It’s a rainy Monday morning when I arrive in Kruszyniany, a picturesque village deep inside the forest of the Podlaskie Voivodeship in north-eastern Poland. A rare cultural melting pot thanks to its mix of Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, the sleepy 100-inhabitant settlement is also home to eight families of Poland’s 3,000 known Tatars, a Muslim ethnic minority whose roots can be traced back to the Mongol Empire.
Kruszyniany is so close to Belarus that my mobile provider sends a text to welcome me to the neighbouring Eastern European country. But for the Tatars in Kruszyniany, however close they are to the other countries where the formerly nomadic Tatars have also settled, Poland is a strong part of their identity. “We’re Poles and will continue to be Poles, nothing will change about that,” asserts Dżenneta Bogdanowicz, who moved to Kruszyniany 17 years ago from north-eastern town Supraśl.
Indeed, throughout Polish history, the Tatars have patriotically defended their adopted homeland, even going against their own kin, the Crimean Khanate Tatars, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fought the Ottoman Empire in the 1683 Battle of Vienna. It was for similarly valiant military service that the Tatars arrived in Kruszyniany, when in 1679, the village was gifted to them by the Polish-Lithuanian leader, King Jan III Sobieski.
The following centuries saw the Tatars assimilating into Polish society while retaining their cultural and religious differences. This all changed with Soviet rule beginning after the end of World War Two—ethnic difference was suppressed by the homogenising Communist regime.
“But when Communism ended in the 1990s, the ethnic minorities began to underline their cultural differences again and that’s when historians started to realise that the Tatar identity is complicated and comprised of many different elements,” Dr. Karolina Radłowska, author of Polish Tatars and director of ethnography at Podlasie Museum of Folk Culture, tells me. Radłowska explains that for Tatars, not only does their practice of Islam differ to Muslims from the Near East (for example, they don’t pray five times a day and pilgrimage to Mecca isn’t compulsory), but their Tatar identity is underscored by culture and traditions, rather than religion.
This was precisely what Dżenneta Bogdanowicz wanted to preserve when she decided to start renovating her husband Mirosław’s family home in Kruszyniany. Thanks to the couple’s “open house” hospitality, their dwelling became a popular summertime destination for those wanting to learn about Tatar history. Eventually, the pair gave up their jobs to open the agritourism business Tatarska Jutra (Tatar Yurt), whose cuisine became so popular even Prince Charles visited in 2010.
“Characterised by robustness and meatiness, Tatar food is made up of the whole of Asia. Everywhere where Tatars have been, they’ve absorbed the cuisine,” Bogdanowicz explains.
“When the Tatars were nomadic people, they would cook one-pot meals on an open fire and eat raw meat. The Polish tartare is a Tatars-originating dish,” she continues. “When the Tatars settled at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century, that’s when the cooking of dumplings began, with what they adopted from China. That’s how dumplings found their way into royal households in Poland and Lithuania. But for those cuisines, only the kołduny dumpling name has stuck, their kołduny are different from ours.”
Cooked in a meat broth that’s then served separately, the Tatar kołduny are traditionally made from unleavened dough and stuffed with three types of meat: beef, mutton, and veal. Other Tatar dumpling specialities are kartoflanki, made from a potato-based dough and manty, which are similar to Poland’s pierogi, but are steamed instead of fried. Stuffed with cottage cheese, manty can be served savoury, with nut-infused melted butter; or sweet, and it’s the former that I go for at Tatarska Jurta. Lathered in rich yogurt and stewed strawberries, they’re incredibly light, which complements their almost grainy thick cheese filling.
As well as running Tatarska Jurta, Bogdanowicz and her husband travel all over the world to give workshops on Tatar culture and cuisine, even visiting places as unlikely as Tel Aviv. In her work to celebrate and preserve Tatar culture, Bogdanowicz also petitioned for the signature Tatar pierekaczewnik to be registered as a European Union Traditional Speciality Guaranteed dish, a wish that was granted in 2009. Comprising of up to six layers of thinly rolled and stretched dough, the savoury- or sweet-filled bake is extremely time intensive to make. This is why Bogdanowicz was so keen to get it protected.
“Because the cuisine is becoming increasingly popular, some inauthentic restaurants have emerged, but this way people will know what a real pierekaczewnik is supposed to be like,” she explains.
Unfortunately, Bogdanowicz can’t show me how she makes any of her dishes during my visit to Kruszyniany, as Tatarska Jurta tragically went up in flames at the end of April. Until it is rebuilt, its restaurant is renting a nearby kitchen and thanks to charitable donations of equipment, is still able to serve customers a reduced menu of Tatar specialities like the turkey meat stuffed turnover czeburek in a makeshift marquee. However, we meet again at a cooking workshop during the sixth annual Festival of Tatar Culture at the Podlasie Museum of Folk Culture near the city of Białystok the following weekend.
Amongst Tatars dressed in traditional attire showcasing dancing, singing, and horsemanship, Bogdanowicz is explaining how Tatar households continue the tradition of using every single last scrap of food. As an example, she describes how the nomadic Tatars would dry leftover meats in the sun, place them in sacks then rehydrate with boiling water for what she guesses might have been was the original Cup-a-Soup. Her demonstration presents the same principles applied to dough. While the non-Tatar onlookers are familiar with the flour, water, and salt mixture that’s only an egg away from pierogi, they are awed by the many different ways in which the kołduny dough can be turned into a completely different speciality, from a dry-fried pitta reminiscent flatbread— lawasz—to a crispy icing sugar sprinkled wafer, the deep-fried dżajma.
“It’s not about the ingredients but the technique,” Bogdanowicz says while dexterously demonstrating using three different types of rolling pin.
“I heard about your house burning down,” someone says.
“Yes, it was a tragedy,” Bogdanowicz replies. “But the Tatars are unbreakable. The next day, we got up and we started cooking again.”
Changing borders, oppressive governments, and lack of opportunity for religious practice may soon force the Tatars to adapt their way of life. But what they will always hold at the core of their identity is their distinctive and delicious food.