The 12 Traditional Christmas Eve Dishes of Poland
Although in many cultures, the night before Christmas is a time of anticipation and preparation for tomorrow, in Poland it's the main event! Christmas Eve, or 'Wigilia' is the day of the main feast; a time for all the family to come together and eat, drink, sing, exchange gifts & wishes and be merry. This wonderful celebration is predominately Catholic and as such taken quite seriously, but this solemnity certainly doesn't stop it being a magical and joyful evening. You can learn more about the Wigilia traditions here
The centrepiece of it all is the Wigilia meal. Looking through this list at these 12 delicious dishes, you might be surprised to discover how healthy most of them are... and that many are vegetarian or vegan! For such a sausage loving country it's definitely what you'd expect. Although the amount of cabbage involved is exactly what you would expect (we could re-name it Cabbagemas Eve). Due to the strong religious symbolism of this meal, as during lent - red meat is not consumed. But we don't miss it one bit and neither will you once you dig into the weird and wonderful world of Christmas Eve in Poland.
The 12 traditional dishes of Polish Christmas Eve aren't exactly a hard and fast set. In compiling this article, we discussed the matter greatly with our friends, family and colleagues (and google) and it seems that every region, every city, every family, every person has a different idea as to what foods should be on this list. In reality, there are more like 30 traditional dishes which people pick and choose between. The ones we have chosen might be more localized to Krakow or even to the people around us, but it's definitely as honestly reflective a list as any you'll find.
1. Pierniki // Polish Gingerbread
Polish Gingerbread, or, 'Pierniki' is one of the serious highlights of the Polish Christmas season and as these treats are also snacked on in the lead up to Wigilia Night, they are kicking off our list of delicious dishes for an amazing Christmas Eve in Poland.
It's such an established tradition that the baking of these spicy treats can be traced right back to the 13th century! The dough is laced with a special blend of aromatic spices (“przyprawy” means spices in Polish and the cookies’ name, ‘Pierniki’, derives from this word!) such as ginger, anis, cinammon & nutmeg. In order to make the most delicious Pierniki of all, you have to start early. Polish Gingerbread is made at least a month before Christmas and then left to ferment, to become the softest, sweetest, chewiest and most addictive bikkies imaginable! Particularly yummy when paired with a glass of mulled wine.
Having tasted Krakow Kitchen Queen Marta Bradshaw’s pierniki - we can confirm that she is the right person to learn from. Here’s her recipe on recipe sharing website Cookpad: https://bit.ly/2EfFCHY
2. Barszcz Czerwone z Uzkami // Red Borscht with Mushroom dumplings
This brightly coloured soup is a Slavic phenomenon. It's gone on quite the cross-continental journey over the last few thousand years and undergone many transformations. It began as an ancient hogweed soup which some even say travelled here with the Jews or the Mennonites. Today, this beetroot-based soup it's still known in many countries, by many different names and plays up to a whole spectrum of flavours.
For Christmas Eve in Poland, the pretty soup is made with loads of well-scrubbed beets, vegetable stock (can also be beef or fish the rest of the year), onion, herbs & vinegar. It's made extra gorgeous by some adorable friends. Into the soup go one of our favourite things: tiny little mushroom dumplings, like mini pierogi, called 'uzkami'.
3. Kapusta z Groszek // Cabbage with Split Peas
Eating a lot of cabbage is a stereotype that Poland gets painted with a lot. And that’s because it’s completely true. Polish people love cabbage and it plays a role in quite a few of these 12 traditional dishes belonging to Christmas Eve in Poland. There are several different versions of a cabbage dish that you could put in here without raising a fuss but we’ve stuck with a classic - cabbage, simply fried, mixed together with split peas.
4. Jarzynowa Sałatka // Vegetable Salad
This so-called salad is an addictive holiday staple and a really good way to get kids (and adults) to eat their veggies. Even outside of the holidays, it’s often spooned into jars and brought home in large quantities when returning from visits to mums, grannies and aunts in their home villages. Carrots, pickles, eggs, parsley root, apples and onion are chopped up into tiny little cubes mixed with peas (healthy so far…) and then drowned in a creamy white sauce made of mayonnaise, yoghurt and mustard. Which is delicious and perfect for feasting on Christmas Eve in Poland.
Here’s Marta’s recipe: https://bit.ly/2Ui6Ouk
5. Karp // Carp: Fried or Baked in Aspic
This one is a national divider. Although most Polish kids will have at least one magical/traumatic memory of a carp living in their bath for the week leading up to Christmas, and it is still served at most Christmas Eve tables, it doesn’t mean it all gets eaten. Some people love it, some people hate it, most people serve it anyway to keep up the tradition and for that one uncle visiting from Warsaw who just loves the stuff.
Either way, it sure is an... uh... interesting cultural phenomenon to see carp-filled tanks popping up in grocery stores, Christmas markets, and bathrooms. It's a historical part of Christmas Eve in Poland, but that's definitely beginning to change. A growing number of people have begun to substitute salmon, haddock or do away with the dish altogether due to the national rise of interest in animal rights.
To prepare this dish, the fish is usually soaked in milk to remove the river flavour, then battered/flour coated and fried. You can also serve it Jewish style; baked in aspic (a gelatinous… jelly).
6. Mushroom and Cabbage Pierogi
Pierogi. You couldn’t have a celebration in Poland without these crowd pleaser dumplings on the table. The people would revolt. Funghi and cabbage are the perfect ingredients as Autumn has just finished and the Poles need to find a way to use the jars full of forest mushrooms they joyfully collected in the months before, and as previously mentioned… they just love cabbage. After the pastry filling is stuffed with a mix of diced and fried cabbage and mushrooms, the dumplings are boiled in hot water. Ruskie (Potato & Cheese) Pierogi are also an acceptable substitute for Christmas Eve in Poland.
7. Rice Stuffed Cabbage Rolls // Gołąbki
It’s like a giant Polish dolmade that’s weirdly been named after pigeons due to being roughly the same shape (we can name a few other things they’re the same shape as…). Although these stuffed cabbage rolls are served all year round, for Christmas Eve in Poland they go vegan. Leaving out the usual meat filling, boiled cabbage leaves are delicately wrapped around a mix of rice, onions & spices, layered with tomato sauce and then baked. Yes, these too are made of cabbage but also delicious.
8. Challah // Plaited Jewish bread
You might be surprised to see a typically Jewish dish at this very Christian holiday, but this just goes to show that Jewish culture & history is deeply, respectfully (and deliciously) intertwined with that of Poland. With it’s shiny, plaited lumps, it looks like the muscular arm of a bodybuilder. But it tastes much better than a bodybuilders arm would probably taste. It’s chewy, sweet, soft and it’s a part of everyday life in Poland - it deserves it’s place both on the table and as a part of the 12 dishes of Christmas Eve in Poland
9. Sernik // Polish Cheesecake
Although most people would associate cheesecake with America, you’ll probably be surprised to know that the famous New York Cheesecake actually started right here in Krakow! Poland has quite the passionate historical romance with this creamy dessert and there are probably some who doubt the claim (like people from N.Y), but as an official authority on world facts (aka. internet website), we are definitively telling you that it’s totally the truth. As the story goes, a Jewish family invented the white cheese (ser biały) filled delicacy before migrating to New York where it gained it’s fame by tantalizing the tastebuds of the locals.
The concept is still the same - it’s a cake made of cheese, but the preparation, ingredients and final product are pretty different from the typical style you can buy around the world. Polish ‘Sernik’ (ser = cheese) is made from a local cheese named Twarog rather than mascarpone (although modern Pole’s will often use a mix of the two). The consistency is a bit more dense, although still creamy and delish. This is one of the most beloved cakes in the country and no Christmas Eve in Poland is complete without a slice.
10. Kutia // Wheat-flower and Honey Dessert
This traditional Slavic dish is hard to define. We tried to find a word to suit it - pudding, cake, mousse… but it’s none of these, really. It’s just kutia and it’s a true staple of every Christmas Eve in Poland. A base of bruised wheat and poppy seeds is soaked overnight before a boiling in the morning - mix in malt, honey, nuts and dried fruits and munch for days.
11. Makowiec // Poppy Seed Cake
At your first Christmas Eve in Poland, biting into a piece of Makowiec can be a confusing experience. In essence, it’s a rolly polly sponge roll which appears to have a swirl of chocolate going through it. Upon consuming, you soon realise it is not chocolate and your mouth tries to understand. Polish people may have a serious obsession with cake - but they make it a very healthy one. Instead of chocolate, but equally as delicious once you get used to it, a mix of ground poppy seeds, raisins & honey creates the hypnotic pattern of the Makowiec.
12. Kompot // Smoked Fruit Cordial
This has to be one of the most iconic drinks of the Polish nation. You’ll find in big cities and in villages, in restaurants and in milk bars, in homes and in schools, right across the country. Although kompot can be prepared with the fruit of your choice (usually plums, cherries, rhubarb etc) frozen, fresh or smoked, for Christmas Eve in Poland the traditional way is to make it just with smoked plums. The special Wigilia fruit is stewed on the stovetop with additional spices or sugars if necessary, before being strained.