There is perhaps no better way to get to know and understand a place than through its cuisine. Meals are inexorably linked to the society and people from which they spring, and there is no food that is hermetically sealed from the culture that creates it. Food is inherently imbued with the traditions and stories of those who have come before ― with every dish, the flavor itself as integral to the culinary experience as the personal and national histories behind it.
Poland’s famous pierogi are no exception.
Since the 13th century, pierogi (singular: pierog) have been a staple of Polish cuisine. Likely introduced into Poland when European explorers returned from the Far East, pierogi were adapted from Japanese gyoza and Chinese dumplings, their equally-delicious Asian counterparts. Pierogi are usually boiled and then seared with butter in a frying pan. They are typically stuffed with mashed potato and quark cheese, or ground meats like pork and chicken. But aside from the traditional staples, pierogi are constantly being innovated; in modern Poland, pierogi fillings are deeply imaginative and widely varied, often changing to include regional and in-season ingredients. Today, you can find pierogi stuffed with wild mushrooms or confit duck, fava beans and goats cheese, braised sauerkraut and herring in winter. Sweet pierogi are also very popular, especially in summer, when ripe berries and apricots are abundant. What’s more, the pierogi dough ― delicate and supple at its best ―can also be adapted to complement the filling, usually with the addition of fresh herbs and spices.
Outside of the home, pierogi are of paramount importance in Poland’s food culture. Pierogi can be found nearly anywhere ― in restaurants and school cafeterias, in shops and from street vendors. In recent years, pierogi houses, called pierogarnia, have become more common in Poland. Pierogarnia serves and specializes in only pierogi, and can be a great way for tourists to experience the national dish in its many variations.
So, while pierogi are delicious, they have become a true pillar of Polish cuisine because of their weight in personal and national history. Most Polish families have their own recipes for pierogi, which are passed on from generation to generation. The process for making pierogi is relatively simple, but it takes time: from making the dough and the fillings, to rolling and cutting and forming the dumplings, it’s a process that requires patience (and often a second set of hands!). For Poles, pierogi are reminders of home and childhood; they are an archetypical comfort food, imbued with nostalgia for afternoons spent filling and shaping the half-moons, a nostalgia for gathering together with family.
But of course, there is so much more to Polish cuisine than just one dish, however foundational and delicious it is. The fact that it remains a centerpiece of culinary culture demonstrates a commitment to tradition in the country’s cooking that still allows for experimentation and modernization, something for which Polish chefs around the country are receiving more and more recognition in recent years. From Gdansk to Krakow and everywhere in between, there are restaurants, market stalls, and holes-in-the-wall serving up world class eats to meet a Polish palate and to introduce flavors from all around the world. We got a chance to eat at some of the very best, and we’re here to share them with you.
One of the best things about having a strong, localized culinary tradition is the ongoing commitment to sourcing the freshest and best ingredients you can get nearby. This is part of what gives Polish food its distinct taste and character, which is best to acquaint oneself with right away in the capital city of Warsaw. The city’s central and trendy foodie hub is Mokotowska Street, home to the wine-bar-turned-restaurant Alewino. For chef Sebastian Welpa, the care with which the business selected their wines naturally carried over into their food, which is as varied and international as wine itself while retaining regional motifs. Carnivores and vegetarians alike can delight in their menu, with delectable fish from Poland’s rivers also on offer. The risotto with scallop ceviche and lemon balm is a particular highlight, as well as the veal with shitake.
Eats in Warsaw go international and eclectic at Hala Koszyki. Long a fresh produce market, it has evolved into a chic food hall to rival any in Europe, with far-flung foods and local delicacies to delight any palate and mood. For the former, your best bets are Curry Leaves, Kago Sushi, and Gringo Bar/Salsownia, which serve Indian soul food, world championship-winning sushi, and Tex/Mex adopted for a Polish sensibilities, respectively. There are also two imaginative restaurants by Polish chef Mateusz Gessler, both of which see themselves as places where the visual arts meet and live in harmony with culinary arts to create an overall sensory experience. At CMA, the menu consists of smaller, street-food type dishes and more typical breakfast and main courses, for whatever kind of schedule you’re on. At Warszawski Sen (The Warsaw Dream), sit down to a dinner of Polish duck, another national dish roasted to perfection.
Heading down to Krakow, the scenery changes but the song remains the same. The glorious UNESCO Heritage Site of Wawel Castle overlooks the upscale ART Restaurant, appropriately named in tribute to the city’s creative heritage. They see cooking as up there amongst all other arts, and certainly do it justice with dishes like wild boar tenderloin and salmon with pickled red cabbage. For more casual but similarly enriching experiences, head to Hevre, located in a former Jewish prayer house where the menu features everything from standard fare to a whole section of “rarities” such as Jewish caviar and long-matured goat’s cheese. Similar vibes can be found in the also-repurposed settings of Forum Przestrzenie, an eatery in an old Soviet hotel that now serves a mean lunch including vegan pizza.
Finally, Poland is known to possess a sweet tooth, and there are tasty treats galore to match the savory dishes. In Krakow, Cukiernia Cichowsky is a traditional bakery and confectionery that was first opened in 1945. They are known to have some of the very best cakes in the city, as well as a magnificent take on Kremowka, a traditional Polish dessert similar to cream pie. Enjoy with a coffee for a mid-afternoon treat. For ice cream around Krakow, try Good Lood, the fastest-growing local creamery that only uses Krakovian ingredients. Elsewhere in Poland, try the ultra Instagram-friendly Nanan Patisserie in Wroclaw and make sure to visit the museum dedicated to the local delicacy, St. Martin’s croissants. You can learn all about how they’re made, help do it, and most importantly, taste them.
All photos by Lily Allen and Kyle Peters.