Polish cooking

The Stories in This Polish Cookbook Are Just as Important as the Recipes

“The idea was to use food as a window into Polish culture,” says Zuza Zak, author of Polska: New Polish Cooking. “I don’t think it matters if the taste isn’t always authentic."

by Daisy Meager
10 August 2016, 5:40pm

"Everyone's cooking it in their homes but Polish cooking was still a bit of a secret … Well, until I wrote this book."

I'm talking to Zuza Zak, author of recently published cookbook Polska: New Polish Cooking. We're in her London kitchen and she is busy preparing potato knedle—a type of dumpling—stuffed with juicy plums.

"I was sure that a book like this would come out because Poles love cooking and eating, and the food is amazing," Zak continues as she starts to cut the mashed potato dough into segments. "And then it just didn't."

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Zuza Zak, author of Polska: New Polish Cooking flattens the dough for knedle. All photos by the author.

So Zak wrote one herself, drawing on her Polish upbringing (she moved to the UK from Warsaw when she was eight), years of historical cookbook research in the British Library, and many early mornings spent developing recipes around her day job in TV.

But Polska isn't just a collection of things to cook. In among recipes for crispy duck with apple and walnut sauce, beer-battered nettle leaves, and salted caramel mazurek (a sweet pastry), you'll find snippets of Polish history.

"The whole idea was to use food as a window into Polish culture," explains Zak. "I don't think it matters if the taste isn't always 100 percent authentic and some ingredients have to be substituted. The thing is to keep the cuisine alive and developing."

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Zak lived just outside Warsaw during the country's Communist era. The period had a huge impact on Polish society (Zak tells me that "Communism killed off a lot of culture"), including how she learned to cook growing up.

"I cooked with my grandmas a lot when I was a child and learned from them," Zak says. "They really brought me up because my parents were working. It was Communist time so families would always help each other out."

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The knedle ready for cooking.

When she and her family arrived in the UK, food was used as a means to connect with home.

"When I came over to England, we couldn't go back for seven years or so because we wanted to get citizenship, so food became a connection with my childhood and my family," says Zak. "We tried to cook dishes that we'd cook back in Poland but the ingredients were so different then."

Zak continues: "Now you can get almost everything and there are so many Polish shops around, but I give a lot of options in the book for people who can't get to one. Twaróg [a type of soft cheese] can quite often be replaced with ricotta, for example."

She starts to flatten and roll the dough for the knedle, preparing them to be stuffed.

Despite me arriving on Zak's doorstep as she juggles her book launch with attempts to move house and go on holiday, she still apologies for the, in her opinion, inferior quality of the plums. They're to be stewed in sugar as an accompaniment to the knedle.

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Zak draining the cooked dumplings.

"This is my favourite dumpling recipe although it was weirdly difficult to get nice plums," she says. "In Poland, they're everywhere at the moment. I managed to find a pack yesterday but they still aren't as good as they could be. I hope you're hungry, though."

After assuring Zak that the smell of the knedle alone is making my stomach rumble, I ask why she thinks Polish food has for so long been synonymous with stodgy stews and bland root vegetables.

"I think Communism killed off a lot of culture and a lot of cuisine. Restaurants just weren't really in existence in Communist times, apart from milk bars," she explains. "But Poland has a hospitality culture so people invite you to their homes and that's where the cuisine flourished."

"People coming over from different countries—even post-Communism—and going to restaurants weren't going to get a good idea of what Polish food is like," she continues. "Even when it became easier for people to travel out of the country, they got more interested in bringing back food from places they'd visited, rather than shouting about their own cuisine."

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Zak serving the fried knedle.

Zak tells me that while restaurant culture is on the up in places like Warsaw, hospitality has always been a huge part of Polish culture. So much so that myths about how Poland came to be are built upon it.

The introduction of Polska tells the story of a ploughman's modest feast to which two strangers were invited after being turned away by the prince. The strangers turned out to have magic powers, and were able to multiply the food and drink. The son of the ploughman, so the story goes, went on to dethrone the prince and found the first Polish dynasty.

READ MORE: This Cookbook Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About Soviet Food

I can't claim to have dumpling doubling powers, but judging by the smell of the knedle Zak is frying in breadcrumbs and butter, I'll certainly be able to decrease their numbers.

As more stewed plums are heated to serve with the knedle ("I can never have enough plums with these!"), I ask Zak what the reaction to Polska has been from Polish expats in the UK.

Beaming, she says: "It's been amazing. So much so that I'm bringing out a version in Poland next year. I never thought people would be interested because they know about the cuisine is like. And people have even said that they prefer my recipe to their grandma's. That's pretty much the biggest compliment you can get."

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The finished dish of potato knedle with stewed plums.

Zak assures me that Polish food lovers won't beat around the bush if dishes don't live up to expectations.

"When I was developing recipes, I had Polish people round to try them," she says. "Poles love their food just as much as Italians and can talk about it for as long too. And they won't hold back if they don't like something."

As Zak serves the knedle with a dollop of plums on the side, I'm certainly finding it hard to hold back.

I cut into the steaming, plummy dumplings and hoover two of the sweet, doughy knedle. This really hits the second breakfast spot, I tell Zak.

She laughs and informs me that second breakfasts are "actually quite a thing in Poland."

That seals the deal. Where do I sign up for a Polish babcia?

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Zuza Zak