Polish food has a hearty, homemade feel, and when it's done well, it can be delicious. It's similar to other Central European national cuisines in that it's centered on main courses of mostly meat dishes and features plenty of hearty soups and sides of potatoes and grains. Game dishes, such as venison, boar, and duck, play a more prominent role here than in the United States or Western Europe. Poles also have a mania for mushrooms, the best being those picked in the forest that morning.
Visitors to Poland will be happy to see that traditional pierogi are still going strong. These hand-rolled dumplings are stuffed with everything from potato and cottage cheese to cabbage, from ground meat to even plums or strawberries in season. Pierogi are traditionally prepared by boiling in water, though they can also be baked or fried. Pierogi with savory fillings, such as cheese and meat, are traditionally topped with fried onions or bacon bits; fruit pierogi are best eaten with butter or cream.
Pierogi have lots to recommend them. For one thing, they're often the cheapest item on the menu, making them tailor-made budget food. They are also extremely flexible, and can be eaten as a snack or as a main course, for lunch or dinner. They also make a great option for vegetarians; just be sure to tell them to hold the bacon bits they sometimes pour on top. Pierogi prepared "Ruskie" style are meatless, stuffed with potatoes and cottage cheese.
Placki, potato pancakes, are nearly as ubiquitous and delicious as pierogi, and are often cooked with mushrooms or smoked meat.
Polish meals generally begin with an appetizer, which can be either cold (przekaski zimne) or warm (przekaski gorace). Among the former, herring (sledz), usually served in a sour cream sauce and piled with chopped onions, is invariably a good choice. Other popular cold starters include stuffed fish or pâté (pasztet). Hot starters can include pierogi or a piece of homemade sausage (kiebasa).
Soups (zupy) are a mainstay of a Polish meal. Zurek is a filling, sourish rye broth, seasoned with dill and usually served with sausage and egg. Barszcz is based on red beets, but it isn't exactly "borscht." In Poland, it's usually served as a broth, often with a little pastry on the side. Bigos, often called "hunter's stew" on English menus, is another national mania and is made from sauerkraut and smoked meat, and often flavored with caraway seeds or juniper berries. Every Polish grandmother has her own version, and local lore says the homemade variety tastes best on the seventh reheating!
Main courses are less original and often revolve around chicken, pork, or beef, though game (usually venison or boar) and fish (pike and trout) are also common. Sides (dodatki) usually involve some form of potato, fried or boiled, or sometimes fried potato dumplings. More creative sides include buckwheat groats (kasza) or mashed beets, the latter sometimes flavored with apple. Common desserts include fruit pierogi; apple pie (szarlotka); the ubiquitous ice cream (lody); and pancakes, sometimes filled with cottage cheese and served with fruit sauce.
Breakfast is taken early and is often no more than a cup of tea or instant coffee, and a bread roll. Hotels usually lay on the traditional buffet-style breakfast centered on cold cuts, cheeses, yogurts, and cereals, but this is more than what Poles normally eat in the morning. Lunches are served late, around 1 or 2pm, and restaurants don't usually get rolling until about 1pm. Dinner starts around 7pm and can run until 9 or 10pm, though restaurants often claim to stay open "until the last customer." Some actually do stay open late, but many kitchens start closing down after 10pm, so get there early to avoid disappointment.
Barszcz or barszcz czerwony -- A clear broth made from beetroot, sometimes comes with pasta pieces.
Barszcz ukrainski -- White borscht.
Bigos -- Hunter's stew made from pickled cabbage, sausage, and sometimes game meat.
Bryndza -- A soft cheese made from sheep's milk.
Chodnik -- A summer cold soup; pink, creamy, and made from young beets.
Cwika z chrzanem -- A slightly sharp condiment made from beetroot and horseradish served with meats and cold cuts.
Goabki -- Cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, minced meat, and sometimes mushroom. A Polish version of the Greek dolma.
Grochówka -- Bean soup, sometimes served with sausage.
Jajecznica -- Scrambled eggs.
Kajmak -- A thick and sweet light brown mixture made from milk and sugar. It is often added to cakes, tarts, and mazurek.
Kapusniak -- A very sour pickled cabbage soup.
Kartoflanka -- Potato soup.
Kawa po turecku -- Poland's rendition of Turkish-style coffee where coffee grounds are added to a glass and hot water is poured directly on top.
Kisiel -- A jelly-like dessert made from milk and corn or potato starch.
Knedle -- A steamed bread bun. The sweet version is stuffed with prunes (z sliwkami).
Kompot -- A syrupy drink made from boiled fruit.
Kopytka -- A kind of potato dumpling that is similar to gnocchi.
Kotlet Schabowy -- A breaded pork cutlet that is a national staple.
Krupnik -- A clear soup made from barley, it often comes with boiled vegetables and chunks of meat.
Leniwe pierogi -- Similar to kopytka but made with cottage cheese, usually a dessert.
Makowiec -- A sweet poppy seed roll, usually a Christmas and Easter treat but available year-round.
Mazurek -- A dessert for Easter, but available year-round. The shortcrust pastry is topped with kajmak or chocolate and decorated with dried fruit.
Mizeria -- A salad of thinly sliced cucumbers dressed with cream and dill.
Nalesniki z serem -- Pancakes filled with cottage cheese.
Nalewka -- Vodka infused with fruits, nuts, spices, or herbs.
Oscypek -- Smoked cheese from the Tatry region, usually made from a combination of sheep's and cow's milk.
Pierogi -- Dumplings, usually filled with minced meat, cabbage, and mushroom. Sweet versions are stuffed with seasonal fruit such as strawberries (z truskawkami) and blueberries (z jadodami).
Pierogi "Ruskie" -- A savory pierogi stuffed with potato and cottage cheese and served with fried onions.
Pyzy -- Steamed bread bun.
Racuchy -- Fruit fritters; the most traditional is made from apples.
Rosó -- A clear chicken broth.
Sztuka miesa -- Literally, it means a piece of meat. It's normally boiled pork or beef, served plain with sauce.
Zrazy zawijane -- Beef roulade, normally filled with a mixture of vegetables, bacon, and mushrooms.
Zurek -- A sourish soup made from fermented rye. Often comes with potatoes and sausage.
Poles are big snackers, and the latest mania is for Middle Eastern and Greek snack foods such as chicken and meat shawarma and kebabs. You'll find dozens of stands and windows serving some variation of a sandwich based on shaved meat, tomatoes, onions, and plenty of mayo. Pizza is also ubiquitous, and no self-respecting Polish city or town would be complete without at least half a dozen pizza restaurants of varying quality. Look also for zapiekanki -- foot-long, open-faced baguettes, topped with sauce and cheese and then baked. It's known affectionately as "Polish pizza."
In addition to the "mom and pop" places, the big international fast food chains have made inroads. The big players in Poland are McDonald's and KFC, and you'll invariably find one or the other (often both) in city centers and train stations. Polish domestic chains are also becoming more common. The best known is probably Sphinx, which seems to have an outlet in every city in the country. The specialty is fairly mediocre Middle Eastern-style food, served in a smoke-free, family-friendly atmosphere. It's easy to criticize the chains, but they can be a lifesaver if you're looking for something fast and reliable.
Vodka & Beer
While Poles may be best known for their vodka, it is in fact beer that's the national drink. You'll find the major beer brands -- Okocim, Lech, Tyskie, and Zywiec -- just about everywhere. There's little difference among the majors, and they are all pretty good, though Tyskie appears to be the most popular. Men take theirs straight up. Women frequently sweeten their beer with fruit syrup (raspberry is the most common) and drink it through a straw. Among the most popular vodkas, Belvedere and Chopin are considered top-shelf, though imported vodkas are increasingly squeezing out the local brands. In addition, you'll find a range of flavored vodkas, including highly popular cherry. Zubrówka is slightly greenish, owing to the long blade of bison grass in every bottle. Miodówka, honey-flavored and easy to drink, is worth a try. Wine is much less common, and nearly always imported.