He remembers the look of the soup: the large blotches of grease that floated on top, the unchanging grayness of the broth, no matter what the day's flavor was.

It would arrive steaming, filling the small cell with a pungent odor, ex-prisoner Wienczyslaw Nowaki recalled. Sensing the food that was served his cell mates was always the most trying moment of the days on hunger strike in Warsaw's dreaded Rakowiecka Prison.

But Nowacki fasted for more than five weeks and managed to gain release from jail in January. He has been in a Warsaw hospital since, recovering from damage done to his throat in a force-feeding attempt.

Arrested for underground political activities, Nowacki was one of a growing number of political prisoners in Poland turning to hunger strikes to protest their captivity and harsh jail conditions. The fasts pose a new and internationally embarrassing problem for the rule of Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.

With street demonstrations and factory sit-ins no longer considered viable forms of protest, the hunger strike and other measures of passive resistance have become a primary means for political activists to show their opposition here.

"The authorities have learned how to handle factory strikes," said one former senior official of the banned Solidarity trade union movement, who participated in a fast while interned during martial law. "But they still aren't sure what to do about hunger strikes in prisons."

No one has died yet from the protests, although at least one Solidarity activist is reported in serious condition after weeks of refusing to eat. Most of the strikers have appeared less inclined to let themselves die than were those Irish Republican Army members who fasted to death in prison in 1981.

In at least two prisons inmates have organized less drastic alternating hunger strikes, in which prisoners trade off days of not eating. On any given day, someone is fasting but no one starves. When the striking inmates do eat, they are said by official sources to shun prison meals but to accept food supplied by friends and relatives.

The problem may not just be one for Poland's Communist leadership. The Roman Catholic primate, Jozef Glemp, became the target of a hunger strike last month when a dozen people staged a fast in a church in an industrial suburb to protest the transfer of a politically outspoken priest. The strike was suspended after a week pending Glemp's return from Argentina and Brazil.

Major hunger strikes have taken place in four Polish prisons since last autumn, drawing attention to the ill-defined status of political prisoners and to the plight of inmates. Despite the freeing last summer of several hundred political prisoners under an amnesty marking the formal end to martial law, more than 200 people are now being held for political crimes.

About 40 were sentenced before last summer and were either not eligible for the 1983 pardon or had jail terms exceeding three years that were only cut in half under the amnesty. Others were caught in recent police sweeps and are being held on political counts in investigative detention.

The clandestine Solidarity National Coordinating Committee last week issued an appeal. "The existing situation provokes frequent protests of persons imprisoned for political reasons, including hunger strikes conducted with extreme determination," it said. "We appeal to world organizations and institutions which are not indifferent to the defense of civil rights to put pressure on Poland's authorities so that they settle the problem by meeting the demands of the fasting prisoners."

Asked about the hunger strikes at a regular press conference today, government spokesman Jerzy Urban said the authorities are not considering any review of the status of political prisoners. He said that under existing regulations, none of those sentenced on political charges is obliged to work, and political prisoners are kept separate from criminal convicts in the prisons. He said prison wardens have been given authority to grant privileges to individual inmates who behave well.

Unofficial sources provided the following account of recent prison hunger strikes:

* The penitentiary at Barczewo has been the scene of two strikes. From Sept. 13 to Oct. 1 last year, five top Solidarity leaders--Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, Piotr Bednarz, Patrycjusz Kosmowski, Jerzy Kropiwnicki and Andrzej Slowik--went on strike to protest being forcibly shaven, the allegedly substandard prison conditions, and for rights of political prisoner.

The strike was stopped after prison rules were relaxed. The inmates received access to the press and radio and were given permission to communicate with one another and with leaders of the dissident Confederation of an Independent Poland being held in the same prison.

These concessions were withdrawn two months later, which resulted in a new strike Dec. 9. In addition to those named above, the participants included confederation chief Leszek Moczulski and two others. The pattern is such that the protesters alternate, refusing food every fourth day, so that on each day one cell is on strike.

* In the penitentiary at Braniewo, 12 political prisoners were reported to have been on strike from Jan. 3 until at least Feb. 10. The strikers included Jan Milczanowski, a former prosecutor and later legal counsel to the Szczecin branch of Solidarity. The protesters are said to have occupied four cells, which alternated in refusing meals so that on each day two cells were on strike.

* An eight-day hunger strike took place at Leczyca, an old prison dating back to czarist rule. From Feb. 6 to Feb. 13, inmates refused food, demanding rights of political prisoners and permission to contact one another. Taking part were 11 copper-mine workers from Lubin convicted of trying to dynamite police stations and gasoline depots.

* The most determined hunger action took place at the Strzelin penitentiary near Wroclaw. It began as a protest following a food poisoning. Dozens of inmates rejected prison food from Dec. 5 to Dec. 12. After alleged harassment by prison guards, the protest exploded into a hunger strike involving from 12 to 20 prisoners and lasting until Jan. 31.

Faced with force-feeding by tube, the inmates agreed to accept a cereal diet. But three required transfer to the Wroclaw prison hospital. Among them was Janusz Palubicki, a Solidarity leader from Poznan, who has a history of heart illness and was reported in critical condition. Spokesman Urban said Palubicki's condition had stabilized.

Nowacki, 33, was exceptional in having won release from jail because of his hunger strike. He was arrested Dec. 11 and charged with organizing an underground Solidarity farmers' union and with printing an underground bulletin.

Now recuperating at a Warsaw hospital, Nowacki said he does not expect to have to return to investigative detention in Rakowiecka, although the investigation continues. He said he began his fast upon arrest, declining food offered him and asking only for boiled water.

Nowacki said he never admitted to authorities he was on a political hunger strike but told them his action was motivated by health reasons, given the poor prison food, and by ethical considerations. At the same time, he presented the prison warden with a list of requests for visits with relatives, access to legal texts and other items.

Nowacki said authorities finally started force-feeding him through a tube forced down his throat 3 1/2 weeks after his strike began. His most severe mental crisis came a week after that. "I felt the authorities were trying to break me," he recalled, sitting in the hospital dressed in pajamas and slowly rolling a cigarette. "I felt completely alone and walking a tightrope, with the authorities risking my death and me risking a breakdown."

Medical complications developed. His tonsils became inflamed, his larynx was damaged, and an ulcer grew under his jaw. He was taken to the prison hospital on a stretcher on Jan. 18, then released two days later to a Warsaw hospital for surgery on the ulcer and recuperation. His weight had dropped from 150 pounds to 115.

Asked why he did it, Nowacki, who had gone on hunger strike before as a political act, said: "In prison, this seems to be the only available form of exhibiting your dignity."