Cooking a Polish mealby William Skidelsky / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Polish delis full of mysteriously labelled tins are becoming common
If a league table of world cuisines existed, Poland, it’s safe to say, wouldn’t be near the top. Currently riding high, I suspect, would be Denmark, home to the “world’s best restaurant,” Noma. Spain would be up there too. France, these days, would be mid-table, long ago eclipsed by Italy. China, Korea and Mexico would be rising fast. Poland, meanwhile, would be somewhere near the bottom, battling it out with the likes of Cuba, Ireland and the Philippines.
Yet despite this, Polish food in Britain is, in a way, flourishing. Since the country joined the EU in 2004, several hundred thousand Poles have come to live in Britain, joining the small number that arrived after the war. (Last year, the Office of National Statistics estimated that 532,000 Poles were resident in Britain.) Over the last decade, Polish sausage and pierogi have become common sights in grocery shops and many supermarkets have Polish sections. In areas where lots of Poles live, specialist delis have opened, with their cured meat counters, rows of pickled vegetables and mysterious tins labelled with words like bigos (hunters’ stew) and flaki (tripe).
However, in contrast to earlier waves of immigration, this development hasn’t noticeably affected the eating—or cooking—habits of the British. The Italians who arrived in the first half of the 20th century brought pizza, pasta and cappuccinos, and these became British staples. The cuisines of China and India—or at least, Anglicised versions of them—have likewise been eagerly taken up. Even fish and chips is Sephardic in origin. But despite the new visibility of Polish food, it remains largely overlooked by the indigenous population. Some cuisines become popular wherever they go; others never cross-fertilise. Polish food belongs—so far—to the latter camp.
Will this change, or can only Poles love Polish food? To be in a better position to judge, I decided to cook a Polish meal for my wife and mother. Their response on being told this was not wildly enthusiastic, though this probably has something to do with the fact that my wife is a vegetarian and my mother is not a big fan of either pickled vegetables or smoked meats. All the same, I felt hopeful that, with shrewd menu planning, I could win them round.