Comparing Polish and Canadian culinary characteristics

By Andrew Heck

Warsaw’s modern skyline shows remnants of several periods of development and political control. Like Poland, Canada’s battle for culinary identity and foodservice survival in the COVID-19 crisis has caused some forced adaption to occur.

From kielbasa to perogies, borscht to pickles, many Canadians are familiar with the cursory aspects of Polish cuisine. In fact, a lot of it has become woven into the fabric of quintessentially Canadian cuisine, as a country primarily composed of immigrants and settlers. Many of those immigrants and settlers, over time, brought with them an enduring and endearing passion for pork that persists to this day – in Canada and still in Poland, especially.

Not only the aspects of hardy, cold-weather cooking, but other cultural components come into play, too, when looking at the culinary scenes in Canada and Poland. Beyond the food itself, both industries have also been saddled with challenges related to COVID-19. And, despite the odds, chefs in Canada and Poland alike continue to triumph when it comes to showcasing their countries’ finest dishes.

Polish cuisine’s meaty side

The golonka served at chef Adam Gessler’s Wódka Gessler Na Widelcu, in Warsaw, with a side of boiled potatoes and onion jam.
Dry kabanosy manufactured by Mościbrody Meat Processing Plant

What makes Polish food Polish? A legacy of hardship, combined with curiosity, has shaped traditional Polish dishes, along with adopted ideas and ingredients from abroad.

Some of the more popular Polish meat-based specialties include:

  • Golonka: Pork hocks boiled and then roasted or braised in stock, beer or animal fats – like duck or goose. It is typically served whole – bone in, skin on – but some modern interpretations discard the bone and skin, leaving behind a leaner portion of meat. ‘Golonka’ means ‘knuckle,’ which is another name for the pig’s hock or shin, located beneath the leg and above the foot.
  • Zimne nogi: Chunks of pork and vegetables in an aspic, prepared similar to head cheese, using pigs’ feet. The feet are simmered with carrot, celery and onion until tender, including bay leaf and allspice berries for flavour, diced, then allowed to set in the strained stock from the same pot, relying on the natural gelatin found in the feet to hold everything together. Served cool, as the dish disintegrates when it becomes warm.
  • Kabanosy: Thin, smoked pork sausages seasoned with salt and pepper. Some require refrigeration, while drier varieties may be stored safely at room temperature. They closely resemble and taste like what most Canadians know as ‘pepperoni sticks.’ They are often served cold, as a snack or appetizer, but they can be sliced and mixed into soups and pastas, served warm.
  • Tatarski: Minced beef seasoned with simple herbs and spices, served raw, sometimes with egg or other garnishes. In Canada, the French word ‘tartare’ is more commonly used.
  • Carpaccio: Thinly sliced beef, served raw, often garnished with greens, slivers of cheese, capers and herbs. The name is borrowed directly from Italian. The product is not widely consumed in Canada, but it would be known by the same name.
  • Gęś pieczona: Roasted whole goose, a traditional main course for St. Martin’s Day on November 11. The dish is popular across central Europe, for the same reason. The date also coincides with Poland’s independence day, celebrating the end of occupation by German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian monarchies, as declared in 1918.
  • Pasztet: Known as ‘pâté’ in Canada, borrowed from French. This paste of minced meat, liver and seasonings is a popular sandwich topping, when sliced from a firm loaf. It also appears on its own, served as a soft mousse, in a manner similar to foie gras. Turkey – a bird native to North America – is often used, on account of widespread availability today in Poland.

These and many other forms of farmed and hunted red meat, poultry and seafood can be found in the broad repertoire of Polish protein consumption. For Poles, animal products really are cherished, given the country’s legacy of going without during different periods in its history.

Poland grapples with culinary identity

Chef Robert Sowa spent more than two hours eating and chatting with Canadian and American journalists attending the ‘Meat with European Quality’ study tour, in November 2021, explaining his menu and sharing entertaining stories.

Chef Robert Sowa owns several restaurants in Poland’s capital, Warsaw. He is a cookbook author, former international culinary competitor, former cook for Poland’s men’s national soccer team and current host of a cooking demonstration TV show. In addition to being a mentor for many up-and-coming Polish chefs, he believes in continuous improvement and evolving his menus, which consist of traditional Polish meals with an international touch, served in a unique way.

“I have gone to some famous restaurants abroad, and they give very small portions of food,” said Sowa. “If I am going to a restaurant, I do not want to leave hungry, no matter what.”

Poles are no strangers to large portions of food, which, at one point in time, were a lot harder to come by. When Poland emerged as an independent democracy following the fall of communism, society was turned upside-down in many ways. It is a legacy that some chefs, including Jurek Sobieniak – another kitchen extraordinaire turned TV host – speaks eloquently about.

Trends in other parts of the world – such as transitioning toward ‘flexitarian,’ vegetarian or vegan diets – are generally not looked upon with much enthusiasm in Poland.

Chef Jurek Sobieniak’s over-the-top persona took the form of Polish traditional dress on this particular TV broadcast. He was preparing parsnips, not to form them in the shape of a burger or sausage, but to enjoy as… parsnips.

“I don’t see plant-based alternatives being an issue in Poland,” said Sobieniak. “I like meat and vegetables, but if I am going to have vegetables, I just cook vegetables. No need to copy meat.”

But Poles do also pride themselves on produce, including stone fruits, durable vegetables and foraged fungi. It is a legacy of necessity and geography that exists to this day.

“Poland is an agricultural country, and people know that,” said Sobieniak. “But it has taken us a long time to adjust to the world we live in now, which is one of many choices.”

In Canada, where we have no shortage of choices, the struggle for culinary recognition still exists, and like the Polish food scene, we are sticking to our guns while remaining open-minded about who we are and how to represent ourselves by tapping into our gastronomic instincts.

Poland comes to Canada on the plate

Chef Paul Rogalski’s restaurant in Calgary, Rouge, was named one of the world’s 100 best in 2010.

Chef Paul Rogalski is co-owner of Rouge Restaurant in Calgary, where he was born and raised, but his surname belongs to the village of Rogal in Kalisz County, Poland, from where he has some ancestry. His establishment partners with local food growers and utilizes an on-site garden to create exceptional, handcrafted dishes for customers.

Rogalski’s grandparents were Polish and Ukrainian immigrants to Canada in the 1920s, and it was his grandmother’s cooking that left the greatest impression on his career.

“My grandmother cooked everything from scratch. They had a large farm and used to grow a lot of things themselves,” he said. “When I would visit there, she would harvest the garden and preserve everything for winter for family gatherings. I didn’t understand the influence she had on me until a few years into my career. I had an epiphany, ‘Holy cow! This all because of my grandmother!’”

Rogalski draws on his heritage and Calgary’s increasingly cosmopolitan flair to remain contemporary but also grounded in the classics. His current menu includes starters like wild mushrooms and toast, along with a solid lineup of proteins that would rival any flesh-loving Polish chef’s selection.

“For us at Rouge, it’s important that we use local products,” said Rogalski. “Market fluctuations and COVID-19 disruptions have made that more difficult. We like to purchase directly from farms, but we’ve found ourselves looking at ‘commodity’ product more often now.”

COVID-19’s impact is international

Chef Marcin Sasin has experienced significant impacts to the demands of his hotel kitchen in Warsaw, on account of COVID-19.

Catering for hundreds or thousands of guests in one sitting is no easy task, even when the food is simple, but for chef Marcin Sasin of the Sheraton Grand Warsaw, COVID-19 has made it just that much more difficult.

“Food price inflation and a lack of workers has hurt us,” said Sasin. “We are still catering large events in the hotel, but we are doing it with a much smaller crew, and we are starting to rely more on ‘ghost’ kitchen delivery orders to sustain us.”

Back in Calgary, Chef Rogalski claims not to have raised menu prices in about a decade, but the compositions he creates – especially when it comes to choosing cuts of meat – have become more variable and dependent on input pricing.

“If you can’t charge more, and your margins are slim, you need to lower your supply cost,” he explained.

However, many other Canadian restaurants have not been able to successfully navigate COVID-19’s on-again, off-again restrictions. To that end, industry group Restaurants Canada has been pushing for increased support.

“The fate of Canada’s more than 90,000 restaurants is still uncertain,” said Todd Barclay, President & CEO, Restaurants Canada. “Most have been losing money or barely breaking even since coming out of initial lockdown last year, and at least 10,000 establishments have already closed.”

COVID-19 aside, in Rogalski’s Alberta, other factors have left their mark on foodservice as well.

“The reality for anyone in restaurants in Alberta is this: oil and gas is number one, agriculture is number two and tourism is number three,” said Rogalski. “Numbers two and three need to fortify themselves and work together, since we depend on each other.”

Nowhere to go but up

Pork croquette and clarified borscht, one of seven courses on chef Sowa’s current menu at N31 Restaurant & Bar in Warsaw, where diners will not leave with an empty stomach.

Eating out is still seen, in both Canada and Poland, as a luxury that many would prefer not to do without. COVID-19 has complicated the situation, but there are plenty of talented, motivated and creative cooks chomping at the bit to fulfill this social need, as tastes and business models evolve.

Even as the nature of foodservice changes – favouring new options like online, app-based delivery ordering – there will always be a place for white linens, cellared wines and exquisite meats with a story to tell from farm-to-fork.

COVID-19 is a story unto itself, and in the coming years, the connections between livestock farmers, meat packers, chefs and consumers will continue to change, but what will stay the same is an appreciation for how food has the power to enhance our everyday lives beyond mere sustenance. No historical legacy, pandemic or supply chain roadblock can stop that.