Despite being a kiełbasa-loving country, Christmas dinner in Poland is basically vegetarian, a tradition with roots in the Catholic church.
It’s also traditional to leave an extra plate setting on the table for an unexpected guest or people who don’t have family nearby. (Think of an inn keeper offering a manger to a certain family.) And for my dining companion’s family, their extra place setting went to good use this year.
For the past few weeks, my English students have been describing their holiday plans to me, which revolve around visiting family and eating food. Since I like food, I encouraged them to share recipes and descriptions of their favorite dishes with me. After a few conversations, I realized something: none of the food involved meat. Mushroom dumplings, borscht, pierogis, stuffed cabbage, fruit and grain puddings, cakes. They did mention that the main course appeared to be carp, but everything else was meat-free— and that traditionally, twelve different dishes would be served.
So when a friend invited me to his family’s place for Christmas dinner, I was beyond delighted, and made sure to take my camera.
My dining companion’s family was very sweet, and happy to hear my (extremely broken) Polish. For example, before the meal, it’s traditional to break little wafers, and exchange wishes with everyone before you eat. And I attempted to do this in Polish. (I probably should have started to learn “wish” sometime before the tram ride that day!) Which meant my host’s family was treated to me cheerfully announcing things like “Wish you big zloty!” instead of the traditional wish for success in the following year.
First course is uszka, which are delicious dumplings stuffed with savory wild mushrooms. Like pieorgis, but shaped differently, the name means “little ears.” They’re served with borscht (or barszcz, in Polish.)
Next was regular pierogis, stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms, followed by stuffed cabbage (gołąbki.) Both homemade and absolutely delicious. The main course (for me!) was a type of potato salad, which I’ve seen described in cookbooks as “Olivier potato salad.” I’ve had this before, at my friend’s house on on Easter, and I just love it. Very simple, it’s made with diced potatoes, carrots, peas, corn, pickles and egg, mixed with mayonnaise. It’s served with beetroot flavored with spicy horseradish, which is a wonderful contrast in flavor and color. (I have a recipe for this, if you’re interested!)
Luckily, I could ignore the herring and carp and concentrate on dessert: apple pie, chocolate cake, and a kind of cheesecake with a layer of sweet poppy seed filling (makówki.)
While my Polish is only at the point where I can describe food, ask how you’re doing, and complain about the weather, I was happy to discover that I could actually guess what most conversations were about. (Key words for the win!)
To all: Wesołych Świąt, Bożego Narodzenia! (Happy holidays, and Merry Christmas!)