Cuisine is a vital part of experiencing a culture when you travel, and what better way to do this than to tuck into it, fork-first, or sip and slurp its nuanced flavors, with guilt-free abandon, all in the name of being a good, open-minded, and gastronomically adventurous traveler? Poland remains under-the-radar as a destination, and not much is known about traditional Polish food outside of the region. But after my first trip to the country in 2018 visiting the cities of Warsaw and Wroclaw, I was both pleasantly surprised and somewhat intrigued by the novelty of the flavors of Polish cuisine.
Seasonal dishes, refreshing cold soups, and hearty dumplings- they were all new and delicious to me, and I didn’t hold back. But advice to eat like a local is most effective when it actually comes from locals, so I’m happy to have guest contributors Marta and Milosz of Backpackers Wro write up this guide to get acquainted with Polish cuisine and insider tips on what to eat in Poland.
Evolution of Polish Cuisine Over Time
Polish cuisine is inseparably connected to the history of Poland. It was formed by the climate of central-eastern Europe, the plants and animals found in this region, and shaped by religious customs and traditions. Other cultures, such as Italian, German, French, Jewish, and Russian, significantly influenced the development of Polish cuisine over the years. As many products were neither always easily available nor affordable, a lot of traditional dishes are based on cheap and widely available ingredients (such as cabbage, potatoes, groats, and beets).
When to Taste Traditional Polish Foods
Polish cuisine reminds us of childhood memories and the delicious dishes prepared by our mothers and grandmothers. The best way to familiarize yourself with Polish cuisine is to participate in one of the traditional Polish celebrations. It can be Easter, Christmas Eve and Christmas, a wedding, a name-day party or a festive Sunday dinner. Some of the dishes are served only on specific days or holidays and trust us, they’re worth the wait!
What Locals Eat in Poland
Usually we eat a simple breakfast such as scrambled eggs or sandwiches (here’s where to find the best breakfast in Wroclaw). In the early afternoon, we have lunch, which often consists of soup and main course. We finish the meal with dessert. In the evening we have supper, which is lighter and smaller than lunch.
We prepared a list of our favorite Polish dishes, snacks, soups, and drinks. The list is subjective and well, every local will have slightly different recommendations depending on which part of Poland they’re from and their own personal favorites. Think of this guide to Polish cuisine as a handbook to discover Polish flavors further. Wherever possible, we will try to translate the name of the dish into English.
25 Traditional Polish Foods & What to Eat in Poland
A typical Polish dinner is primarily a piece of meat, boiled potatoes, and salad. The type of meat on the plate depends on the region, restaurant, or guest preferences, but the most popular are pork, beef, chicken, turkey, goose, freshwater fish, and venison.
Snacks / Sides in Polish Cuisine
Polish snacks are a big part of the cuisine- you can expect to find these most commonly in pubs in big cities in Poland.
We add groats to many Polish dishes. There are different types of groats (i.e. buckwheat groats, millet groats, barley groats), and all of them are healthy and full of minerals and fiber. You can eat them instead of potatoes in the main dish, add to your morning porridge or to a smoothie, or stuff dumplings with it.
Where to try: Try different types of groats at Chłopskie Jadło, Grodzka Street, Kraków.
Kapusta kiszona (Sauerkraut)
This Polish superfood is often served as a salad for the main course. It is also the basis of many Polish traditional dishes (bigos, krokiety, sauerkraut soup, etc.). It is extremely healthy and easy to make at home. You can also buy it in every Polish market. Remember that it is better to choose the one from the barrel than those packed in plastic bags or boxes.
Ogórek kiszony (pickled cucumber)
Another Polish superfood, these are cucumbers, pickled with dill, garlic, horseradish, and plenty of salt water. It can be a base for soups and salads or a separate snack.
Where to try: Try it at Przedwojenna Pub, św. Mikołaj Square 81, Wrocław or buy in one of the markets in Poland.
Chleb ze smalcem (bread with lard)
This Polish street food is sold at fairs and local markets. It is a huge slice of bread with grease made from pork fat, often enriched with a little salt, pieces of crushed sausage and onions.
Where to try: Try it at Ambasada pub, św. Mikołaja 8 Street, Wrocław.
Kluski śląskie (Silesian dumplings)
Silesian dumplings are a type of potato dumplings. They are served as an addition to roasted meat dishes with sauce (in Upper Silesia especially with roulades) or cabbage prepared in various ways. They also appear as a basic dish, sprinkled with hot bacon. They are a favorite dish in Lower and Upper Silesia.
Oscypek (sheep cheese)
It is a hard, smoked cheese, prepared from sheep’s milk, characteristic of Polish mountains, especially Podhale. You can buy it in almost all touristic places in Poland, during fairs and regional events. Make sure that you purchase the oscypek from the stand or shop with the certificate, as there are many cheaper imitations on the market. Last but not least, it tastes great warm and with cranberry jam.
Sausage and vodka are the two main Polish export products, so you can imagine that the Polish sausage is a popular dish with good reason. The traditional composition of the sausage is salted pork with spices. Due to climatic conditions in Poland (high humidity in the air), sausages were preserved by smoking. There are various types of sausages, and you can eat them as a snack, add to your sandwich, soup, main dishes, or sauces. If you are not a vegetarian, don’t leave Poland without buying some sausages.
Where to try: Try it at Ambasada pub, św. Mikołaja 8 street, Wrocław.
This Polish fast food originates in Wroclaw in the Lower Silesia region. It is a half of a yeast bread roll that is slightly hollowed in the center, optionally previously grilled, stuffed with a variety of fillings, for example, raw vegetables with a cutlet and a generous serving of sauce. The classic version of knysza is the vegetarian one. The bread roll is filled only with fresh vegetables and garlic mayonnaise or spicy sauce and sprinkled on top with roasted onions.
Where to try: Try it at Zbyszko Bar, Baltycka 21 street, Wrocław
Pyry z gzikiem (potatoes with gzik)
A typical dish of cuisine from the Wielkopolska region, consisting of cooked potatoes and gzik – seasoned cottage cheese, it is served as a snack or appetizer.
Where to try: Try it at Przedwojenna Pub, św. Mikołaj Square 81, Wrocław
Galat (salty jelly)
Galat is a dish prepared from meat, fish or vegetables with the addition of gelatin. Inside the jelly, we serve meat, fish, eggs, or vegetables. Galat is a great appetizer served mainly in the little bars in the center of big Polish cities, where you can buy cheap shots of vodka and draught beer.
Where to try: Our recommendation is SETKA bar, Kazimierza Wielkiego 50A street in Wrocław
Śledź w oleju (herring in oil)
Christmas Eve and Lent is the time when herring appears on dinner tables all over the country. Herring in oil is the most popular, but not the only way of serving this fish. Similar to galat, you can find it as an appetizer in Polish restaurants and bars.
Where to try: Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa, Nowogrodzka 27 street, Warsaw
Traveling around Poland? Here’s what to do in Wroclaw, Poland’s city with a fairytale-like Old Town.
What to Eat in Poland: Main dishes in Polish Cuisine
Pierogi are known in Poland from the Middle Ages and came to us probably from the Far East. These little dumplings full of delicious stuffings are perhaps one of the most famous and well-known traditional Polish foods, and you simply should not leave Poland without trying them. We stuff them with curds and potatoes (so-called Russian dumplings), meat, groats, spinach or cabbage and mushrooms (Christmas Eve dish). We love them cooked or cooked and then fried.
Where to try: Try a wide range of dumplings by getting a mixed plate at Pierogarnia Stary Młyn, Rynek 26, Wrocław
Served hot as a separate dish or addition to soups, croquettes are prepared from a fried pancake, spread with stuffing (for example, cabbage and mushrooms), coated with breadcrumbs and fried in fat. In some regions of Poland, vegetarian croquettes are also served on Christmas Eve.
Where to try: Try them at Pierogi MR Vincent, Bożego Ciała 12 street, Kraków
Bigos occupies an honorary place among all Polish dishes and has been known for centuries. It is prepared from sauerkraut, meat, and spices. In the past, bigos was served for breakfast, dinner, or appetizer. Before eating it, a glass of vodka had to be drunk. Currently, everyone prepares bigos in their own way. Be careful when buying bigos from untrusted bars or restaurants. Some dishonest restaurateurs treat bigos as recycling of stale meats.
Where to try: Try it at Nakryto – Kuchnia Polska, Beera Meisela 14 street, Kraków
Gołąbki (Stuffed cabbage)
Stuffed cabbage is a dish of stuffing, mainly rice or groats and minced meat, wrapped in cabbage leaves. Traditionally, it is served with tomato sauce. The direct translation of the word “gołąbki” are pigeons. It is said that this name is referring to an elegant dish straight from France: stuffed pigeons roasted in cabbage leaves.
Where to try: Try them at Restauracja Stary Dom, Puławska 104/106 street, Warsaw
Karp smażony (fried carp)
A classic dish on a Christmas Eve table. Carp is a freshwater fish that has been found in Poland for ages. Currently, carp is eaten not only during Christmas Eve but in some regions of Poland, you can also find carp patties, carp soup or dumplings stuffed with carp.
Soups to try in traditional Polish cuisine
Soups are very much an integral part of traditional Polish cuisine and often, they’re seasonal- both in terms of the ingredients and weather-suitability depending on the time of year. Cool, light, refreshing soups such as cold beet soup are a type of popular Polish summer food.
Żurek (sour soup)
Żurek is a sourdough soup. You will find it in all the Polish restaurants. In some regions of Poland, it is served as an Easter dish. We add sausage, ribs, or bacon to it and serve it in a loaf of bread. You’ll also find a vegetarian version, prepared from vegetable broth.
Where to try:Try it at Soul Kitchen Bistro, Nowogrodzka 18A street, Warsaw.
Borscht is a traditional Polish dish. It was served across tables, whether at the royal castle or in peasant huts. The soup is prepared from beets. Barszcz z uszkami (uszka are small dumplings stuffed with mushrooms), boiled on vegetable broth, and is a traditional Christmas Eve dish.
Where to try: Try it at Nakryto – Kuchnia Polska, Beera Meisela 14 street, Kraków.
Czernina is a soup whose essential ingredients are broth and… duck’s blood. In the old days, it was given to the bachelor who was refused the hand of the maiden. This soup is rarely served in restaurants, but if you do find it somewhere, you should try it if you are not put off by the ingredients.
Desserts to try in Poland
Do not confuse it with a typical American donut with a hole. In Poland, we even have a day dedicated to eating donuts. It’s called Fat Thursday (makes sense), and it’s the last Thursday before Lent. Polish donuts are prepared from yeast dough, stuffed with jam, chocolate or pudding and fried in plenty of fat. As a final touch, they’re covered with icing or sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Where to try: If you ever visit Warsaw, we recommend donuts from Chmielna street or A.Blikle cafe in Warsaw, Nowy Świat 33.
Rogal świętomarciński (Saint Martin Croissant)
A croissant with white poppy seed filling, originating from Poznań, Wielkopolska region, Rogal świętomarciński is baked for the feast of St. Martin, which falls on November 11. This croissant comes with an official certificate, as it assures the original taste.
Where to try: You can buy your certified croissant at Cukiernia Weber, Wielkopolska 7 avenue in Poznań.
Makowiec (poppy seed cake)
It’s made of yeast dough layered with a mass of ground poppy, sugar or honey, and dried fruit. Makowiec is a typical Christmas and Easter dessert in Polish cuisine. According to popular beliefs, the poppy eaten on Christmas Eve was to provide happiness and protect against the forces of evil. It is easily available in the majority of Polish cafes and bakeries.
Drinks to try in Poland
Miód pitny (mead)
Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey. Known in Poland for centuries and valued much more than beer, it can be enjoyed hot or cold. Did you know that the word ‘honeymoon’ is derived from mead? Mead was given to the bride and groom at the wedding, as well as throughout the honeymoon.
The mead’s sweetness and alcohol content was supposed to put the newlyweds into a state of ease and to result in a child quickly.
Where to try: You can try it at Restauracja Specjały Regionalne, Nowy Świat 44, Warsaw.
Slivovitz is a dry, highly (up to 70%) alcoholic drink made from plums. The legal status of this drink is controversial because its production and sale are officially illegal, however, due to the high quality and reputation of this alcohol, it can be found in some Polish stores and in the region where it is produced (Łącko commune in south-eastern Poland).
Where to try: You can try it at Restauracja Specjały Regionalne, Nowy Świat 44, Warsaw.
Another alcohol drink, huh? We compete for the title of vodka homeland with Russia, but anyway, vodka is undoubtedly an element of Polish culture and tradition. It is often present during the most important celebrations and social gatherings, and it is considered a traditional Polish drink. It is also a significant export product recognized around the world.
Where to try: Try it at Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa, Nowogrodzka 27 street, Warsaw.
Visiting Poland? Here’s what to do in the capital Warsaw.
We hope that our list convinced you to try our traditional Polish dishes while traveling around Poland. In our cuisine, you can find everything: vegetarian, vegan, healthy, fat, sweet, salty, and light meals. We are sure that once you try Polish cuisine, at least a few dishes will appeal to your tastebuds. If you’ve ever tried Polish cuisine, please leave us a comment below telling us about your favorites.