The 12 Dishes of Polish Christmas
default, The 12 Dishes of Polish Christmas, Christmas Eve red barszcz with dumplings, photo: East News, uszka_east_news_11.jpg
In Poland, Christmas Eve dinner is the one of most important celebrations of the year. Although this meal is reserved for the closest family, it’s customary to set an extra plate and seat for an unexpected guest, or even a vagrant. Most of the dishes served are cooked specifically for this special day – and only once a year!
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Still from the film ‘Diabelskie Szczęście’ (The Devil’s Luck), photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Christmas Eve traditions, including culinary ones, are the combination of ancient pagan customs with religious ones introduced by the Catholic Church, local traditions and various folk cultures. Christmas Eve dinner, also known as Wigilia, starts when the first star appears in the sky. Nothing is to be eaten until all members of the family have broken the Christmas wafers (opłatek) together and exchanged wishes for good health and prosperity. During the meal, all of the guests should taste a bit of everything.
The supper, which traditionally includes 12 dishes and desserts, may last for a good couple of hours. According to tradition, bits of hay are spread beneath the tablecloth as a reminder that Christ was born in a manger. What’s on the plate is based on traditional and seasonal products available in winter. Meat is not allowed. Sometimes, Christmas Eve menus reflect multicultural aspects, as Jews, Poles, Germans, Lithuanians and other minorities lived together in the past. Also, there is almost always an empty place left at the table. The meal is followed by an exchange of gifts.
Why do Poles eat 12 dishes during the Christmas Eve dinner?
Tradition calls for 12 traditional courses to be served during the Polish Christmas Eve. This number is a symbol of wealth, the 12 Apostles and a representation of the 12 months of the year. But in the past, dinner consisted of an odd number of dishes.
The preparation of the traditional dishes takes a lot of time. Many restaurants and shops offer ready products, but Poles still prefer to cook traditional family recipes as they always taste better. Some specific dishes may differ from various regions, but many of them are universal.
Christmas Eve red barszcz with porcini raviolis (‘uszka’)
Christmas Eve dinner often starts with barszcz, a beetroot soup sometimes known as red borscht – it’s probably the most popularly served soup on this day. The Christmas version varies from the usual one. Christmas barszcz requires a sour base (zakwas) which needs to be made a few days in advance. It consists of raw beets, peeled and cut into slices, fermented over four to five days in pre-boiled and chilled water with or without garlic. It is then mixed, for example, with both a light broth made from dried wild mushrooms and a vegetable broth.
This traditional Christmas barszcz is usually served with tiny dumplings stuffed with a mix of soaked (and then finely chopped) dried porcini (also known as ceps) and fried onion. These are called uszka, meaning ‘little ears’. Barszcz is traditionally served in the south of Poland, particularly in the Podhale region, close to the touristic Tatra Mountains, where uszka are usually replaced with large white beans.
Christmas Eve mushroom soup
This soup, also often served at Christmas Eve dinner, and is made from dried forest mushrooms (the best ones are ceps). The taste of dried forest mushrooms is part of Polish culinary heritage. This delicious soup usually comes with square or thin noodles. Other traditional Christmas Eve soups include soft-water fish soup (for example, carp), white borscht, vegetarian Christmas Eve sour rye soup or old fashioned sweet almond soup.
Christmas Eve carp
The tradition of carp farming in Poland is at least 700 hundred years old. However, it became an eminent part of Polish culinary tradition only after World War II. It is more popular than nobler fish like sander, eel or pike. Poles have developed species of carp (for example, karp zatorski) that are certified regional products of good quality.
Today, carp is a Christmas Eve must-have for many families. Christmas Eve carp is often accompanied by hot sauerkraut with dried mushrooms, a vegetable salad or potatoes. There are numerous local, ancient and interesting recipes, including carp in grey sauce, carp with dried mushrooms and cream, or stuffed with parsley.
In the Lesser Poland region (Małopolska), many families continue the tradition of preparing so-called ‘Jewish-style’ carp for Christmas Eve dinner. In the past, this was always a traditional meal for Ashkenazi Jews living in Central-Eastern Europe. The base of the dish is pieces of fish cooked slowly in a fish stock. It is served in a natural jelly with onion, almonds, raisins and soft bread.
Herring is very popular in Poland at any time of year, but it’s also served at Christmas Eve. Many Poles in Scandinavian and Baltic nations know how to prepare this healthy fish, so Polish gastronomy has quite a range of recipes for herring. The most popular preparations are classic herring fillets (soused, usually called matjas) in oil (the best ones are in healthy linseed oil), or with cream, sour apples and chopped onions, usually served with a so-called root-vegetable salad or potatoes.
Pierogi are certainly the most recognisable Polish food abroad. The Christmas version of those half-circular dumplings is stuffed with cabbage or with sauerkraut and dried forest mushrooms such as ceps. Interesting regional varieties – most notably coming from the eastern regions – are sweet pierogi stuffed with smoked and dried plums or with poppy seeds.
Polish Christmas Eve smells predominantly like sauerkraut. Sauerkraut has always existed in the Polish diet and is one of the country’s most popular and recognisable food preparations. One can definitely see the strong presence of sauerkraut in Polish culinary culture during Christmas Eve. Nearly everyone braises sauerkraut as filling for pierogi or as a side dish with the addition of dried forest mushrooms or tiny white beans. Some Poles also like it with soaked raisins.
Cabbage rolls (‘gołąbki’)
Gołąbki, or cabbage rolls, are a type of comfort food eaten all year round. In daily cooking, it is usually stuffed with meat, but it changes its face during Christmas. In those households where they are served on that special evening, the stuffing is vegetarian and contains grains (buckwheat, pearl barley or rice) and dried forest mushrooms.
Kutia is an ancient dessert with origins in Eastern Europe made exclusively for Christmas Eve dinner. Today, it is still served in many households where families have some roots in the eastern part of Old Poland. It is a mixture of cooked, unprocessed wheat grains, cooked poppy seeds, honey, dried or candied fruits soaked in a small amount of port or red wine, and various nuts and seeds – usually almonds, sunflower grains or walnuts. In the past, kutia had not only had a culinary role but was also connected to religious beliefs.
Old Polish ‘piernik’
Baking gingerbread in Poland is a tradition several hundred years old. Gingerbread from Toruń – the city of Nicolas Copernicus – is on record as far back as the 17th century. Ancient Polish cuisine was full of exotic spices, including ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. The traditional Old Polish piernik, which is still prepared in many homes, requires a lot of time and attention.
The dough consists of honey, lard, sugar, eggs, flour and a mixture of gingerbread spices. It must be made a good couple of weeks in advance to maturate and gain that special gingerbread taste. Baking it a couple of days before Christmas Eve makes it ideal for consumption at dinner. It is then cut along and eaten with layers of traditional plum preserves (powidła). It remains fresh for a long time. Poles also bake lots of small ginger cookies which also serve as Christmas-tree decorations.
Dried fruit compote (‘kompot z suszu’)
Poles love dried and smoked fruits and use them especially in Christmas dishes. Compote is a traditional and popular beverage served at the end of Christmas Eve. It is made from cooked dried and smoked fruits – typically plums, apples, pears, raisins and apricots. Its most appreciated purpose is to speed up digestion.
Poppyseed cake (‘makowiec’)
This tiny black seed symbolises prosperity and simply has be included in the Christmas menu. Poppyseed cakes are eaten by Poles year round, but the traditional Christmas poppyseed cake is a bit different – the layers of the dough should be thinner, and the layers of the sweet poppy seed cream should be thicker. In some regions, a few other desserts with poppy seeds are made for Christmas Eve. Makówki, a traditional poppy seed-based dessert, is a must in Silesia, as well as makiełki, bread rolls soaked in milk or water, served with dried fruits and honey, and a dried-fruit compote.
Written by Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, Dec 2013