Having spent an obscene amount of time in Poland over the last two years, I’ve become very well-acquainted with traditional Polish food. One of the main reasons I travel is to experience the food of any given place, and you’re much more likely to find me cosied up inside a candlelit local bistro than hiking up a mountain!
Due to the months that I’ve spent teaching in Poland, staying way off the beaten path in tiny villages that are impossible to pronounce, I’ve been able to sample so many Polish dishes that it’s safe to say I kinda know what I’m talking about when it comes to Polish food!
So many travel bloggers spend 3 days in Poland, try some pierogi and write their ‘Ultimate Lists’ of ‘Must Try Traditional Polish Foods!‘ when the reality is that they haven’t personally tried half of the things on the list, and the things that they have tried, they’ve only eaten once in a touristy restaurant.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with only having a few days somewhere, and not being able to get a taste for all of the local delicacies – however, you probably shouldn’t be writing any sort of ‘guide’ to that country’s cuisine if you haven’t spent a solid amount of time there!
So, what is traditional Polish food like?
In a word, heavy. Stodgy ingredients such as meat, bread and potatoes make up the bulk of Polish dishes, with a tangy side of sauerkraut or pickled cucumber. Traditional Polish food is the kind of hearty comfort food that keeps you warm in the winter months, when your eyelashes have turned to ice and you can see your breath in front of you.
Some of the best Polish foods are real belly filling stuff. Polish dishes get you ready for a long day of work and help you sleep easily. That said, it would be inaccurate to say that Polish cuisine is all about stodge. Added to the generous helpings of butter and cream are plenty of delicate spices, and when you factor in the Polish tendancy to stew everything, the rich flavours that you will encounter on a Polish plate are like no other.
Ingredients that are seemingly a mismatch (herring and cream? raw beef and pickles?) actually go surprisingly well together, and the phrase ‘don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!’ could have been invented for Polish food!
So, with that said, let’s take a look at my guide to traditional Polish food!
Traditional Polish Food – 18 Polish Dishes You Have to Try!
1. Befsztyk tatarski (beef tartare)
Pronounced – bef-shtik tatar-skee
This one is a little difficult for my fellow Brits to stomach, but beef tartare (sometimes spelled beef tartar) is one of my favourite traditional Polish foods. Beef tartare is ground raw beef topped with a raw egg yolk and served with chopped onions and pickled cucumber, along with a hunk of thick crusty bread. Not only do the strong flavours of pickle and onion create an explosion on the palette, but the marrying of textures, particularly that of the raw beef with the egg yolk, come together to create a unique and tasty dish.
The best way to eat beef tartare is to pour the egg yolk into the middle of the raw beef and then mash everything up together – I tend to use the bread to mop up the remains but some people prefer to spread the tartare right onto the bread. Beef tartare can be found everywhere from the dingiest Polish pubs to top restaurants, and is a must try for meat-lovers!
Pronounced – the Ż is pronounced like the si in vision
If there’s one thing that Polish people have mastered the art of, it’s soup (or zupa). Polish grandmothers countrywide have served up bowlfuls of Żurek for generations to hungry families, and there is no sign of the Polish love for this soup slowing down.
Żurek is a sour rye soup with added potatoes, kiełbasa (Polish sausage) and a boiled egg. Salty and hot, Żurek is real hearty winter food, and it feels like a hug from the inside.
Pro tip – Żurek is especially good for hangovers, so you’ll need it after a night on the Polish vodka 😉
I’m getting this out of the way early on because if there’s one word that springs to everyone’s mind when they think of traditional Polish food, it’s pierogi (contrary to what most people think, ‘pierogi’ is already plural so you don’t need to add an S)!
Pierogi are a hugely popular Polish food, famous all around the world, and they are a kind of dumpling which can be stuffed with various fillings, either sweet or savoury. A common type of pierogi are pierogi ruskie which are dumplings filled with potatoes and cheese, but pierogi can be filled with anything from cabbage, to meat, to mushrooms. I personally prefer sweet pierogi, such as blueberry pierogi with cream – mmm!
That being said – and I know I’m going to trigger a lot of people with this – I think that pierogi are overrated. It isn’t that they’re not good, it’s just that there is so much more to traditional Polish cuisine than dumplings, and I urge you to try a few more items on this list before making your mind up that pierogi are the be all and end all!
Pronounced – kiow-basa
Kiełbasa is the catch-all term for Polish sausage, which is coarser in texture and more garlicky than other types of sausage, and comes in many different forms. The most popular is Kiełbasa Polska, which is is salty, smokey and delicious. Kiełbasa can be eaten hot or cold, and boiled, baked or grilled. They can be thrown into soups, stews and more, and are a real staple of Polish cuisine.
However, if you’re vegan, fear not! My friend and I actually found some vegan kiełbasa in the supermarket which tasted great on the BBQ!
Bigos, or hunter’s stew, is one of the most popular Polish dishes, and rightly so! Made with sauerkraut, kiełbasa (as well as other kinds of meat – usually whatever’s in the fridge!), mushroom and onion. It is a strange mixture of flavours that actually works really well and is best enjoyed with boiled potatoes and (what else?) a glass of chilled vodka.
6. Barszcz czerwony
Pronounced – barsh-tch tcher-vony
Barszcz czerwony is a red beetroot soup served with a dollop of sour cream (and sometimes potato dumplings) and is perfect for those harsh Polish winters. It’s hot, it’s comforting, and if you visit a Christmas market in Poland, you will often see gloved hands wrapped around paper mugs of barszcz. This is another incredibly common Polish soup.
7. Kotlet schabowy
Pronounced – kot-let s-hab-oh-vee
Perhaps the most quintessential Polish dish, kotlet schabowy is literally a breaded pork cutlet, similar to schnitzel, which is often served with potatoes and dill and red cabbage. Not the most delicate or sophisticated of dishes, but this is a typical working man’s lunch that is served up in milk bars all across the country.
We’re back on the Polish soup again, and this one is not for the faint-hearted! Flaki may be a weird Polish food but it is one of my favourite Polish soups, and if you can get past the ‘ick’ factor that so many fussy eaters have, you’ll probably find that you quite like it too!
Flaki is a clear beef broth with strips of beef tripe, veggies, herbs and spices. Yes, tripe seems kinda weird if we’re not used to it, and the texture is a little funky, but I genuinely really love flaki – even if the literal translation of flaki is ‘guts’!
Pronounced – zap-yeh-kanka
Zapiekanka (or zapiekanki plural) is a street food most popular in Krakow, kind of like a pizza bread. The classic zapiekanka is half a baguette with sauteed white mushrooms and grated cheese, toasted until the cheese melts (but many additional toppings can be added).
Zapiekanki can always be bought ready-made at service stations and corner shops, and these zapiekanki are really nothing special. HOWEVER, the Plac Nowy (New Square) in the Kazimierz district of Krakow has turned zapikanki into an art form, and buying a zapiekanka from Plac Nowy is a rite of passage for anyone visiting Krakow. I tried the Oscypek smoked cheese with cranberry (in addition to the mushroom and cheese base) and despite not being something I would usually choose, I really enjoyed it.
Here, you can add a seemingly endless variety of toppings, and the zapiekanki at Plac Nowy are worlds apart from the ones you can buy at gas stations. Perfect as a lunch on-the-go or messy drunk food, zapiekanki are the soul of Krakow.
Psst – if you’re heading to Krakow then be sure to check out my list of all the best things to do in Krakow!
10. Placki ziemniaczane
Pronounced – platz-ki jee-em-nee-ah-char-ney
Placki ziemniaczana (literally – potato pancakes) are like the best hash brown you’ve ever tasted and then some. Contrary to hash browns in the UK, which are often tossed onto a Full English breakfast as an afterthought, placki ziemniaczana are often served as the main part of a meal, with cheese, onions, sausage and more, and you don’t want to miss getting your hands on a plate of placki ziemniaczane when you visit Poland.
Pronounced – shmar-lek
If you want to feel like a big strong Polish man then get yourself a pint of beer, cut yourself a thick hunk of bread, and spread copius amounts of smalec on it. Smalec (lard) is literally pig fat flavoured with onion, garlic, spices, and with added sprinklings of skwarki (pork cracklings) for extra crunch.
Smalec on bread is a great accompaniment to any meaty dish in Poland, and I attribute the 10lbs I gained in Poland to way too many campfires with sausages and smalec.
Pronounced – os-tseh-pek
Much like zapiekanki, Oscypek is something that you have to eat in the right place. While you can buy it in supermarkets all over Poland, to get an authentic experience with this traditional Polish food, you have to go to the Tatra mountains.
Oscypek is a spindle-shaped smoked cheese made from sheep’s milk, hailing from the Podhale region of Poland. It is usually fried and eaten with cranberry marmalade, and while I usually abhore mixing sweet and savoury, Oscypek and cranberry really changed my mind, as the sweetness from the cranberry really takes the edge off the strong smoked flavour of the cheese.
Unlike most cheeses nowadays, Oscypek is made by a shepherd and his apprentice, living in a small mountain hut with a hearth. The workers stay in the mountains for the entire season, making the cheese by hand and passing the skill down through generations.
Knowing the process makes it extra special to sit in the mountains, looking out at the snow and clutching a hot mug of mulled wine while savouring the cheese.
Golonka, or pork knuckle, is one of those traditional Polish dishes, popular in pubs, that are perfect for cold winter nights by the fire. The whole knuckle is served in the middle of the plate, usually accompanied by sauerkraut, horseradish and boiled potatoes, and really fills the belly in the way that good comfort food should.
Pronounced – go-wamb-kee
Literally translating to ‘little pigeons,’ gołąbki is a dish that we would call ‘cabbage rolls’ in English. Almost like a Polish burrito, gołąbki are made by boiling cabbage leaves and stuffing them with beef, onion and rice or barley (ingredients can vary of course), before fashioning them into parcel shapes and pouring tomato sauce over them.
According to Wikipedia, Polish cabbage rolls are the ‘epitome of Polish nourishment,’ so you’d better not skip them when you’re sampling traditional Polish food.
Pronounced – kash-anka
Oh, kaszanka my old friend! As I hail from the small town of Bury, North Manchester, I have been brought up on the ‘World Famous Bury Black Pudding,’ and so imagine my delight when I discovered that Poland have their own black pudding, or blood sausage as well!
Made by blending buckwheat with pig’s blood, kaszanka has a much softer texture than British black pudding, and literally falls apart in the mouth. While we Brits tend to leave our version of kaszanka for breakfast time, the Poles are a bit more relaxed, and it isn’t unusual to order a huge plateful of kaszanka and nothing else from the Polish Christmas markets!
It may be a betrayal to Bury to say this, but I actually prefer kaszanka to Bury Black Pudding.
16. Zupa ogórkowa
Pronounced – zoopa og-oork-ova
I’m not going to lie to you – I can’t stand zupa ogórkowa (literally – gherkin soup).
I am not a fan of gherkins (or pickled cucumber), period. In fact, the only time I can say I really enjoyed eating pickled cucumbers was when I was crunching them as a chaser to pure vodka with a Russian guy in a hostel (but that’s another story).
However, Polish people LOVE their pickled cucumber, and if you’re looking for a traditional Polish experience, then look no further than zupa orgókowa. While foodie websites will tell you it’s a ‘hot and sour soup made with gherkins, potatoes and vegetables, just believe me when I say that it’s pickle soup and it tastes exactly what you would imagine pickle soup to taste like – pickles.
Zrazy are beef rolls stuffed with various fillings (don’t be surprised if you get pickle and bacon!), which are fried and then placed in a casserole with celery, onions and spices. Not for those on a diet, zrazy are very typical of Polish cuisine – meaty, heavy and rich.
Pronounced – ros-oow
Rosół seems, to the untrained palate, to be a simple chicken noodle soup, but don’t tell that to a Polish person! Commonly served at weddings as a starter, rosół is a meat broth with noodles, parsley, butter, salt and pepper, dill and vegetables such as celery, carrot and leek.
Don’t be surprised if you get served rosół in a Polish household!