In Poland, Pierogi and Herring Have Their Day in the Sun

Poles are choosing the components of their national cuisine. Or is it Jewish cuisine?

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Polish food.
Polish food.Credit: Meir Bulka
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

“Every country in this world has a national food that everyone knows,” wrote Dan Almagor in a moderately famous Hebrew tune, “The Falafel Song.” The ditty mentions Viennese schnitzel, Italian macaroni, French frogs legs and Chinese rice, but sure enough, no Polish food is on the menu.

Now, as Poland celebrates 100 years of independence, the government decided that it was time for Polish cuisine to get its due. This week is the closing date for Poland’s “national recipe” competition declared by the  Agriculture Ministry.

Polish foods

The objective is pretty ambitious: to create a list of 100 “authentic” Polish dishes. The ministry’s website stresses the diplomatic aspect of “reviving Polish cuisine,” depicting it as a vital component of defining the Polish national identity and strengthening Poland’s image abroad.

A committee comprised of chefs and food historians will review the recipes submitted from all over Poland and pick the winners. And Agriculture Minister Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski has promised that restaurants serving at least 10 of the 100 chosen dishes will be certified as serving authentic Polish food.

But the competition lacked controversy, with the million-zloty question being: What exactly is Polish food?

Polish herring or “Jewish-style fish.”
Polish herring or “Jewish-style fish.”Credit: Meir Bulka
Polish food.
Polish food. Credit: Meir Bulka

The minister anticipated these arguments and tried to calm things down in advance. In a special announcement, he offered assurances that the government wouldn’t deny the contribution of other nations to Polish national cuisine. “Jews, Germans, Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars have all left their mark on our menu, evidence of our ethnic richness,” he said.

His words managed to irritate Meir Bulka, whose last name suspiciously resembles the Polish word for roll or bun. Bulka is a food photographer and founder of the organization J-nerations, which strives to preserve Jewish heritage in Poland.

He says the Jewish contribution to Polish food is definitive and shouldn’t have been mentioned in tandem with the marginal contributions of other peoples.

The preservation of so-called Polish foods happens every day in Israel, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, Bulka says, offering plenty of examples.

“Their pierogi are basically the Jewish kreplach that we love so much,” he  says.

Polish food.
Polish food. Credit: Meir Bulka

In Poland, Polish herring is called “Jewish-style fish,” while to this day matza-ball soup is considered a delicacy in Poland. “Even chicken soup ... is called Jewish penicillin in Poland,” Bulka says.

Meanwhile, Zvi Kelner, director of the Israel-Poland Friendship Association, says he’s “crazy about authentic Polish food that isn’t necessarily Jewish.” Some examples are zurek (a soup), golonka (pork knuckle), kaszanka (blood sausage) and kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet).

Until the results are announced and “Polish dish” gets an official definition, you might consider the food for thought offered by one online kibitzer. Rather than looking for more reasons to eat, he suggested declaring a Polish national diet to mark the country’s 100th anniversary. “We’re getting fat,” he said.