Poles take their meals following the standard continental schedule: a light breakfast in the morning (usually some sandwiches with tea/coffee), then a larger lunch (or traditionally a “dinner”) at around 13:00-14:00, then a supper at around 19:00.
It is not difficult to avoid meat, with many restaurants offering at least one vegetarian dish. Most major cities have some exclusively vegetarian restaurants, especially near the city centre. Vegan options remain extremely limited, however.
Traditional local food:
Traditional Polish cuisine tends to be hearty, rich in meats, sauces, and vegetables; sides of pickled vegetables are a favourite accompaniment. Modern Polish cuisine, however, tends towards greater variety, and focuses on healthy choices. In general, the quality of “store-bought” food is very high, especially in dairy products, baked goods, vegetables and meat products.
A dinner commonly includes the first course of soup, followed by the main course. Among soups, barszcz czerwony (red beet soup, also known as borscht) is perhaps the most recognizable: a spicy and slightly sour soup, served hot. It’s commonly poured over dumplings (barszcz z uszkami or barszcz z pierogami), or served with a fried pate roll (barszcz z pasztecikiem). Other uncommon soups include zupa ogórkowa, a cucumber soup made of a mix of fresh and pickled cucumbers; zupa grzybowa, typically made with wild mushrooms; also, flaki or flaczki – well-seasoned tripe. The most common in restaurants is the żurek, a sour-rye soup served with traditional Polish sausage and a hard-boiled egg.
Pierogi are, of course, an immediately recognizable Polish dish. They are often served along side another dish (for example, with barszcz), rather than as the main course. There are several types of them, stuffed with a mix of cottage cheese and onion, or with meat or even wild forest fruits. Gołąbki are also widely known: they are large cabbage rolls stuffed with a mix of grains and meats, steamed or boiled and served hot with a white sauce or tomato sauce.
Bigos is another unique, if less well-known, Polish dish: a “hunter’s stew” that includes various meats and vegetables, on a base of pickled cabbage. Bigos tends to be very thick and hearty. Similar ingredients can also be thinned out and served in the form of a cabbage soup, called kapuśniak. Some Austro-Hungarian imports have also become popular over the years, and adopted by the Polish cuisine. These include gulasz, a local version of goulash that’s less spicy than the original, and sznycel po wiedeńsku, which is a traditional schnitzel, often served with potatoes and a selection of vegetables.
When it comes to food-on-the-go, foreign imports tend to dominate (such as kebab or pizza stands, and fast-food franchises). An interesting Polish twist is a zapiekanka, which is an open-faced baguette, covered with mushrooms and cheese (or other toppings of choice), and toasted until the cheese melts. Zapiekanki can be found at numerous roadside stands and bars. In some bars placki ziemniaczane (polish potato pancakes) are also available. Knysza is a polish version of hamburger, but it’s much (much) bigger and it contains beef, variety of vegetables and sauces. Drożdżówka is a popular sweet version of food-on-the-go, which is a sweet yeast bread (sometimes in a form of kolach) or a pie filled with stuffing made of: poppy seed mass; vanilla, chocolate, coconut or advocaat pudding; baked apples; cocoa mass; sweet curd cheese or fruits.
Poland is also known for two unique cheeses, both made by hand in the [Podhale] mountain region in the south. Oscypek is the more famous: a hard, salty cheese, made of unpasteurized sheep milk, and smoked (or not). It goes very well with alcoholic beverages such as beer. The less common is bryndza, a soft cheese, also made with sheep milk (and therefore salty), with a consistency similar to spreadable cheeses. It’s usually served on bread, or baked potatoes. Both cheeses are covered by the EU Protected Designation of Origin (like the French Roquefort, or the Italian Parmegiano-Reggiano).
Polish bread is sold in bakeries (piekarnia in Polish) and shops and it’s a good idea to ask on what times it can be bought hot (in a bakery). Poles are often very attached to their favourite bread suppliers and don’t mind getting up very early in the morning to obtain a fresh loaf. The most common bread (zwykły) is made of rye or rye and wheat flour with sourdough and is best enjoyed very fresh with butter alone or topped with a slice of ham. Many other varieties of breads and bread rolls can be bought and their names and recipes vary depending on a region. Sweet Challah bread (chałka in Polish) is sold in many bakeries.
Polish cake shops (cukiernia) are also worth mentioning, as there’s a big tradition of eating cakes in Poland. They can be found in every city and quite often sell local specialties. The standard cakes and desserts which can be found in every region of Poland are: cheesecake (sernik), applecake (jabłecznik), yeast fruit cakes (drożdżówka) – especially with plums or strawberries, a variety of cream cakes (kremówki), babka which is a plain sweet cake, sometimes with an addition of cocoa, mazurek, fale dunaju, metrowiec, ciasto jogurtowe which is a sponge filled with yoghurt mousse, doughnuts (pączki) which are traditionally filled with wild rose petals marmalade, pszczółka – a yeast cake with coconut pudding and many others.
Polish sausages (kiełbasy) are sold in grocery shops or in butcher’s shops (rzeźnik). There are tens of different types of sausages; most of them can be enjoyed without any further preparation. Therefore there are sausages like biała kiełbasa (traditionally enjoyed in żurek or barszcz biały soup) which are raw and need to be boiled, fried or baked before eating. Some sausages are recommended to be fried or roasted over a bonfire (which is probably as popular as barbecuing). Different local sausages can be found in different regions of Poland (like Lisiecka in Kraków area).
Polish fish & chips (smażalnia ryb) can be found in most cities on the Baltic Sea coast. On the coast and in the Masuria you can also find extremely valued in Poland fish smokehouses (wędzarnia ryb) which sell many types of smoked local fish (mostly marine fish on the coast, freshwater fish in Masuria). Smokehouses might turn out very difficult to find, as they don’t usually display advertisements and are sometimes in some remote areas. It is a good idea to do some investigation and to ask local people for directions and help with searching. Among smoked fish offered for sale you can find: salmon (łosoś), cod (dorsz), flounder (flądra), rose fish (karmazyn), herring (śledź), halibut (halibut), pollock (mintaj), hake (morszczuk), mackerel (makrela), skipper (szprotki, szprot), trout (pstrąg), brown trout (troć), eel (węgorz), zander (sandacz), carp (karp), vendace (sielawa), tencz (lin), bream (leszcz), sturgeon (jesiotr), asp (boleń) and others. You should be careful with smoked butterfish (maślana) as despite being very delicious it can cause diarrhea in some people and shouldn’t be eaten by children and elderly people.
In the whole Poland territory you can buy some smoked fish, among which the most popular is mackerel (it is advised to buy it in a busy shop for full, fresh flavour as it deteriorates quickly; for example in a local market). Also anywhere in Poland you can buy herrings in vinegar or oil marinade. One of the Polish favourites is battered herring or other fish in a vinegar marinade.
If you want to eat cheaply, you should visit a milk bar (bar mleczny). A milk bar is a very basic sort of fast food restaurant that serves cheap Polish fare. Nowadays it has become harder and harder to find one. They were invented by the communist authorities of Poland in mid-1960s as a means to offer cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. Its name originates from the fact that until late 1980s the meals served there were mostly dairy-made and vegetarian (especially during the martial law period of the beginning of the 1980s, when meat was rationed). The milk bars are usually subsidized by the state. Eating there is a unique experience – it is not uncommon that you will encounter people from various social classes – students, businessmen, university professors, elderly people, sometimes even homeless, all eating side-by-side in a 1970s-like environment. Presumably, it is the quality of food at absolutely unbeatable price (veggie main courses starting from just a few złoty!) that attracts people. However, a cautionary warning needs to be issued – complete nutjobs do dine at milk bars too, so even if you’re going for the food, you’ll end up with dinner and a show. Curious as to what the show will entail? Well, each show varies, but most of them will leave you scratching your head and require the suspension of disbelief.
Poland is on the border of European “vodka” and “beer culture”. Poles enjoy alcoholic drinks but they drink less than the European average. You can buy beer, vodka and wine. Although Poland is known as the birthplace of vodka, local beer seems to have much more appeal to many Poles. Another traditional alcoholic beverage is mead. Polish liqueurs and nalewka (alcoholic tincture) are a must.
You must be over 18 years old and be able to prove it with a valid ID to buy alcohol, and this is strictly enforced.
Poland’s brewery tradition began in the Middle Ages. Today Poland is one of top beer countries in Europe.
Although not well known internationally, Poland traditionally sports some of the best pilsner-type lagers worldwide. The most common big brands include:
- Żywiec (pronounced ZHIV-y-ets)
- Tyskie (pronounced TIS-kyeh)
- Okocim (pronounced oh-KO-cheem)
- Lech (pronounced LEH)
- Warka (pronounced VAR-kah)
- Łomża (pronounced Uom-zha)
Micro-breweries and gastro-pubs are on the rise, in particular in the larger cities, and many delicatessen or supermarkets carry smaller brands, including hand-crafted beers of many types.
Pubs usually offer one or two varietes of draught beer (draft beer), usually only pilsner-type lagers. When ordering a beer, you can choose between “big one” (duże; 0.5 liter) or “small one” (małe; 0.3 liter). You can also ask for “beer with juice” (piwo z sokiem), then a barman will add a bit of sweet syrup (raspberry or ginger). The most popular snack ordered with beer is potato chips.
Common brands are:
- Żubrówka (Zhoo-BROOF-ka) – vodka with flavors derived from Bison Grass, from eastern Poland.
- Żołądkowa Gorzka (Zho-wont-KO-va GOSH-ka) – vodka with “bitter” (gorzka) in the name, but sweet in taste. Just like Żubrówka, it’s a unique Polish product and definitely a must-try.
- Wiśniówka (Vish-NIOOF-ka) – Cherry vodka (very sweet).
- Krupnik (KROOP-nik) – Honey and spices vodka, a traditional Polish-Lithuanian recipe (very sweet). During winter, many bars sell Grzany Krupnik (warm Krupnik), where hot water, cinnamon, cloves, and citrus zest or slices are added.
- Żytnia (ZHIT-nea) – rye vodka
- Wyborowa (Vi-bo-RO-va) – One of Poland’s most popular rye vodkas. This is also one of the most common exported brands. Strong and pleasant.
- Luksusowa (Look-sus-OH-vah) “Luxurious” – Another popular brand, and a common export along with Wyborowa.
- Starka “Old” – A vodka traditionally aged for years in oak casks. Of Lithuanian origin
- Biała Dama (Be-AH-wa DAH-ma) is not a vodka but a name given by winos to cheap rectified spirits of dubious origin, best avoided if you like your eyesight the way it is.
- Sobieski – rye vodka, one of the most commonly chosen by Polish people.
Deluxe (more expensive) brands include Chopin and Belvedere. Most Poles consider these brands to be “export brands”, and usually don’t drink them.
There are also dozens of flavoured vodkas. Apart from Polish traditional flavours like: Żubrówka, Żołądkowa, Wiśniówka and Krupnik, you can easily buy some less obvious flavours like: pineapple, pear, blackcurrant, cranberry, grapefruit, apple, mint, lemon, herbs and others. The availability of different brands can vary in different regions of the country.
Poland makes wines around Zielona Góra in Lubuskie, in Małopolskie, in the Beskids and in Świętokrzyskie in central Poland. They used to be only available from the winery or at regional wine festivals, such as in Zielona Góra. But with a new law passed in 2008, this has changed and Polish wines are also available in retail stores.
As for imported wine, apart from the usual old and new world standards, there is usually a choice of decent table wines from central and eastern Europe, such as Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Balkans, and Georgia.
It winter, many Poles drink grzaniec (mulled wine), made of red wine heated with spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. A similar drink can be made with beer, although wine is the more popular method.
Mead – miód pitny is a traditional and historical alcohol drink in Poland. Mead is brewed from honey and has excellent unusual taste similar to wine. Original Polish mead contain 13-20% alcohol. Sometimes it can be very sweet. Today Poles have a strange relationship with mead. All of them have heard of it, almost none have ever tried it.
Poles are very keen on beer and vodka, and you’ll find that cocktails are often expensive but can be found in most bars in most major cities. One of the best known native to Poland drinks is Szarlotka made of Żubrówka vodka and apple juice.
Tea and coffee:
Throw stereotypes out the door. For Poles, one of the most important staples to quench their thirst is not wódka or beer, but rather tea and coffee. The traditional hot drink is tea (herbata) while coffee (kawa) although known in Poland since close contacts with Turkey in 17th century, became more popular in last twenty five years. It is very common behaviour that if you visit friends at home or start a formal meeting you will be firstly asked: “coffee or tea?”. Refusing a hot drink in this situation may be seen as impolite. It is rather unusual to talk or to meet with somebody without drinking one of those hot drinks.
When ordering a coffee, you’ll find that it is treated with respect reminiscent of Vienna, rather than, say, New York. Which is to say: you’ll get a fresh cup prepared one serving at a time, with table service that assumes you’ll sit down for a while to enjoy it. Mass-produced to-go coffee remains highly unpopular, although chains such as Coffee Heaven have been making inroads. Curiously, there are still only a few Starbucks shops in the whole country, which are occupied mostly by teenagers.
There are four basic types of coffee which you will be offered in Poland. In small bars, fast food or at friends home (where usually they haven’t coffee makers) you can choose between instant coffee (rozpuszczalna) or Turkish coffee (kawa po turecku or kawa sypana). The second one is a very specific Polish style, not known abroad. It is simply two teaspoons of ground coffee poured with boiling water. A traditional way is to serve it in glasses. In restaurants you can additionally order “a coffee from a coffee maker” (kawa z ekspresu). It may be a very small and strong, italian-style espresso or bigger one (200 ml) americano. During order a waiter or a barman always will ask you whether you want “black one?” (czarna?; without milk) or “with milk?” (z mlekiem?).
Ordering a tea, on the other hand, will usually get you a cup or kettle of hot water, and a tea bag on the side, so that the customer can put together a tea that’s as strong or as weak as they like. This is not uncommon in continental Europe, but may require some adjustment for visitors. Drinking tea with milk is not popular, traditionally Poles add a slice of lemon and sugar (herbata z cytryną), unless they drink flavored tea. Tea houses with large selection of good quality teas and a relaxing atmosphere are gaining popularity. In such places you will get rather a kettle with brewed leaf tea. Funnily, drinking tea with milk is commonly believed in Poland to enhance women’s lactation.
For the most part, a good coffee can be had for 5 – 10 zł a cup, while a cup of tea can be purchased for the same, unless you happen to order a small kettle, in which case you’ll probably pay something between 15 – 30 zł.