When it comes to visiting Poland, sampling the traditional Polish cuisine—which was suppressed along with other aspects of Polish culture during Communist times but has made a comeback with a new generation of chefs reinventing old favorites—has become a favorite for foreign travelers.
Modern Polish cuisine is flavorful, hearty, complex, and lighter than traditional dishes, mostly to accommodate modern palates, but like many Eastern European countries, Poland’s traditional foods are rooted in Slavic fare. However, Polish food also has influences from Italian and French cuisines, which date back to the medieval Polish court.
Potatoes are a staple of the Polish diet, acting as a building block for a variety of foods. Cream and eggs are heavily used as well, although modern interpretations of some dishes may use lighter alternatives. Traditional Polish cuisine also features many kinds of soup made with mushrooms, broth, and beets.
Fish dishes are also popular, especially in regional Polish food. Carp, pike, perch, eel, and sturgeon are all popular and served in various ways, and herring is a staple of the Polish holiday menu. Pork is the most common meat in traditional Polish cuisine, but chicken, beef, venison, duck, and other meats are featured on Polish restaurant menus today.
Pierogies: Fried or Steamed Dumplings
The traditional dumpling on every Polish grandma’s menu is called a pierogi, and while other Eastern European and Slavic cultures have versions of pierogi, which trace their roots to Russia in the Middle Ages, Poles have made this dish their own.
Pierogis are made up of dough filled with cheese, potatoes, onions, cabbage, mushrooms, meat (or almost any other ingredient, savory or sweet, that you can think of). They are traditionally served while still steaming hot, either boiled or fried, and are accompanied by sour cream.
Bigos: Hunter's Stew
Considered a meal in and of itself, bigos is a hearty hunter's stew featuring a combination of cabbage, mushrooms, and various meats. Traditionally pork, bacon, or Polish sausage were used in this dish, but today bigos also may contain venison or duck instead.
The stewing process takes two to four days when prepared according to Polish traditions, allowing the flavors of each of the ingredients plenty of time to meld with one another. However, many modern restaurants often prepare their bigos overnight due to the high demand of this local and tourist favorite.
Zrazy: Grilled Beef Rolls
Zrazy is traditional Polish food that sticks to your ribs. A filling of bacon, breadcrumbs, mushrooms, and cucumber is rolled inside a seasoned slice of sirloin beef then fried or grilled to allow the flavors to mingle.
Originating in the Polish gentry, this dish is also known as a hunter's meal since it was traditionally made with slices of either beef or game meat (pork or venison). Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine also have versions of this dish, but you'll find it on most traditional menus in Poland, too.
Placki Ziemniaczane: Potato Pancakes
A popular side dish or appetizer in Poland, potato pancakes are known locally as placki ziemniaczane. Made from grated potatoes mashed with egg, onion, and spices fried in animal fat, these savory treats are often served with a sprinkling of sugar in Poland. You can also get something called placek po zbojnicku, which includes these potato pancakes served with meat, sauce, and a salad.
Mizeria: Cucumber Salad
This chilled salad consists of thinly sliced cucumbers, sprigs of dill, and chopped onion in a sour cream and lemon juice dressing. You'll find it served with most meat-based entrees like Zrazy or even Bigos, but it's a great afternoon snack all on its own.
Sernik: Polish Cheesecake
Made in Poland from quark (twaróg in Polish)—a cheese made from warming and curdling soured milk that is also mixed with mashed potatoes to make filling for pierogis—sernik is the country's version of a traditional cheesecake dessert. Back in pre-Communist Poland, quark, which is also known as farmer's cheese, was cheaper and easier for Polish people to use but still provided that sour/sweet flavor of modern cheesecakes.
Szarlotka: Apple Tarts
Like the American apple pie, the Polish szarlotka is a time-honored tradition in its country of origin. However, the crust of Polish apple tarts are sweeter and made with butter and egg yolks, unlike most apple pie crusts. Alongside sernik, szarlotka is one of the most popular dessert options in Poland today.
Although French in origin, these steamed dough desserts have become a staple of bakeries across Poland. Filled with whipped cream, cream beige, or cream Russel and coated in pomade or chocolate, these éclairs are served year-round at most sweet shops.
Makowiec: Poppy Seed Swirl Cakes
Traditionally served in Poland for the Easter holiday, these sweet rolled cakes are filled with dark fruit and nuts. Typically, ingredients in the filling include poppy seeds, walnuts, raisins, honey, and lightly-whisked egg whites. The dough for the cake is rather yeasty, making for a savory and sweet treat for the holiday season.
Paczki: Deep-Fried Custard-Filled Dough
Perhaps the most well-known dessert items from Poland are paczki, which starts as round pieces of deep-fried dough but are then filled with custard or sweet preserves. Traditionally served on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, paczkis are usually covered with powdered sugar or icing—think doughnuts but slightly flattened. Pronounced "punch-key," these sweet treats can be found in American cities with large Polish populations, such as Detroit, where customers line up on Paczki Day at Polish bakeries for a taste of their heritage.