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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Poland

Culinary Influences

Polish Food - Zurek in a bread bowl
Zurek in a bread bowl

Polish food is very heavily based on pork and hearty vegetables like potatoes, cabbage, and beets. Little has altered this, but living on the plains of northern Europe, there have been dozens of ethnic groups moving back and forth as Poland became a center of trade.

As Poland grew as a center of trade, many Jews settled in the region, bringing more diversity to the cuisine. Over time the Jews introduced many dishes and altered others. Perhaps the most well-known dish the Jews invented in Poland is the bagel, which is now internationally renowned.

In the 1500s the Polish king married an Italian, who brought chefs from Italy, hence forever altering the foods and preparation styles of Polish cuisine. In the 1700s Poland was taken over by the Russians, Prussians (Germans), and Austrians, adding more foods to the country. For example, borsch and cakes from Russia became very popular and remain so today.

Since the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, quick service restaurants have sprouted up. American food chains have been established with success, Turkish-inspired kebab stands can be seen everywhere, and a traditional Polish snack, zapiekanka is more readily available.

Staple Foods

Bread: breads are commonly served with Polish meals unless cabbage or potatoes are served

Regional Variations & Specialties

Barszcz: the Polish version of Russia's borsch, or beet soup
Bigos: pieces of meats and sausages mixed into a sauerkraut base that is cooked in a broth
Golonka: pork knuckle slowly cooked until tender; usually served with horseradish sauce
Kielbasa: a general name for Polish sausage, there are hundreds of varieties
Paczki: sweet, fruit-filled doughnuts traditionally served at Easter
Pierogi: dough stuffed with any number of fillings from potatoes to meat, then boiled and/or fried
Zurek: a sour soup made with potatoes, sausage, and hard-boiled eggs

Dining Etiquette

Polish Food - Bigos
Bigos

Many Poles will meticulously prepare a meal for a guest, while a smaller number may get lost in the time and be well behind schedule. Either way, you should arrive on time and be dressed quite conservatively. Once inside be sure to offer your assistance with food preparation; most hosts won't need this help and will insist you relax, while a minority of hosts may truly need your help. Either way, the offer will be very much appreciated.

As the food is served, let your host take the lead as dinner may begin simply by eating, a prayer, or a toast. You should try everything you're served as turning down food may make your host feel like he or she must make a new dish for you. Poles eat in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), although few locals will demand this from their guests.

Most hosts will push more food on you, so if possible, begin with just a little food so you have room to eat more later. On some occasions a meal will be interrupted regularly with toasts and drinking vodka. The host will give the first toast and if you feel like giving one later in the meal all are welcome to join in.

In business meetings, the inviter is expected to pay for the entire meal, although it is expected that you offer to assist with the bill.

When eating at a sit down restaurant, tipping about 5-10% of the bill is appropriate and if rounding up meets this amount you'll fit right in with the locals. In tourist centers, particularly in Warsaw's Old Town, tipping should increase to about 10%, however here waiters and waitresses tend to speak great English and service tends to be impeccable.

Drinks

Poland has its share of non-alcoholic drinks, but few are original and none make headlines. All popular international drinks are available in the country, including tea, coffee, juices, soft drinks, and milk.

However, when it comes to vodkas the country is quite original; in fact the first historical reference to vodka comes from Poland and many agree that vodka was founded in Poland by the ancestors of today's Poles. Although vodka distilled from rye is their national drink, every local shop offers dozens of varieties, including sweet honey vodkas and hot burning chili vodkas to the most popular and common rye vodkas, including famous exports like Chopin and Belvedere. While most liquor stores have a huge selection of local and international vodkas, all popular alcoholic beverages are available, including beers, wines, and other hard liquors.

There is no consensus on the cleanliness of the tap water in Poland. After an upgrade to their water treatment facilities recently the tap water is generally safe to drink, but locals still refuse to drink it. In the cities and mountains the water is safest, although it is most likely safe everywhere. Of course you may stay on the side of caution and avoid the tap water entirely. If you do decide to drink the tap water, remember that many people may have troubles adjusting to the local water, as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: March, 2013