Looking for Polish Food in Warsaw
Back in San Francisco, moving to Poland meant that I'd be subscribing to a diet of pierogi, sausage and vodka. Edible, perhaps even necessary in the long winter I was anticipating, but definitely not something I saw myself craving on a daily basis. So for the two weeks before we move, I load up on everything San Francisco's got to offer: Mexican, Vietnamese, Greek, Thai, sushi, even Chinese which I rarely ate before that. You see, I made the mistake of trying sushi in Ukraine (from cured fish) and Chinese in Italy (tasted like snot), so I figured Poland will be no different and I'll have to stick to what they do best, i.e. pierogi and sausage and vodka.
Loaded up on more tacos and soy sauce than I've had in a year, I get to Warszawa, bracing myself for the Eastern European diet...
Day 1. Vegan Street
On my first day, when lunch rolls around, we wander around to find some food. This is my first meal in Poland, so I'm fully prepared for a plate of pierogi and sausage. Instead, we end up on Vegan Street. That's not really its official name, but it might as well be because on this stretch of Poznanska Street pretty much every restaurant is vegan. There is vegan Mediterranean. Vegan pizza. And... vegan sushi.
Though I wasn't necessarily craving Polish food, seeing this proliferation of veganism, something in me protests: did we really move out of San Francisco to Warsaw to eat vegan sushi?
But the street looks nice and it's the closest thing to our apartment, so we decide to try a cute cafe and order the closest thing I can find to Polish food: a beet hummus.
Day 2. Night Market (or Nocny Market)
The next evening, on Saturday, a friend picks us up in a cab and takes us to an old, abandoned train station. This is a new friend in a new city, so when we walk down a dark, cobble-stone street past abandoned barracks-looking buildings, I'm hoping we won't end up being his dinner. But then, we hear some noises and soon emerge onto what was once a train platform (an old sign above the tracks says 'Moscwa'), where a DJ is dropping some beats from a booth and a big crowd of young, Polish hipsters is drinking mugs of beer and eating at food stalls that line both sides of the platform.
We walk around the stalls and find: crepes, bahn mi sandwiches, dim sum, burgers, vegan food, oysters, ice cream, more burgers, more vegan food. And no Polish food. I guess Polish hipsters aren't into Polish food. Ok, fine. We get a burger.
Day 3. Breakfast Market (Targi sniadaniowe)
Living in San Francisco, we've eaten at our fair share of food truck parties. They happen at night. They happen during the day. So the morning after we check out the Night Market and party till dawn, I skeptically raise a hungover eyebrow when the same friend from the night before invites us to Warsaw's Breakfast Market. We wonder if it would be any different than food truck markets we've already seen. And, more importantly, would there be any Polish food? Because some pierogi and sausages sound pretty good after a long sleepless night.
We arrive and the breakfast market is adorable: it's in a little leafy park and everyone is sitting on picnic blankets or swinging in hammocks. But we have no time for cuteness. It's 1 p.m. and we need something to combat our hangovers, so we walk around the stalls surrounding the park and see: a honey farmer and a home-brewed herb lemonade guy, a popular ice cream stand (cuz who doesn't want ice cream for breakfast? duh!) and a vegan crepe stand with an earnest hippie couple churning out vegetable goulash in buckwheat crepes. I spot a girl selling khlodnik, a cold Polish beet and kefir soup (technically, it's actually Lithuanian and I also used to have it as a kid in Ukraine). Yay, I think, Polish food will be mine after all! But right when I'm about to order, I notice it's a vegan stand and her khlodnik is made out of coconut milk with chia seeds sprinkled on top. Um, no thanks.
Clearly, there will be no true Polish food at this breakfast market. So I go for the buckwheat crepe. Meanwhile, the boys go for Georgian because nothing cures a hangover better than khinkali (Georgian soup dumplings).
Then, we stand in the shade by the hammocks and go back home to sleep it all off.
Day 4. Milk Bar (Bar mleczny)
It's the next day and now we're seriously craving some Polish food. Which is not a phrase I ever thought I'd say. But we're in Poland after all and all this vegan-burger-international thing has got us all confused. Is there any Polish food left in Poland?
As we're walking home after seeing yet another strangely modern apartment, we pass a Starbucks, a burger joint, a pizzeria. I'm hungry, but none of those look particularly inviting. Then, out of a corner of my eye, I spot a picture of a smiling cow above a cafeteria-looking establishment. I don't think much of it at first, but a few steps later it hits me - this may be the famous milk bars that we read about in the guidebook, the old cheap cafeterias that serve Polish food to the proletariat (and Polish food-craving tourists). Immediately, I grab Mr. and we backtrack to the cow.
We walk in and I am right! This is "bar mleczny", a milk bar, and there isn't a single vegan dish in sight! The menu is in Polish only, which is a great sign. But an even better sign is a tray full of glasses filled with an apricot-colored kompot. It means nothing to Mr., but to me the tray is a time-machine that brings me almost 30 years back to my Soviet-era kindergarten where our teacher would bring us a tray of the similarly apricot-colored kompot, a juice made from boiled fruits.
Oh joy, we're in Eastern Europe at last! Mr. orders pierogi and I order a khlodnik. And of course, we finish our meal with kompot.
Day 5. Home Cooking (Domowy kuchnia)
The milk bar experience was delicious, so now more Polish food is needed. Plus, it's now become a matter of curiosity - are there Poles who still like eating Polish food over vegan sushi and burgers?..
After we move out of the nightmarish houseboat and into a hotel, we're walking down a bedraggled little street with overgrown weeds and fences, when we suddenly come upon a small sign "domowy kuchnia" (home cooking) that points toward a wooden hut. We peek in and find a bunch of big Polish dudes eating things out of plastic plates with plastic forks. Pop music is blasting. And the ceiling is covered with... straw. If this isn't Polish, I don't know what is. So of course we enter.
It turns out to be one of those places where you order and then when your meal is ready, you go and pick it up from the counter. Kind of like American fast food, except with a straw ceiling.
We follow our Polish comrades and go to place an order with an old man behind the counter. But as soon as we start to mispronounce dish names, he shakes his head in a panic and runs out to get his son. The son speaks great English and seems very excited to get some American visitors in his hut. While everyone else has to go pick up their food, he gladly becomes our waiter, proudly bringing us bowls of khlodnik (yes, again, you can never get enough of khlodnik) to our table. He also turns up the music some more. I guess he thinks Americans like loud music while they eat...
The khlodnik is great, but when he brings us seconds, our jaws drop. These are construction worker portions that even Mr. couldn't finish. So after a few bites of what once again reminds me of childhood meals back in Russia, we decide to stop forcing it and doggie-bag our food. They don't doggie bag things in Poland, we figure, but that's ok - we don't live too far away, so maybe we'll just carry our plates back to the hotel.
Not so fast, says our enthusiastic young host. He takes our plates, disappears somewhere in the back of the kitchen, and with a huge grin reemerges holding a plastic to-go container with our food perfectly machine-sealed.
Oh, and the whole four-dish meal costs us $12. Now, That's the Poland we like :)