My arrival in Krakow wasn’t exactly filled with warmth. In fact, all of my three days there were wet, cold and windy. Yet all my memories of the city are warm, sunshine-y and fuzzy.
Such is the power of food! If Polish food was a person, it would be one of those people whom you meet for the first time, and you get along quite well that you feel as if you’ve known each other longer.
That’s how I feel about Polish food. New yet comforting. Simple but full of character and history.
Here are the top Polish food experiences / cuisines that stood out from my trip and made it a warm and memorable experience:
1.) The OBWARZANEK
Don’t be fooled by this simple and basic looking famous Polish snack. The Obwarzanek is only one of two Polish foods currently protected by the EU on iys Traditional Foods List.
Known as the Cracovian bagel, the Obwarzanek is a very chewy and doughy treat sprinkled very unevenly with salt, poppy or sesame seeds.
They are sold from rolling carts on every other street corner in Krakow that they’ve become an official symbol of the city.
The first written mention of the Obwarzanek dates back to 1394 , which means that it’s been a daily staple on the streets of Krakow square for over 600 years.
Despite being so popular though, the Obwarzaneks sell at a regular price of around 1.50 PLN (Polish Zlotys) which equates to about .50 AUD (50 cents Australian)!
These bagel-like snacks are so popular with locals, especially with university students as they are very inexpensive yet can be filling. It is common to see people munching on Obwarzaneks while walking the streets of Krakow.
It didn’t take me long to get my own Obwarzanek and I can certifiy that it is a great ‘hand and tummy’ warmer when walking the freezing cold streets of Krakow.
The Placki was a suggestion from an Instagram follower when I asked for some ‘must-have’ Polish vegetarian dishes.
Potato pancakes as a whole seems to be a staple Eastern European food and it varies per country. The Polish Placki is known to be topped with meat sauces, pork crisps or goulash, and also sour cream , apple or mushroom sauce. Cream or cottage cheese also sometimes makes to the list of toppings for the Polish Placki.
I had my Placki in a Milk Bar (see number 4) so the topping was pretty basic. I think the regular Placki would have a mushroom sauce on top , and not just actual sliced button mushrooms.
The brief description of the Placki in my hotel guidebook was correct. It’s greasy, comforting and quite peppery. It’s due to these pancakes having a fried and crunchy texture that makes the Placki a famous Polish hangover cure.
Speaking of hangovers, meet the ultimate Polish hangover snack, the Zapiekanka. This is one of my favourites in this list.
Known as the “Polish Pizza”, the Zapiekanka is like an open faced sandwich that’s regularly served with mushrooms, cheese and chives (you really cannot go wrong with that combination!). Served on top of a very fluffy toast, crisp and toasted on the sides, and quite chewy and warm on the inside.
Meet Olga, superstar Krakow resident and also JayWay Travel’s ‘woman-in-Krakow’. Olga guided me through the streets of Jewish District. As a resident of Krakow, Olga also knew the types of Polish food to introduce me to, especially ones with social significance, hence our shared Zapiekanka! 🙂
We had our Zapiekanka in the Jewish District of Krakow. They are sold in stalls like these (there are many Zapiekanka stalls side by side) and are often open from late evenings to early mornings. Needless to say this is frequented by party goers or people who just want to unwind after a big night.
I personally do not need to be hungover to appreciate the Zapiekanka. It’s such a great food to be shared among friends (1 order can be cut into 3 parts). It’s cheesy, mushroom-y and chive-y so it has all the elements of a comfort food. Add to that the fluffy toast it lies on top of, and you now have yourself a pizza cake!
4.) Milk Bars
Among all experiences in Poland, visiting and eating in a Milk Bar is one that I highly recommend and deem as a must-do. Each and every Milk Bar (or Bar Mleczny) that can be found in Poland are historical institutions themselves.
They look so simple, quirky and basic that one is apt to think it is a trendy , hippy snack joint. No such thing. The Milk Bars in Poland go as far back in the 1960’s when communist authorities formed them as a place to offer cheap and basic meals to employees whose places of work did not have proper cafeterias.
They are called Milk Bars because up until the period of martial law in the late 1980’s when supply of meat was rationed, meals offered in milk bars were mostly dairy based.
These days, except for the welfare nostalgia and novelty from tourists, nothing much has changed in Polish milk bars. They are sparse, basic and nondescript. No nonsense menu offerings on the wall (do not expect English translations) and food orders are taken by grim-faced ladies. Drinks are out in the open for you to take.
I learned that back in the day, knives and forks were chained to the table to prevent theft. That’s not the case anymore today, though salt and pepper were in open styrofoam cups.
All basic and homemade-style Polish food staples are available in Milk Bars. I had my first taste of the Placki in a milk bar and it came literally as how it was described in the menu – Potato pancakes with mushrooms. No garnishings, no fancy add-ons.
Several milk bars throughout Poland are still subsidized by the state, so it is a very inexpensive place to have your meals. This makes it a popular place for students and busy locals to have quick meals.
It’s a big part of Poland’s social history that is still within present-day Poland which makes me suggest this experience to anyone visiting the country.
5.) Restaurant Hop in Kazimierz
Krakow’s Old Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) is now a food lovers haven as it’s now Krakow’s hub for all themed cafes and restaurants. It’s wonderful to see the district flourishing and full of life. It was once the centre of Jewish life in Krakow for over 500 years until it was systematically destroyed during WWII.
During the communist era, Kazimierz was one of the seediest and dodgiest areas of Krakow. During the 1990’s Kazimierz slowly came back to life (with big thanks to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) and clean up slowly started.
Now, it is the best hub not just for food and restaurants but also to see how the district has come almost full circle as Krakow’s young and creative gather here.
6.) Dine based on your star sign
I admit, when I saw the sign “Restaurant Horoscope” while walking along the streets of Krakow, I immediately crossed the road to know more about this restaurant.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen a restaurant based on Horoscope. What would they serve? Meat based on the animals of the zodiac??
It was a rainy day in Krakow and when we peeked inside the restaurant, I liked the decor and that it was a quiet respite from the busy street.
And that was how we ( a very curious me and a very reluctant Zombie) came to have lunch at the Horoscope Restaurant.
I was very curious so I asked the owner, who happened to be there, what the restaurant was all about. She said that they normally take bookings in advance, and based on your star sign, they will prepare a meal for you. They will not tell you what it is, all you need to provide are important details like allergies and food intolerances, etc.
I wanted to dig more and ask how they base or decide what meals to serve you (is it based on daily predictions, etc) alas, the complexities and description of horoscope technicalities proved too great for our language barrier.
The menu was filled with simple, home-made kind of food that I like. (ie mushroom soup, dumplings etc)
And the food, though simple and basic, were very hearty. It’s the kind of food that I really appreciate. Simple food without too much fanfare.
And it was at this restaurant where I sampled their version of a Sernik (Polish Cheesecake). One of Poland’s most popular desserts made with sweet curd cheese (Twarog) and served cold.
Whether you believe in horoscopes or not, Restauracja Horoscope serves quality food that warms the stomach. The interiors are not too “new age” and is still quite subtle.
7.) The Pierogi
I saved my favourite for last. I simply could not get enough of the Pierogi. (Polish Dumplings). These are probably a staple in every Polish household, but I only had my first try of Pierogis a little more than a year ago. I bought a kilo of uncooked frozen Pierogi from a good friend. I made a batch for dinner and loved it! The next day, I had a dreadful disaster happen in my Sydney apartment which ruined pretty much all our appliances. Our fridge had to go so the Pierogis had to go too! 🙁
A year later, I had my Pierogi redemption in Krakow. I devoured almost every Pierogi I can during my 3 days there. I love the Russian kind or the vegetarian variation. The dumpling is filled with potatoes with cheese. Topped with chives and garlic, and sometimes crunchy lard (yikes yes, but it goes well!).
I just could not get enough of the Pierogis. To those who have not tried them yet, I suggest you eat a plate of Pierogis on a cold, wintry or rainy evening and you will understand. The comfort level it gives goes through the roof!
Now you all know I’m not a foodie. Not at all. I often base my overall experience of a place based on sights, physical activities, etc. but in this trip to Krakow, it’s quite undeniable that the food experience is memorable. A huge factor in this is that we explored Krakow and had all these wonderful food experience by ourselves and in our own time, because we travelled to Krakow on a private tour with JayWay Travel. No waiting, no mandatory stops to touristy restaurants and shops. This was all our own experience based on our food interests.
They say that to fully experience Polish food, one has to stop counting calories. I now live to tell you that this is true. Priceless Polish food memories began the moment I turned a blind eye to calories!
I don’t know about you, but writing this post made me hungry! Do you love Polish food? Do any of these Polish food experiences pull you in?
We travelled to Krakow as guests of JayWay Boutique Travel, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.