One thing I noticed is that in the US many items presented as ‘Polish food’ aren’t actually Polish. I was even on a food tour in NYC once and got served ‘Polish cheese’ which was actually Gouda, just packed in Poland. While some people know a few famous Polish dishes such as Pierogi, Polish cuisine has much more to offer. As a native Pole, let me introduce you to some of the best Polish foods.
20 Best Traditional Polish Foods You Should Try
Undeniable, pierogi is the most popular Polish food. Pierogi is already plural in Polish (pieróg is singular), but in the US people love to call it pierogis which makes no sense. They are thinly rolled-out dough filled with a variety of fillings, savory or sweet. They could be served as an appetizer, main dish or a dessert.
The most popular fillings are meat, sauerkraut with mushrooms, spinach, buckwheat, potatoes with fried onions, pepper and cottage cheese called Ruskie which means “Ruthenian pierogi” (not “Russian” as they’re often wrongly classified), sweet cottage cheese with raisins and seasonal fruit (blueberries, strawberries and cherries), buckwheat, sweet cottage cheese or boiled potatoes with fried onions (called Russian dumplings.
You can get them either boiled, baked or fried, but traditionally in Poland you eat them boiled with butter and onions on top.
2. Golabki / Gołąbki – Cabbage Rolls
Polish golabki (translating directly it means ‘little pigeons’) is cooked minced meat, often with onions and mushrooms, wrapped up in a leaf of white cabbage and stewed. It’s one of the dishes that was surely brought to the US by Polish immigrants.
They’re served with either boiled potatoes or bread, and poured over with a thick and creamy tomato sauce.
Poles love to pickle food. The Polish pickled cucumber is a bit different than the traditional gherkin you might be used to – it’s a bit sour, with a lot of dill, similar to kosher-style pickles.
Cucumbers only pickled for a few days have a different, less sour taste than those pickled for longer. They’re known as ogórek małosolny, which literally means ‘low-salt cucumber’. There is also kiszona kapusta, literally sauerkraut, which might appear strange, due to the method of preparation. Like wine, one has to keep on stepping on it in a barrel…
Bigos – a rich stew which is sometimes translated into ‘hunter’s stew’ is made with various types of chopped meats, sauerkraut and shredded fresh cabbage. The recipe generally changes from house to house but it’s very hearty and sometimes describes as the Polish version of chili.
4. Kotlet Schabowy
Kotlet Schabowy is a pork cutlet in a coating. It’s like Wiener Schnitzel, but thicker. If you ask a Pole to serve you something typically Polish, you’ll be served schabowy with boiled potatoes and warm beets – alternatively with a boiled carrot chopped in cubes mixed with peas.
The history of Polish kotlet schabowy dates back to the 19th century (which is way later than first recipes described in the most famous Polish cookery book Compendium Ferculorum from 1682) when the recipe was found in a cookbook by Lucyna Cwierczakiewiczowa.
5. Kotlet Mielony
Similar to the Danish meatballs, the Kotlet Mielony is a flat, pan-fried meatball but in a coating. They’re usually eaten with boiled potatoes, or a cold salad like sauerkraut or pickled/boiled beetroots.
The gulasz in Poland is the local version of the well known Goulash dish, of which many Central European countries have their own recipes. The main ingredients are usually tender pieces of beef and then a broth of bell pepper, carrots, mushroom, onions and paprika.
A typical way to serve the dish is with potato pancakes or buckwheat kasha (also known as toasted groats).
Traditional Polish Kaszanka is made from pig’s blood and buckwheat kasza, seasoned with onions, salt and pepper and marjoram, stuffed in the pig intestines. It’s usually fried with onions and served with a bit of horseradish. It’s certainly an acquired idea and taste but it’s definitely a staple at Polish traditional events and meals. Another variant of kaszanka is kiszka which is filled with groat instead of buckwheat.
8. Kluski Slaskie / śląskie
Known in English as Silesian dumplings, these are a simple recipe of eggs, mashed boiled potatoes and flour that are usually eaten with fried beef roulades and rich gravy with some boiled red cabbage.
9. Pyzy & Knedle
‘Pyzy’ is a type of large oval-shaped dumpling (the singular being ‘pyza’) stuffed with meat, twarog cheese or mushroom stuffing and boiled in water. They’re so big that they’re usually only served two or three in a portion as a main course.
‘Knedle’ are quite similar, made from a potato dough that can be both side dish or a dessert because it is stuffed with fruit like plums that are slightly sweet but also a bit tart.
10. Leniwe – Lazy Pierogi
The lazy man’s pierogi is a simpler substitute for the very popular Pierogi mentioned above which is what makes it different from the normal recipe. The dough is made by incorporating dry curd cheese such as farmer’s cheese or ricotta and when it’s rolled out into the dumplings, it’s left unfilled. The Lazy Pierogi is usually served as a side dish with sour cream or crispy golden bacon bits.
11. Placki Ziemniaczane – Potato Pancakes
The authentic Polish potato pancakes are a traditional comfort food eaten all over the country. Everyone has their own family recipe but the base is always potatoes, grated onions, eggs and flour, flattened and fried into savory pancakes.
You can have them with applesauce or sour cream.
12. Golonka Gotowana – Pork Hock
Pork hocks, or ham hocks or ‘knuckles’ are actually the ankles of the pig, and when made the traditional way are fork-tender and literally fall off the bone. A lot of places smoke the hock these days but that is not the real Polish way. It’s served with roasted vegetables, boiled potatoes and of course, some sauerkraut.
It’s a simple meal, and since the part of the meat is quite inexpensive so was an affordable meal for the middle and lower class throughout the country’s history.
This dish actually dates back to the 14th century and used to be served to the nobility. Today it’s not too restricted and is a very common main course in most places.
Zrazy (pronounced ZRRAH-ZIY) is essentially meat, usually beef, roulade that’s cooked for several hours in a slow cooker and served with potatoes and the popular side dish of red cabbage. The beef is stuffed with various fillings like sauerkraut, mushrooms, onions and many more.
14. Ryba po Grecku
Literally translated, this dish means Greek-style fish, so it’s quite obvious that the Polish borrowed this cooking style from the Greeks. The main course meal is fried fish fillets in a sauce made from a tomato base and can be served hot and cold.
15. Fasolka po Bretońsku
Fasolka po bretonsku is the Polish version of homemade baked beans. It’s made from Harico beans in a thick rich stew usually served with some fresh warm bread.
16. Ryz z Jablkami / Ryż z Jabłkami – Rice with Apples
This may sound a bit like an odd mixture but this pudding is actually a delicious autumnal dessert baked with cinnamon and sugar. It’s served with a side of whipped sour cream with some sugar.
17. Barszcz z Uszkami
The word Uszka actually means ‘little ears’ and it’s quite appropriate given the shape of the little mushroom or minced meat dumplings that come in the Barszcz which is a sour soup or borscht that’s colored red by its beetroot base.
18. Zurek / żurek
This unique and humble soup is popular in many West Slavic states but the Polish version is traditionally eaten around Easter time. It’s known as the Polish Ryemeal Soup and is made by fermenting the cereal (Rye) and cooking it with sausage, bacon or ham. It’s creamy, smokey, cooked with lots of garlic and is not as sour as fermenting suggests, it’s more a rich savory sour taste.
19. Oscypek & Bryndza Cheeses
Who doesn’t love a good traditional cheese? Traditional Polish cheeses like Oscypek and Bryndza are made with sheep’s milk from the mountain meadows of south Poland, the Tatra Mountains. They’re made by smoking in a wooden oven or hut called a Bacowska.
The process is so well known that in order to preserve the tradition and methods, the production is given an EU subsidy which allows the shepherds and cheese-makers to continue the processes.
20. Wild Mushrooms
Wild mushrooms are my favorite part of Polish cuisine. Mushrooming is a popular family activity, so unsurprisingly whatever you collect is eaten in many forms. I think as a kid I’ve learned to distinguish at least 20 different types of wild mushrooms.
They can be served as a sauce, soup, Even if you don’t like the traditional white mushrooms, I’d advise you to try the wild fungi.
During the summer months, a popular breakfast is scrambled eggs with chanterelle mushrooms that are Poles have been serving for decades.
Weird Polish Foods
Czernina, also known simply as ‘duck soup’ is, as the name suggests, made from a thick broth made from duck blood and clear poultry broth. Although it’s not just made of duck, it can be made using chicken, rabbit or pig.
Smalec is very common on Polish tables. I remember my mom preparing it when I was a kid and I couldn’t believe that someone could consume it. I gave it a go last year and it’s still a no-no for me. Smalec is basically pig fat melted in a pan with the onion and sometimes pieces of bacon. In English it’s commonly referred to as lard.
Flaki is actually a very famous soup in various Eastern European countries, due to – as some may say – its miraculous function as a hangover remedy. It’s often served during Polish weddings for breakfast. I haven’t tried it and I don’t think I’m going to – the smell always scares me away.
4. Nóżki w Galarecie
Literally ‘little feet’, these are a jellied pig or cow feet. The cooked meat is simmered in grayish gelatin with some herbs and usually carrots and peas. It’s also usually served with horseradish. Another variant of nóżki is jellied fish, usually carp. Although this dish was originally a Jewish tradition, nowadays it’s commonly served at Christmas.
5. Fruit Soup
Fruit soup was my nightmare in kindergarten when I was simply refusing to eat it every time until the teachers accepted that there is no way in this world to convince me to eat it. I was a stubborn child after all. A fruit soup contains overcooked cherries or strawberries and often a bit of milk and some pasta.
Must-Try Polish Desserts
Paczki / Pączki
These Polish doughnuts are dusted with sugar or bits of dried orange zest and filled with a sweet filling similar to a jelly or jam.
Sernik – Cheesecake
Made from a rich buttery pastry and being a cheesecake with a Polish twist, the creamy top layer is made from a sweetened farmer’s cheese called twarog.
This is one of Poland’s most popular sweet foods, the Poppy seed roll (pronounced mah-KOH-vyets) is rolled out sweet yeast bread with a rich bittersweet filling of poppy seed paste. Alternatively it can be filled with minced wallnuts or chestnuts.
With a base of three simple ingredients, ginger, honey and treacle, the Piernik is the Polish Gingerbread loaf cake, traditionally made for festive occasions like Christmas.
Probably one of the simplest Polish desserts, Kisiel is essentially sweetened fruit puree, thickened with some sort of starch. It comes in so many different flavours including strawberrry, coffee, chocolate, vanilla and almond. It can be served hot or cold and is usually topped with a dollop of custard sauce or cream.
Faworki – Angel Wings
These crispy wisps of pastry dusted with powdered sugar have become quite popular all over many European countries but the Polish version definitely has its own unique twist.
You’ll see them most during Christmas time or traditionally during Carnival time around Shrove Tuesday.
The Sękacz has both a Polish and Lithuanian history and involves such a big process to make that it is very rarely made at home, but is none the less a very popular sweet treat.
Translated, the word means ‘knotted cake’ and is made rotating on a spit greased with butter in a big over, but traditionally over an open fire. Each layer has to cook completely before another layer is poured over it until a giant cake is made that resembles a tree with irregular knots.
The origins of this cake and its cooking methods come from the fact it preserves very well. In the old days, the cows could only be milked and the hens would lay eggs only in the summertime so the cake would be made and could be kept and eaten throughout the long cold winter.
Krowki / Krówki – Little Cows
Krowki (already plural; krowka singular), literally ‘little cows’. They’re Polish semi-soft milk toffee candies. First produced, they were wrapped up in pieces of paper with a picture of a cow which resulted in their name.
Krowki are all malleable once produced, but with time they start to crumble, as a result of sugar crystallization. The best krowki are still soft inside.
śliwki w Czekoladzie – Chocolate-coated Plums
Chocolate covered plums are very traditional. An entire plum is covered with a cocoa mass and covered with hard chocolate icing. Some find these plums sour.
Ptasie Mleczko – Bird’s Milk
Ptasie Mleczko is something that could be described as a mix between a marshmallow and mousse. They’re simply rectangular-shaped pieces covered in chocolate. Traditionally, the company that invented it – E. Wedel, made it only vanilla flavored, but with time more flavors like chocolate, strawberry, coconut or caramel.
P.S. So many of you were asking if you can get some Polish snacks in the US – you can! There’s a thing called Taste of Poland box on Amazon and they sent you a mix of imported goodies.
Kukułki – Cockoos
I remember kukulki as those candies that my grandma liked, but only allowed me to have one. Cuckoos have a hard striped coating with a great alcoholic filling – 1.5% of spirit.
Sezamki – Sesame Snaps
These sweet treats are now commercially mass made and sold in most grocery stores. They’re made from toughened caramel with sesame seeds sprinkled inside.