An Introduction to Polish Pierogi
Pierogi is to Poland what sushi is to Japan or pizza to Italy. Simply put, pierogi is Poland’s national dish. It can be found in restaurants and cafés all over the country. It’s a small semi-circular ‘dumpling’ made of dough and filled with various fillings.
In Poland, more popular are pierogi filled with ground meat, mushrooms and cabbage. Or even dessert alternative, a filling with various berries, either strawberries or blueberries. Pierogi are usually served with melted butter and sugar or melted butter and bacon bits.
The Polish word pierogi is plural. It is a singular equivalent, pieróg is not used. Because of the size of the dumpling, they are always served two or usually more. In other languages, this dish is also called perogi, perogy (in Canada), piroghi, pyrohy, or piroggen. Various kinds and tastes are known in different cuisines of Central and Eastern Europe. A little similar food exists in Italy (ravioli, tortellini), Japan and China.
History of Pierogi in Poland
Pierogi arrived in Polish territories in the 13th century. They were probably imported from the Far East via eastern neighbors such as Kievian Rus (today’s Ukraine). Perhaps this is thanks to Hyacinth of Poland (a monk in a Kiev monastery who became the patron saint of pierogi). In the past, pierogi were more popular in the eastern borderlands of Old Poland than in the west.
The first written pierogi recipes come from Compendium Ferculorum, a book published in 1682. It was the first Polish cookbook of the renowned cook Stanisław Czerniecki. The stuffing described in the recipe was chopped kidneys, veal fat, greens, and nutmeg.
Admittedly, going back a few hundred years ago, we find information about quite a similar food being eaten in China. So many wonderful things come from this country that people might think pierogi is not an exception. There may be a grain of truth in that. Some say that the prototype of pierogi came from China and traveled to Italy during the expeditions of Marco Polo. However, the whole truth is not known.
Polish pierogi are usually boiled in salted water. Baked or even deep-fried pierogi are also popular. During the decades of the communist regime, Poles usually could only “enjoy” the simpler rural versions with basic toppings. Perhaps this is why, nowadays, many eateries and homes are tempted to experiment with extravagant stuffing and fancy toppings to turn this simple dish into a gourmet delicacy.
In the past, pierogi were exclusively prepared during the holiday season. Each holiday has its own kind of pierogi assigned to it.
Pierogi of a completely different shape and filling were served during Christmas Eve. A vegetarian variant of pierogi made from mushrooms and cabbage is prepared during the Christmas Eve dinner. Poles traditionally eat two types of pierogi for Christmas Eve supper. One kind is filled with sauerkraut and dried mushrooms, another – small uszka filled only with dried wild mushrooms – are dished up in clear borscht.”
Also, some important events like a wedding were accompanied by their special kind of big pierogi. These wedding-time pierogi were called kurniki and were traditionally filled with chicken meat. Knysze was made for mourning and served during the wake. In January – a period of Christmas caroling – some special pierogi known as koladki were baked. On an occasion of a name day ( celebration of your first name), a sweet kind of baked pierogi is served as a dessert (called sanieżki, socznie).
Sadly, these intricate traditions are no longer cultivated in Poland. Probably they are not even known nowadays.
Different Flavors and Fillings
These pierogi are filled with cream cheese or cottage cheese. This is the one to try for those who want a light snack and love a bit of hot cheese. This type of pierogi is also available in most Polish supermarkets and food stores.
Now for the meat-lovers option. The meat filling is packed with well-cooked Polish meat. The meat is normally pork or beef or sometimes mixed. Inside the pierogi, a range of ingredients is added to accompany the meat, depending on the chef – this can include salt and pepper, garlic, or onion.
This is the only fish option. These are the finest seafood-based pierogi. They are jammed with fresh salmon, caught straight from the Maszury Lakes or the gorgeous Polish north coast on the Baltic Sea. Ideal places to try this type are in the seaside resorts of Gdynia or Sopot, where other varieties of seafood-based pierogi also exist.
The healthy option and popular amongst Polish vegetarians is the filling with fried spinach. You can tell from the outside, as the green color will be visible. These spinach-filled dumplings are good with Smietana (sour cream), herbs, or spices sprinkled on top.
Hailing from the glorious eastern city of Lublin, the Lubelskie-style pierogi is a big surprise for those who give them a try. It is filled with buckwheat, mint, bacon, and onion, making for a peculiar yet mouthwatering mix. To try it in the place it was invented, head to the Lubelskie Province and washes it down with a local beer.
So, you’re aware there are three variations of Polish dumplings; sweet, boiled, and fried. But did you know that there are also chocolate pierogi? Then, you better be ready for this sweet offering, which is superb as a dessert, accompanied with ice cream, whipped cream, and a coffee or digestif on the side.
Kaszanka is a spiced pork Polish blood dish similar to black pudding in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The Polish version has a rich flavor and thick texture and makes for interesting alternative Polish dumplings filling. Please note this one can also be difficult to find, so ask around to ensure you find the best kaszanką filled pierogi.
These little Polish dumplings are filled with the finest blueberries and topped up with cream, with the option of fruit and chocolate sauce to accompany them. Other varieties of this dish include a strawberry filling.
This is a potato dumpling, similar to the Italian gnocchi. Kopytka is a potato dish in Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. There are two versions of eating kopytka, sweet and savory. The savory version calls for salt and pepper as seasoning. You can also top the dish with small fried bacon pieces. When making the sweet version of the dish, you don’t add any salt or pepper, but instead, you sprinkle kopytka with sugar and cinnamon.
In Polish this dish is known as leniwe pierogi. They have the same shape as another Polish dish called kopytka (nice, small dumplings). Unlike kopytka this is something completely different. Pierogi leniwe are made from curd cheese, eggs and flour, then cooked in lightly salted water. Usually, this type of Polish dumpling is served with sugar, cinnamon, and butter.
In many regions of Poland, the so-called ruskie pierogi are well known. The name does not indicate any Russian origin, since such food is unknown in Russia. Ruskie pierogi comes from prewar Poland’s region called Red Ruthenia (today it is within the territory of Ukraine).
A filling is made of cooked potatoes, white cheese, and stir-fried onion. This is a very well-known traditional Polish dish. It often comes with smietana (sour cream) on the side and pork crackling on top. It can be found all over Poland, especially in the traditional Bar Mlecznys (Milk Bars).
The name, which is commonly translated as Russian dumplings, tricks Poles and foreigners. Pierogi ruskie does not indicate any Russian origin, since such food is unknown there. This type of Polish dumpling arrived from a prewar region of Poland which is now part of Ukraine. Before 1945, Ukrainians used to call this particular variety of pierogi’ Polish pierogi’. It is likely that “pierogi ruskie” was created by Poles living in Ukraine at the time. Therefore, these pierogi obtained their new moniker – ruskie – after WW2, when thousands of Poles were forced to leave their homes in Western Ukraine and relocate to the West of Poland.
Other traditional Polish stuffed dumplings, much smaller than pierogi, are known as uszka (similar to Italian ravioli). In Poland, uszka is not recognized as a kind of pierogi. The word uszka means ‘little ears’.
Indeed, uszka are smaller than pierogi, have a more complicated shape, and are usually filled with mushrooms or meat and never eaten on their own. This special kind of Polish food is served during Christmas Eve on a red beet clear borscht or traditional dried mushroom borscht.
Toppings and Sauces
The most popular Polish dumpling topping is melted butter with caramelized onion. It tastes great with any savory filling. The recipe is simple: sauté chopped onion in butter until it becomes soft and starts to turn golden. Pour over the Polish dumplings and serve.
Other popular savory toppings include:
- Sour cream (or thick yogurt), then sprinkled with dill or chives
- Finely chopped & fried bacon
- Finely chopped & fried kiełbasa
Sweet pierogi filled with Sweet Farmer’s Cheese or Fruit, is traditionally topped with:
- Sweetened cream
- Melted butter, where you melt the butter in a pan, and pour over pierogi, sprinkle with powdered sugar for additional sweetness.
The Popularity of Pierogi
To many Poles, this is remindful of childhood flavors and their family home. Everybody knows that kids usually love flour dishes. Poles adore their dumplings not only out of nostalgia. But also because they are the archetypal comfort food. People also have fun with them because of the stuffing, which is always a surprise: will it be delicious or inedible?
The Polish dumplings “concept” allows for endless opportunities to experiment with filling. People love them because they can be eaten warm, cold, baked, fried or boiled. They taste great on the second day, grilled on a frying pan with some butter. They are also easy to freeze, so you do not have to eat everything at once.
Pierogi are the most recognizable Polish food abroad. They are stuffed similarly to many other dumplings, such as the Japanese gyoza or the Italian ravioli.
As a newcomer to Poland, this should be the first food you experience. Try not to fall in love with this extremely delicious food. As the Polish say,‘Smacznego!’