Polish Summer Food Goes Way Beyond Cabbage and Potatoes

Poland isn't a dungeon of meat and starch, but a wonderland of strawberries, seafood, and locally sourced, seasonal produce. You've just got to know where—and when—to look.

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Jul 2 2015, 7:00pm

Shortly after I moved to Kraków from New York City, a Polish friend invited me to Easter brunch. I eagerly accepted: It would be my first Easter, and my first Polish family affair. I had questions about dress code, language barriers, and should I bring Hungarian chardonnay?

But I didn't put much thought into what we'd be eating. Growing up as a health nut in a Jewish family taught me life skills, such as feigning nausea when the chef demands: "Eat! Eat!" But nothing—not even pretending to like gefilte fish—could have prepared me for the spoonful of mayonnaise my friend's mother shoved in my mouth to illustrate a source of local culinary pride.

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All photos by the author.
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Moving to Eastern Europe in the winter, especially after the summer as a food co-op member in Brooklyn, was—to put it lightly—challenging. Seasonal was no longer a trend, the thing we do; instead, it was a lifestyle, the only thing. Gone were the days of organic salad and juice bars on every corner. Ready-made health food was unheard of. Until I became familiar with the culinary landscape—where to shop, when to go to the market, what to order—I feared Polish cuisine was only every buttery, meaty, starchy thing I spent years avoiding, or mystery goo.

My perception shifted through the winter season as I observed a wonderful tradition: traces of summer. Infused raspberry vodka. Rhubarb jam. Preserved plums. Dehydrated mushrooms. I learned that the best pickles are prepared with seasonal gherkins that peak from July through September. At first I longed for the ability to buy anything year-round, and occasionally I'd splurge on imported fruit, which never yielded the juicy freshness I craved. Then, the first local strawberries trickled in. They were small and blood red, and by May, it seemed every restaurant used them to infuse lemonade and stuff pierogi. There was no time to miss them once blueberries and raspberries appeared, among succulent cherries, currants, gooseberries, nectarines, and peaches.

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It's impossible to visit a friend in the summer without feasting on a giant bowl of fruit waiting in the kitchen. For good reason: one kilo of strawberries, for example, can be as cheap as 4 złoty (about $1) in season, compared to as much as 40 złoty (over $10) for Spanish winter imports. Produce started to belong to different times of the year; I relished the seasonal flavors that rivaled any freshness I'd known. My favorite restaurants served ephemeral asparagus and tomato dishes; raw, leafy salads solidified my vegetarian favorite, Karma.

On any given day above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a long line forms on Starowiślna Street in the historically Jewish neighborhood Kazimierz, where I live. Patient customers are waiting for one of Kraków's local favorites: seasonal ice cream so good that the shop needs no catchy name other than Lody na Starowiślnej (Ice Cream on Starowiślna), which transforms in the cooler months to Pączki, serving wild rosehip jam-filled doughnuts. This phenomenon still amazes me: how long people are willing to wait in line and how close locals stand to strangers (I need more personal space), but also—an observation I had years ago during my first Europe trip—the prevalence of childless adults strolling down the street with ice cream cones midday. It's the equivalent of green juice in New York City, coconuts with a straw in Southeast Asia.

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"Polish sweets aren't nearly as sweet as 'healthy' American candy," said my Polish-American friend Anna, who grew up between both countries. Eating sweets here, I slowly learned, didn't have the same guilty connotation we give it in the US. Living above one of the city's best bakeries, Vanilla, I soon embraced this. I saw the same locals sitting outdoors, feasting on fruit-topped cakes several days a week; I gawked at grown men ordering layered meringue pies—with whipped cream—after lunch. The colorful window display would tip me off to when new fruit was in season.

Loaves of bread that lasted a week during my childhood were a nightmarish myth to my Polish friends, repulsed and skeptical of anything "natural" that stayed "fresh" too long. In Poland, berries start molding after two days; bread might as well be pigeon food after day three. Suddenly, my obsession with reading labels and checking for preservatives (E220, anyone?) became less relevant. Still, I struggled with meat-heavy menus in landlocked Kraków, and longed for fresh seafood having always lived on a coast.

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A few weeks ago, the opportunity arose to visit northern Poland's Trójmiasto, the "Tri-City" Pomeranian region of Gdańsk, Sopot, and Gdynia on the Baltic Sea. I booked a $2.62 Ryanair flight from Warsaw, eager to spend the fare savings on regional Kashubian cuisine, dominated by local catches. I already knew I liked traditional śledź (herring) paired with wódka from late nights in Kraków, but I wanted boat-to-table fare; I wanted to taste that Polish beaches weren't an oxymoron.

Tipped off by a local, I wandered along the Gdańsk pier to Fishmarkt Restaurant & Bar, honoring the namesake of the Targ Rybny (Fish Market) dating back to 1343. Checkered blue tablecloths, vintage photographs of fisherman, and seaside views transported me to childhood Key West trips. When the aromatic house bouillabaisse was served, it challenged my notion of Polish food. I dug into the whole shrimp, unshelled mussels, and chunks of fresh catches that stewed in the crimson broth.

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For dinner the next evening, I feasted at nearby Tawerna Mestwin, tucked away from the waterfront on a cobblestone side street, barley and wheat hanging from the ceiling. Traditional Kashubian painted pottery and place settings were akin to the Poland I knew. While the ambiance was familiar, the unique floral patterns differed from the designs in Małopolska, the region where Kraków is located. There was also a distinction in my traditional potato pancake dish, topped with salmon goulash instead of the usual beef or pork.

I wondered: why does Polish food have such a bad rap? Then I Googled it.

"My idea of it was one of Communist-era stodge and greyness, of endless dumplings, sausage and cabbage a hundred ways," wrote Paul Richardson in a 2013 Financial Times piece on culinary trips to Pomerania. Polish culinary traditions hinge on its seasons, geography, and history.

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In a country that's nearly 25 percent forests, it's no surprise that wild produce and game shines on the menu. Today's Poland was divided and conquered by various empires and neighboring countries, thus impacting its culinary influences. In bigger cities like Kraków and Warsaw especially, government-subsidized bar mleczny (milk bar) cafeterias proliferated during the Communist era when food was rationed—humorously depicted in 1981 Polish cult film Miś with customers eating slop from spoons and bowls attached to the tables. Nowadays, during lunchtime at a no-frills bar mleczny, it's not uncommon to see businesspeople dining on decent, cheap food next to broke students and bums.

"I think once people start eating in Poles' homes, they will quickly realize it's not all cabbage and potatoes," said Mark Bradshaw, who founded EatAway with his wife Marta—think matchmaking for home-cooked meals with locals. "That's the myth actually perpetuated by much of the Polish restaurant scene, ironically!"

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With EatAway, the local host posts the time, place, menu, and price; guests sign up, pay, and feast. The couple was inspired during a trip when realizing that eating home-cooked food with locals would provide a much more authentic, meaningful experience than any restaurant could. Many hosts advertise healthy, organic menus, reflecting Poland's growing sensitivity to dietary restrictions.

Polish grub deserves more credit.

I'll give it just that next Easter when I wash down the mayonnaise dishes with my homemade cherry vodka.