The Best Traditional Polish Food That Isn’t Pierogi
Polish food is widely eaten around the world thanks to globalization and the many Poles living overseas. They bring with them their culture and glorious food. People think of traditional Polish food as being heavy, meat-and-veg type meals. The ones you want to enjoy in winter. This isn’t completely wrong. But how many traditional Polish dishes can you name that aren’t pierogi or kielbasa?
When I lived in Kraków, Poland, for three years, I discovered some of the lesser-known Polish dishes that are truly beloved by Polish people. Some are so special they have their own day. As someone with a major sweet tooth, I thought it only right to balance out this roundup with Polish desserts and cakes if you’re not looking for something quite so heavy.
>>Also read our guide on the top restaurants in Krakow!
The best way to try the traditional Polish dishes is with a local. Here are some great food tours in Krakow and other cities in Poland:
Pro Tip: Ask your guide for additional recommendation for his/her favorite restaurants that you should try during your time in Poland. Most food tour guides are really big foodies themselves, so they can show you the best restaurants in their city.
Polish Food – 10 Polish Dishes You Must Eat in Poland:
Pronounced guh-WAMP-kee, this food shares its name with the Polish word for pigeon, but don’t let that put you off. Made from not pigeon but beef, they are wrapped in cabbage leaves and covered in your choice of mushroom or tomato sauce, although the former is the usual favorite choice. This is a cheap and simple meal but perfect for a filling dinner. Some places offer vegetarian versions made up of a mushroom and lentil filling in lieu of meat, although this is not so common.
You’ll find potato pancakes or placki (PLAT-skee) at most Polish eateries, especially small cafes and ‘milk bars’ where people stop for a quick and cheap bite to eat. Fried potato pancakes are served plain or with sour cream. You can also enjoy them with goulash, an Eastern European stew of meat in sauce, making for a heavier yet more delicious meal.
There was nothing that would warm my bones more than a tasty bowl of żurek (ZHOO-rek). on a cold winter day. If you’re fortunate enough to coincide with the Christmas markets, it’s likely you’ll see many people walking around with steaming bowls of it. This hearty soup is described in English as sour rye and is complemented with bits of sausage and egg. At certain spots you can choose to have the soup served up in a bread bowl, so you can scrape up parts of the bowl itself as you eat. It’s a filling dish that’s perfect for cold weather and one of the most popular soups in Poland.
Another soup that’s beloved by Poles is this take on chicken soup. It’s the culinary cure for colds and flus or when you’re just feeling a little out of sorts, and I certainly was recommended it many times when I felt a little rough. Rosół (roh-SOOW) is made up of a very clear but flavorful broth with a few shreds of chicken, carrot slices, and cooked noodles added in.
The end of a night of bar-hopping in Poland just isn’t complete without one last stop: the zapiekanki stand. These pizza baguettes are a go-to for Polish people after a night of drinking, and a great way of soaking up all that alcohol with bread, cheese, and meat. Outdoor vendors or fast food places sell Zapiekanki and they come in dozens of varieties. The basic type with no toppings is simply cheese and mushrooms, but you can opt for topping styles like meat lovers, Hawaiian, or my personal favorite, Greek. They are popped in an oven to melt the cheese and bake the bread, then you add your sauces. While they are most popular at night, they are an easy snack to pick up if you’re on the go during the day too.
This wintry side dish is often made from leftovers, which makes it no less delicious. It usually includes delicious shredded pieces of meat, cuts of sausages, lots of pickled cabbage, and plenty of onion but the recipes vary from cook to cook. Then it stews for a day or longer to get the full flavor. My local deli Sekret Smaku had a particularly delicious version, and you’ll also find it in milk bars and as a side dish in other eateries, although no two will be the same. It’s pronounced BEE-goss.
When it comes to sweets, desserts are often just as heavy as savory dishes. Pączki (PAUNCH-kee), a type of Polish donut, are such a well-enjoyed treat that they have their own national holiday called ‘Fat Thursday.’ Falling on the Thursday before Lent begins, the most popular pączki pit stops will have lines stretching down the street as people stock up to indulge themselves. Classic pączki flavors include a rose jam filling or plain with sugar or glazing, as well as more decadent versions that I would go for like raspberry, Rafaello, caramel, chocolate, and vanilla. Enjoy them hot or cold and on the go.
There’s something to be said about desserts made from savory ingredients. Much like carrot or coffee cake, a sweet treat made from a bitter seeds really seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does. Makowiec (ma-KOH-vee-etz) has a poppy seed filling and comes in the form of cake or more often as a roll. The taste of poppy seed filling complements and contrasts the sweet yeast bread to create the dark sandwich filling of cake or dark swirl of the roll. It is a traditional Polish Christmas food and also popular around Easter. They are worth ticking off your list for an unusual melding of bitter and sweet.
If, like me, you like your sweets sweet, kremówka (krem-OOV-ka) is likely to be more your style. They’re similar to the English vanilla slice. You can find this delicacy in almost all bakeries if they aren’t sold out! A thick serving of vanilla custard cream sandwiched in between two pieces of puff pastry with a generous dusting of icing on top, it’s a definite favorite in Poland.
Although apple pie is often lauded as a supremely US dish, Poles are fiercely proud of their own, szarlotka. It differs from an American apple pie in that it is significantly less sweet. They use spices in lieu of sugar. This dessert varies from pie to cake versions, each with their own modification. Generally, there is a dense layer of apples, a layer of cake, and a thick crust or crumble on top.
It’s usually served alone, without the generous American dollop of cream. Its subtle hints of cinnamon and sweetness of the apples is more than enough to make this a worthy competitor of other apple pies.
These are just a few of the many notable Polish foods I came to love in Poland, although there are of course many more. Polish food is some of the tastiest I have eaten. Every friend who came to visit named it as one of their favorite parts of their trip to Poland. There’s much more to it than just kielbasa and pierogi!
And remember: Book your Polish Food Tour before you go!
Traditional Polish Food That Isn’t Pierogi was written by Amy Hornsby, a content and travel writer from England. She currently lives on the road as a house-sitter, where she gets to combine both slow travel and hanging out with furry friends. She enjoys yoga, walking, cooking, traveling, and has previously written for Touring Bird and Lonely Planet.
Photos taken for Traditional Polish Food That Isn’t Pierogi were shot by Brian Ground.