
Smalec | Lard | Read “Smaletz”
Ingredients: porc fat, onions, bacon
Smalec is served cold, on a piece of bread with pickles.
Śledzie | Harengs | Read: “Shlege”
Ingredients: Henrengs, spices
This dish is served cold, with a mustard or dill sauce.
Sałatka z kapusty | Cabbage salad | Read: “Sawatka z kapusti”
Ingredients (can change): cabbage, tomatoes, pickles, apples, green or red peppers…
This salad is served as a side dish with harengs, or meats like sausages and ham.
Kabanosy | Small sausages | Read “Kabanosi”
Ingredients: porc or poultry meat
Are served cold, to eat alone or with bread and/or salad.
Szynka | Cooked ham | Read “Chinka”
Ingredients: porc meat
Served cold, to eat alone or with bread and/or salad.
Kielbasa | Sausage | Read “Kiewbasa”
Ingredient: porc meat
Served cold, to eat alone or with bread and/or salad.
Żurek | Sour soup | Read “Jurek”
Ingredients: Rye flour (or preparation for Zurek), spices, sausage, potatoes, carrots…
This is a very traditional soup, that is often served in an old bread at the restaurant. It’s a very funny soup to eat, and I recommend it very much as it has an original taste and you’ll find it everywhere!
Barszcz czerwony | Beetroot soup | Read “Barshtsh tshervoni”
Ingredients: Beetroots, cream, spices
The Beetroot soup is a very traditional and popular soup, served mainly for Christmas Eve. But as it’s so popular, you can find it in every Polish restaurant. Don’t hesitate to try it out as it probably would be your first time eating a beetroot soup !
Zupa ogórkowa | Pickles soup | Read “Zupa ogurkova”
Ingredients: Water, spices, pickles, carrots, cream, potatoes
Oh, here is another very original soup that you’ll probably won’t taste anywhere else. This is an everyday soup made out of the marinated pickles that are very characteristic for Polish cuisine. Personnally, one of my favourites and the only one I am able to make from scratch ! As it is not one of the most well known soups, you won’t find it everywhere, but I know that the “Chłopskie Jadło” chain of restaurants serves it.
Kotlet mielony | Porc meatballs | Read “Kotlet mieloni”
Ingredients: Porc or beef meat, bread, spices, oignons
This is the basics of everyday Polish cuisine. These meatballs are the most commonly eaten form of meat. It is served hot, of course, and with hot beetroots and potatoes.
Kotlet schabowy | Côtelettes de porc | Read “Cotlet s-habovi”
Ingredients: Porc meat
This is the second very well known type of meat in Poland, also served with potatoes and beetroots. You’ll find it everywhere, so don’t be afraid to try it out !
Bigos | Cabbage stew | Read “Begos”
Ingredients: Pickled cabbage, sausage, tomato sauce
Bigos is considered as THE traditional polish meal. It is generally served on Christmas Day, and is very delicious. Just for the story, it takes 3 full days to cook it, so that the cabbage gets really soft and tender. All the non-polish people that I know have tried it now love it, so you definately have to try it out when you visit Poland.
Gołąbki | Stuffed cabbage | Read “Gowombki”
Ingredients: Cabbage, rice, meat, tomato soup
This is another everyday and traditional dish. As you may have realized now, cabbage is one of the central ingredient in Polish cuisine. This dish is served warm and with tomate sauce on the side. You can find it in several restaurants, but you are sure to find it in a traditional milkbar. Cheap and tasty !
Pierogi | Polish Raviolis | Read : “Pierogi”
Ingredients: Dough, cabbage, beef meat, oignons…
Here is the most well known polish dish. Served warm, it looks like a ravioli stuffed with many different possible things. The most common are meat pierogis, cabbage and mushroom pierogies and russian pierogi (with oignons and potato). You can find them everywhere, at every price so don’t hesitate because it would be a shame to miss them !
Placki ziemniaczane | Potato pancakes | Read “Platzki jemniatshani”
Ingredients: Potato, eggs, oignons
Potato pancakes are a traditional everyday food, served maily for dinner (but not always). You can find sweet versions of these potato pancakes with sugar on top or salty versions with meat for example. You will find them everywhere, especially in milkbars.
Gulasz | Beef Stew | Read “Goulash”
Ingredients: beef, oignons, tomato, spices
Ogirinally from Hungary, the Goulash integrated the polish traditions due to political alliances throughout history. This dish is served with mash potato or potato pancakes (see above).
Kielbasa z grilla | Grilled sausage | Read :” Kiewbasa z grila”
Ingredients: grilled porc sausage
The grilled sausage is a classic meal from summer (or winter) in Poland. It’s generally served with bread and mustard and is a big part of summer picnics and campfires. You can find them is some restaurants, mainly in the summer or at christmas markets.
In this list I included only “national” dishes that you will find in most restaurants. There are, of course, many other dishes with fish or meat, that are served maily on special events or occasions, which would be much more difficult to find everywhere. This way, you have a list of dishes that are, according to me, a must of polish food in any region you can visit. For a more detailed list of regional dishes, take a look at the articles that cover Cracow, Zakopane or Warsaw !
Nalesniki z serem | Cottage cheese pancakes | Read: “Naleshniki z serem”
Ingredients: pankaces, cottage cheese, cream
This is a desert that will always remind me of my childhood. Cottage cheese pancakes are a classic of school cantines. This desert is very traditional but so tasty ! You can find it in every milkbar and some restaurants. Unfortunately, pancakes are not always considered as a “classy” dish, not all restaurants sell them. Cottage cheese pancakes are served warm with cream – so good !
Makowiec | Poppy seed cake | Read “Makovietz”
Ingredients: poppy seed, cake, raisins
The poppy seed cake is very popular in the whole eastern Europe. This is an everyday cake, very tasty that can be served in all occasions. This is a must to try – very original !
Szarlotka | Apple pie | Read “Sharlotka”
Ingredients: apple, dough, cinnamon (not always)
This is another cake from my childhood ! From all polish deserts, this is I think the most traditional and well known. It is served warm, with a bit of ice cream and whipped cream. The polish apple pie will please everyone !
Sernik | Polish Cheesecake | Read “Sernik”
Ingredients: cottage cheese, raisins, spices, orange peel
The sernik is a very traditional and original cake as it is made of sweet cottage cheese. It can taste a little bit like american cheescake but it’s a bit thicker. The older it gets, the better is tastes !
Napoleonka | Butter-cream cake | Lire “Napoleonka”
Ingredients: puff pastry, cream, butter
As its name indicates, Napoleonka was said to be brought to Poland by the French Emperor. It combines the crisp of the puff pastry and the sweetness of butter and cream. You will find this cake mainly in the region of Warsaw but if you want to try it elsewhere, don’t hesitate to ask people around to know where you might find it !
Favorki | Angel wings | Read “Favorki”
Ingredients: dough, sugar
This desert is a classic of the Carnival period (february) and you will find them in every place in Poland, but not always under the same name ! Also called “chrusty” (read “hrusti”), you will find them in all the bakeries but not in all the restaurants. Either way, it’s much nicer to take them to go and wander around the city eating something sweet !
As far as beverages are concerned, I won’t write about the most traditional ones: tea, coffee, vodka, soft drinks etc… Just know, that in traditional Polish cuisine, tea is very important ! People drink it all the time, even with lunch !
Nevertheless, I would like to talk to you about a beverage that you will rarely see in the restaurants, but which you can stumble upon in milk bars. It’s “kompot” which is an infusion of fruits into warm water. It’s very nice, especially in cold winter days when drinking cold water may seem cruel ! Don’t hesitate to try it if you see it on the menu !
POLISH CUISINE: Restaurants
If you like to eat, and eat well (which is probably the case if you are willing to read an entire article about food), you will be pleased in Poland ! Comparing to other european countries, polish restaurants are generally cheaper (they can be up to two times cheaper)! Like everywhere, high end restaurants are pricy, but there are more affordable in Poland than anywhere else I’ve been and the quality of the food and of the service is the same. To give you a price range, I would say that a dinner in a nice restaurant for two people will cost 40 to 50€ for a three course meal ! Vacations in Poland can be a good opportunity to treat yourself with a dinner in a fancy restaurant for an affordable price.
For those of you who want to take advantage of the low prices to organize a really low-cost trip, don’t be afraid, there are plenty of restaurants and places that sell great food for €10-15 per person (or even less) for a meal + something to drink + dessert. You’ll find all my favourite places to eat in Warsaw, Zakopane or Cracow in the dedicated posts soon !
There are a few things to know when going to restaurants in Poland:
* Contrary to some European countries, it’s not possible to ask for tap water, so you will have to buy something to drink if you want it.
* In Poland, tips are not compulsory (contrary to North America), but it’s always nice to give a little bit to show the waiter/waitress that you enjoyed their work.
* Last but not least, not all waiters know how to speak english, so be patient and nice and try to learn a few words** to help the communication !
** SOON ON THE BLOG 🙂
The Milkbar is a modern version of sovietic “cafeterias” that were created in the begining of the XXth century where people could have a cheap and warm lunch during the day. This kind od “self service” restaurants sell traditionnal food, generally home made and at very low prices. So if you want to eat a soup or pierogies for cheap, the milk bar is the place to go ! You can find them in most of the large polish cities. In the past these restaurants were sometimes a bit gloomy and had a “canteen” design, but now more and more of them changed to have a more modern and even “hispterish” look and atmosphere. The name “milkbar” refers to the fact that the first restaurants of that sort were serving food that was made out of water, milk and flour, like pierogis ! With time, milk bars have started to sell dishes with meat. Now they serve almost every traditionnal polish dish. The first milk bar opened on the Nowy Swiat street in 1896 and was so successful that soon, such restaurants opened in the whole country.
Apart from the fact that milkbars serve traditional home made dishes for a very low price (around three times less than a classic restaurant), there are a few things to know before going to a milkbar.
Today, there are two types of milkbars: the traditionnal ones and the more “hipsterish” ones. the prices in the more modern types of milkbars are higher but the service is more present (if you order at the counter the waiter will bring your food to your place) and there are a big chance that the employees of the restaurant will speak english. On the other hand, if you decide to go to the more traditional milkbar, take the time to decide what you want to order and practice how to pronounce the names of the dish you want thanks to the dish list above. Most of the time the waiters have to hurry because there are a lot of people, and they can’t take the time to make sure to understand what you want 100% properly. It might seem a big effort, but thanks to that you’ll have amazing food for a great price! For example, a soup costs betweek 6 and 10 zlotys, which is €1,5-2,5 or zl25-30 for the whole meal (soup+dish+dessert) which is arount €6 to €8 !
Another important thing, milkbars opened mainly for people who wanted to have a warm lunch during the day. Therefore the opening hours are traditional (as I was explaining above). That’s why most milkbars would close at 8PM. So if you decide on going to a milkbar for dinner, make sure to be hungry early !
All milkbars are different, but I think you can go there without a single doubt. Even if the service and the design of the restaurant is not always what you usually see, the food is great, home made and really not expensive ! For particular milkbars to go to, check out the articles on Warsaw, Cracow and Zakopane.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and that it allowed you to discover what the basics of polish cuisine was: joyful, simple and reaaaally tasty. It was a pleasure for me to introduce Polish food, which I love so much, to you! Don’t hesitate to ask your questions in the comments !
Attributions for the images – Not all the images in this article are mine, but all are license free.