I have a small confession to make: I’m a vegetarian. This was a slight concern of mine when I was planning my first trip to Poland. As I’ve mentioned before, I had little knowledge about the country prior to that visit. Nonetheless, I had a distinct image of a meat-and-two-veg diet; I’m not quite sure where it came from, but my mind was flooded with images of Polish sausages, potatoes and cabbage. When I touched down in Warsaw and, like many tourists, gravitated towards the Old Town, the plentiful restaurant terraces did little to challenge my culinary preconceptions – pork, duck, and hearty sides of potatoes dominated the menus.
But then something special happened. After eating at various non-Polish veggie restaurants, I decided that it was essential to try some traditional Polish food. I elected to take my chances and find the most vegetarian dish on the menu. Somewhere in Warsaw’s Old Town, I was served a plate of pierogi ruskie (Ruthenian dumplings) – small doughy parcels filled with potatoes and cottage cheese, served with soured cream and fried onions on top. Just like ravioli or gyoza, these simple dumplings were full of homely flavour. I’d forecast potatoes a few days earlier; what I hadn’t expected was that they could be put together in such an inexplicably tasty, crisp and satisfying way.
The history of pierogi dates back to the 17th century, when peasants would stuff their cheapest ingredients together for a hearty all-weather meal. Over time, they also became loved by the nobility and are now considered a national dish of Poland. In fact, pierogi are such a staple that the former tenant of my Warsaw apartment left a freezer full of his grandma’s homemade white cheese pierogi as a housewarming gift for me. They’re an excellent example of how modern-day Poland is able to draw upon its rich gastronomic history in a way that can satisfy both meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. I have fond memories of eating posh pierogi on the Polish seaside (think spinach, feta and sundried tomatoes, served with a blue cheese sauce), but the significantly cheaper pierogi available in one of the country’s bar mleczny (milk bars) don’t compromise on quality.
Milk bars are a remnant of communism, under which the state subsidised canteens for workers. Naturally, costs were kept to a minimum, so the kitchens would serve traditional Polish food comprised of vegetables. These days, milk bars remain in Poland and although they’re mostly privatised franchises or small businesses, they’ve kept their low prices and veggie dishes. I’ve heard Poles dismissively suggest that milk bars are a hipster fetishization of the tough communist era, but in my experience they’re much more egalitarian – no frills places where the whole cross-section of Polish society feel comfortable eating. You’ll find pierogi, salads and all sorts of traditional pancakes in milk bars, but my top choice tends to be a soup. Poland thrives on soup, yet unfortunately for veggies they’re usually made from meat stock with small bits of pork. Milk bars often serve their soup meat-free – I’ve enjoyed everything from barszcz (beetroot borscht soup) to żurek (fermented rye soup) and ogórkowa (salted cucumber soup) in these vegetarian havens.
Polish catering now extends far beyond the traditional confines of pierogi and soup. In the country’s towns and cities, it’s easy enough to find a falafel to takeaway, or some vegetarian spring rolls. Of course, both of these meals are a product of globalisation and the spread of diverse cultures – you can find them in urban areas across the globe. In recent years, Polish chefs have opened more and more restaurants that cater to global herbivores while still maintaining their Polish roots. Rather than serving pork cutlets (a traditional schnitzel-like meal), one veggie buffet I visited in Silesia had chickpea cutlets alongside sides of tomato-tinged pearl barley. Croquettes – usually made with ground meat – are reinvented with spinach and lentils in my favourite restaurant in Gdańsk. There’s a vegan bistro that you can find in regional capitals across the country, making natural burgers from millet, tofu and seitan, to name a few. Whether it’s the re-fashioning of traditional meat-based Polish food, or the usage of national mainstays like dill, beetroot and Polish-style rolls, each of these veggie joints can compete with the likes of Berlin, Brighton or Brooklyn.
You might have noticed that the cuisine I’ve outlined above is characterised by its local ingredients. The potato in pierogi, the cucumber in ogórkowa, or the millet in the burger are all very much grown in Poland. This is the final subtle but striking point about Polish cooking – it relies primarily on domestic seasonal fruit and vegetables, and you can really taste the difference. In British supermarkets, we’re used to firm tomatoes; strawberries that are still green and overwhelmingly tart. In Poland, you see the harvest unfold in front of you as summer ushers in an abundance of plump tomatoes and farmers sell baskets bursting with juicy strawberries. Shops tend to sell by weight, meaning that when produce is in season it’s not only fresh, but reasonably priced. One of the Polish words for vegetable is włoszczyzna, which – fittingly enough – is derived from the Polish word for Italy. I’d always thought that our lifeless British fruit and veg were bad geographical luck, that we weren’t blessed with Mediterranean climes. It turns out that all I needed to do was visit Poland.
Contrary to my meat-and-two-veg preconceptions, Poland is (at least in its urban areas) a wonderfully vegetarian-friendly country. One of the most prominent vegan websites HappyCow regularly ranks Warsaw in its top 10 vegan cities in the world – I wish I’d known this on my first visit, as the capital is an excellent place to experience Poland’s modern blend of gastronomic tradition with locally-sourced fresh food.