A mushy white sandwich roll, melted cheese and a squeeze of ketchup: When I first moved to Warsaw to work as a journalist, in the autumn of 1988, a zapiekanka was the most common form of street food. The zapiekanka (za-pyeh-KAN-kah) predated the hamburger, and it certainly wasn’t pizza — not even bad pizza. It was, rather, a pizzalike substance, a poor relative of its distant Italian cousin. The luxury versions had a few overcooked mushrooms beneath the cheese and ketchup.
But in 1988 I did eat the odd zapiekanka, because there was so little else available. The communist political system was then in its death throes, and the communist food distribution system barely functioned. The state shops were half empty, stocking vinegar, canned meat and dry crackers. Restaurants were slow, expensive and unreliable. Sometimes they had what they claimed to have on the menu. Sometimes they didn’t.
But as 1988 turned into 1989, and as I came to understand the city better, Warsaw began to reveal more of its culinary secrets. Excellent fresh vegetables — naturally organic because the farmers couldn’t afford pesticides — were available at private markets. Alongside them, Russian traders sold jars of Beluga caviar for the equivalent of a few dollars. One of my friends knew a “veal lady” who could deliver black-market meat, and there were good free-range eggs to be found, if you knew whom to ask.
Warsovians were creative with these ingredients and used them to make dishes from all kinds of traditions. One Easter morning, I ate a sumptuous breakfast at a friend’s house. She served me a dish which, she explained, her family had always eaten on the holiday. It was gefilte fish. Light and airy, served with steamed vegetables, it bore no resemblance to the canned versions I once knew back home.
Very soon after that, economic reform came to Poland. Throughout the 1990s, Polish food, and Polish food culture, began to change along with politics, the economy and everything else. The first phase of the transformation was chaotic. Bad cardboard pizza became available in the new Pizza Huts (and Pizza Hut imitations) that sprang up inside new shopping malls. The “French” restaurants that served meat with heavy sauces at high prices weren’t necessarily much better. Nor were the “Italian” restaurants that served pasta with heavy sauces at high prices.
But as political stability returned, national self-confidence returned along with it. And as the economy grew — and the Polish economy has been growing by leaps and bounds for 20 years — restaurants multiplied. More important, as civil society came back to life, the producers and consumers of good-quality food began to organize themselves.
Slow Food, a movement founded in Italy in 1986 to promote traditional ways of eating and preparing food, acquired its first Polish chapter in 2002. It now allows qualified Polish restaurants to sport its trademark, a small snail. Last summer we ate smoked eel at a Slow Food-approved restaurant on the Baltic Coast. The food might have been “slow,” but the service was excellent, and everything on the menu was available. Nothing about that meal, in fact, resembled the experience of dining in communist Poland.
The revolution has been brought into homes as well. Small Polish producers of oscypek (oh-STSIH-pek), a traditional sheep’s-milk cheese, as well as mead, or fermented honey, are winning prizes at international competitions. Amateur makers of Polish jams, preserves and relishes became professionals, acquiring marketing finesse and better packaging. Small farms and factories producing organic pork or game sausages began to flourish as well. Some have special stands in the supermarkets and malls, where beets preserved with horseradish can be found in elegant jars alongside exotic mustards, flower-flavored honey and cucumber pickles of infinite variety.
The cardboard pizza is still there, if you want to buy it. But there are plenty of alternatives. Nowadays, the best Polish restaurants serve Polish food. Instead of French bread and butter, they offer sourdough bread and szmalec, an old-fashioned peasant spread made of pork fat and spices. Instead of sticky pasta, they serve roast pork with plums or roast duck with apples, lightening and flavoring the traditional recipes with spices and ingredients that were once impossible to find but are now readily available. Trout, venison and wild boar, all historically a part of Polish cuisine, have reappeared on menus.
Some restaurants are also starting to experiment with Polish food, adding twists that nobody’s grandmother ever would have thought possible. That’s nothing new, of course: Poland is flat, and therefore easy to invade. Historically, Poles had a fondness for foreign queens and imported monarchs, which means foreign influences of many kinds can be found in Polish cooking, as in Polish culture or the Polish language. Bona Sforza, the 16th-century Italian-born queen, is alleged to have brought the first soup vegetables to Poland, as well as the first tomatoes. The influence of France — both the French aristocracy and later the French revolutionary circles frequented by Polish exiles in the 19th century — can be seen in the use of mustard and cream sauces.
And, of course, it is hard to say where Polish food ends and Ukrainian or Russian food begins, so similar are the tastes and ingredients. Most Slavic culinary cultures rely upon the fruits and vegetables that can grow in a northern European kitchen garden or can be found in a northern European forest: carrots, leeks, parsnips, beets, cabbages, potatoes, radishes, squashes, apples, plums, walnuts, chestnuts and mushrooms, both cultivated and seasonally wild.
The biggest changes are often found at the lower end of the price scale. When one of my children was younger, his favorite meal was “gas station soup”: chicken broth, that is, served plain with noodles, available at a roadside cafe that was indeed next to a gas station. Even now, one of my family’s favorite restaurants in Poland is a roadside karczma, an inn, that serves only a handful of dishes.
One of those is zurek, a soup based on a broth made from sour bread, filled with white sausage and vegetables, served in a bowl that is made from bread. Another is grilled pork fillets with onions, served on a skewer like a kebab yet eaten with pickles and grated beet salad. Everything is plain and fresh — just what roadside food usually isn’t.
No wonder trucks and tourists’ cars cram the parking lot outside all summer, and no wonder memories of the zapiekanka long ago faded.
Applebaum’s column on foreign affairs appears in The Post’s op-ed pages. She is co-author, with Danielle Crittenden, of “From a Polish Country House: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food” (Chronicle, 2012).