Borsch

Borsch

By
Benny Roff
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702445
Photographer
Bonnie Savage

Polish food

Polish food is the result of centuries of development and tradition. Poles care a lot about food and each region has its distinct specialities. The flavouring is often complex, but it is always subtle. It is the antithesis of a cuisine like Thai, where a multitude of flavours turned up to eleven are played off against one another. Polish cuisine can reflect the subtle earthiness of beetroot, enhanced by the minimal addition of any of a wide variety of wild mushrooms, the sweetness enhanced with a little beet sugar and the colour preserved and flavour balanced with a dash of vinegar or lemon.

Any attempts to overdo the addition of a certain ingredient, like delicious dried porcini mushrooms in borsch (barszcz) will upset this delicate balance and miss the real essence of Polish cookery. In fact, when somebody does try a little too hard, or fusses a bit too much — like when you go for dinner at somebody’s parents’ house and their dad makes a few jokes to get you on side, and then makes a few more that are quite off-putting and then, wanting to be a great guy, makes a few more until everybody at the table is squirming uncomfortably — the Poles would say that ‘he put one too many mushrooms in the barszcz’.

Polish food, like all cuisines, is a product of local and external influences. Possibly the greatest influence from outside the Slavic region comes from Italy. Italian food first arrived in Poland in the 12th century through the monasteries. Then in 1518, Bona Sforza, the daughter of a Milanese potentate, married King Sigismund I of Poland and brought with her to the Polish court a brigade of Italian cooks who had an irrevocable effect on the cuisine of Poland. If you ever wondered why the little kopytka, or potato dumplings, remind you so much of gnocchi it’s probably because they are essentially the same. The influence of the French is felt, too. Many dishes bear Polish versions of French recipe titles such as pasztet for pâté, farsz for farce, krokiety for croquette, and vol-au-vent for, um … vol-au-vent.

This subjection of Polish cuisine to outside influences has occurred at Borsch, Vodka and Tears, too. Experimentation and a wide variety of creative chefs over the years have seen some decidedly un-Polish things emerge from the kitchen, such as Honey Vodka Prawns, which are really more Thai than Polack.

I disdain the term ‘fusion cuisine’ because it implies that cuisine is static, when in fact all cuisine is a ‘fusion’ of influences. Wild experimentation with food for its own sake is sometimes exciting, often disastrous, and exerts only a very temporal influence on cuisine as a whole. By contrast, rigid adherence to a perceived set of culinary rules is an exercise in inveteracy and pomposity.

The development and adaptation of cuisine through the availability of produce, interaction with other cultures and cuisines, the culinary background of the people preparing the food and changing geographical location is both natural and necessary. So why not serve Honey vodka prawns in a Polish restaurant? Why not put pineapple in vodka? After all, even though Warsaw is half a world away from the tropical jungles of central America where cacao grows, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Pole who doesn’t like eating chocolate.

As with most cuisines, there are as many versions of traditional Polish dishes as there are Polish grandmothers in the world. Young Polish men who never learned to cook and who miss their grandmothers are delighted by the food when they come to the restaurant. The grandmothers themselves round an interrogatory eye upon the waiters and ask, ‘Who is the cook? What is his name?’

When, invariably, there are too few consonants in the answer they respond, ‘Oh well, at least the vodka is good!’

When they taste the bigos or the żurek, however, the invective gives way to the sounds of chewing and cutlery clanging against plates.

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