What's on the menu? What to eat in Poland
Poles take their meals following the standard continental schedule: a light breakfast in the morning (usually some sandwiches with tea/coffee), then a larger lunch (or traditionally a "dinner") at around 13:00-14:00, then a supper at around 19:00.
For the most part, Polish restaurants and bars do not include gratuity in the total of the check, so your server will be pleased if you leave them a tip along with the payment. On average, you should tip 10% of the total bill. If you tip 15% or 20%, you probably should have received excellent service. Also, saying "Dziękuję" ("thank you") after paying means you do not expect any change back, so watch out if you're paying for a 10 zł coffee with a 100 zł bill. With all that said, many Poles may not leave a tip, unless service was exceptional. Poles don't usually tip bar staff.
It is not difficult to avoid meat, with many restaurants offering at least one vegetarian dish. Most major cities have some exclusively vegetarian restaurants, especially near the city centre. Vegan options remain extremely limited, however.
Traditional local food
Traditional Polish cuisine tends to be hearty, rich in meats, sauces, and vegetables; sides of pickled vegetables are a favourite accompaniment. Modern Polish cuisine, however, tends towards greater variety, and focuses on healthy choices. In general, the quality of "store-bought" food is very high, especially in dairy products, baked goods, vegetables and meat products.
A dinner commonly includes the first course of soup, followed by the main course. Among soups, barszcz czerwony(red beet soup, also known as borscht) is perhaps the most recognizable: a spicy and slightly sour soup, served hot. It's commonly poured over dumplings (barszcz z uszkami orbarszcz z pierogami), or served with a fried pate roll (barszcz z pasztecikiem). Other uncommon soups includezupa ogórkowa, a cucumber soup made of a mix of fresh and pickled cucumbers; zupa grzybowa, typically made with wild mushrooms; also, flakior flaczki - well-seasoned tripe. The most common in restaurants is theżurek, a sour-rye soup served with traditional Polish sausage and a hard-boiled egg.
Pierogi are, of course, an immediately recognizable Polish dish. They are often served along side another dish (for example, with barszcz), rather than as the main course. There are several types of them, stuffed with a mix of cottage cheese and onion, or with meat or even wild forest fruits.Gołąbki are also widely known: they are large cabbage rolls stuffed with a mix of grains and meats, steamed or boiled and served hot with a white sauce or tomato sauce.
Bigos is another unique, if less well-known, Polish dish: a "hunter's stew" that includes various meats and vegetables, on a base of pickled cabbage. Bigos tends to be very thick and hearty. Similar ingredients can also be thinned out and served in the form of a cabbage soup, calledkapuśniak. Some Austro-Hungarian imports have also become popular over the years, and adopted by the Polish cuisine. These includegulasz, a local version of goulash that's less spicy than the original, andsznycel po wiedeńsku, which is a traditional schnitzel, often served with potatoes and a selection of vegetables.
When it comes to food-on-the-go, foreign imports tend to dominate (such as kebab or pizza stands, and fast-food franchises). An interesting Polish twist is a zapiekanka, which is an open-faced baguette, covered with mushrooms and cheese (or other toppings of choice), and toasted until the cheese melts. Zapiekanki can be found at numerous roadside stands and bars. In some bars placki ziemniaczane (polish potato pancakes) are also available. Knysza is a polish version of hamburger, but it's much (much) bigger and it contains beef, variety of vegetables and sauces.Drożdżówka is a popular sweet version of food-on-the-go, which is a sweet yeast bread (sometimes in a form of kolach) or a pie filled with stuffing made of: poppy seed mass; vanilla, chocolate, coconut or advocaat pudding; baked apples; cocoa mass; sweet curd cheese or fruits.
Poland is also known for two unique cheeses, both made by hand in the [Podhale] mountain region in the south.Oscypek is the more famous: a hard, salty cheese, made of unpasteurized sheep milk, and smoked (or not). It goes very well with alcoholic beverages such as beer. The less common is bryndza, a soft cheese, also made with sheep milk (and therefore salty), with a consistency similar to spreadable cheeses. It's usually served on bread, or baked potatoes. Both cheeses are covered by the EU Protected Designation of Origin (like the French Roquefort, or the Italian Parmegiano-Reggiano).
Polish bread is sold in bakeries (piekarnia in Polish) and shops and it's a good idea to ask on what times it can be bought hot (in a bakery). Poles are often very attached to their favourite bread suppliers and don't mind getting up very early in the morning to obtain a fresh loaf. The most common bread (zwykły) is made of rye or rye and wheat flour with sourdough and is best enjoyed very fresh with butter alone or topped with a slice of ham. Many other varieties of breads and bread rolls can be bought and their names and recipes vary depending on a region. Sweet Challah bread (chałka in Polish) is sold in many bakeries.
Polish cake shops (cukiernia) are also worth mentioning, as there's a big tradition of eating cakes in Poland. There can be found in every city and quite often sell local specialities. The standard cakes and desserts which can be found in every region of Poland are: cheesecake (sernik), applecake (jabłecznik), yeast fruit cakes (drożdżówka) - especially with plums or strawberries, a variety of cream cakes (kremówki),babka which is a plain sweet cake, sometimes with an addition of cocoa, mazurek, fale dunaju, metrowiec,ciasto jogurtowe which is a sponge filled with yoghurt mousse, doughnuts (pączki) which are traditionally filled with wild rose petals marmalade,pszczółka - a yeast cake with coconut pudding and many others.
Polish sausages (kiełbasy) are sold in grocery shops or in butcher's shops (rzeźnik). There are tens of different types of sausages; most of them can be enjoyed without any further preparation. Therefore there are sausages like biała kiełbasa (traditionally enjoyed in żurek orbarszcz biały soup) which are raw and need to be boiled, fried or baked before eating. Some sausages are recommended to be fried or roasted over a bonfire (which is probably as popular as barbecuing). Different local sausages can be found in different regions of Poland (likeLisiecka in Kraków area).
Polish fish & chips (smażalnia ryb) can be found in most cities on the Baltic Sea coast. On the coast and in the Masuria you can also find extremely valued in Poland fish smokehouses (wędzarnia ryb) which sell many types of smoked local fish (mostly marine fish on the coast, freshwater fish in Masuria). Smokehouses might turn out very difficult to find, as they don't usually display advertisments and are sometimes located in some remote areas. It is a good idea to do some investigation and to ask local people for directions and help with searching. Among smoked fish offered for sale you can find: salmon (łosoś), cod (dorsz), flounder (flądra), rose fish (karmazyn), herring (śledź), halibut (halibut), pollock (mintaj), hake (morszczuk), mackerel (makrela), skipper (szprotki, szprot), trout (pstrąg), brown trout (troć), eel (węgorz), zander (sandacz), carp (karp), vendace (sielawa), tencz (lin), bream (leszcz), sturgeon (jesiotr), asp (boleń) and others. You should be careful with smoked butterfish (maślana) as despite being very delicious it can cause diarrhea in some people and shouldn't be eaten by children and elderly people.
In the whole Poland territory you can buy some smoked fish, among which the most popular is mackerel (it is advised to buy it in a busy shop for full, fresh flavour as it deteriorates quickly; for example in a local market). Also anywhere in Poland you can buy herrings in vinegar or oil marinade. One of the Polish favourites is battered herring or other fish in a vinegar marinade.
If you want to eat cheaply, you should visit a milk bar (bar mleczny). A milk bar is a very basic sort of fast food restaurant that serves cheap Polish fare. Nowadays it has become harder and harder to find one. They were invented by the communist authorities of Poland in mid-1960s as a means to offer cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. Its name originates from the fact that until late 1980s the meals served there were mostly dairy-made and vegetarian (especially during the martial law period of the beginning of the 1980s, when meat was rationed). The milk bars are usually subsidized by the state. Eating there is a unique experience - it is not uncommon that you will encounter people from various social classes - students, businessmen, university professors, elderly people, sometimes even homeless, all eating side-by-side in a 1970s-like environment. Presumably, it is the quality of food at absolutely unbeatable price (veggie main courses starting from just a few złoty!) that attracts people. However, a cautionary warning needs to be issued - complete nutjobs do dine at milk bars too, so even if you're going for the food, you'll end up with dinner and a show. Curious as to what the show will entail? Well, each show varies, but most of them will leave you scratching your head and require the suspension of disbelief.
Written by The Travel Valet
Photo Courtesy of Foto Polska