Noodles and naleśniki were two of the many delicious meals my Polish grandmother made. When she came to pick me up from school, I always hoped these staples would be waiting for us at home. As both my parents worked, I spent much of my childhood with my grandparents, who taught me everything: Polish lullabies, how to draw a bird in eight pencil strokes and how to make noodles.
My partner has an aunt with an apron that says, "I’m Greek, I don’t need a recipe", and the same was certainly true of my Polish Babunia. An incredible cook whose first encounter with a banana was at age 33 on the boat coming to Australia, she cooked the simple but soul-warming food of her homeland: golden plaçki ziemniaki (potato pancakes), gołąbki (stuffed cabbage leaves with barley), rissoles (which were so loved that Babunia was once commissioned to run a masterclass in rissole-making for my stepfather and his brother), mouth-watering makowiec (poppyseed cake) and my absolute favourites, handmade noodles and naleśniki (crepes served with butter, or soft cheese, or blueberries - or often all three!).
When I was young, one of my favourite pastimes was to help Babunia make noodles. She would break off a piece of her soft, chewy noodle dough, give me a small chopping board and let my culinary imagination run wild as she skilfully hand-cut the rest of the dough into slender delicious noodles. (I can’t remember there being a specific Polish word for noodles – we just called them ‘nood-leh’.)
Her noodles were soft and thin and uniform in shape, unlike my doughy inventions that included stars, dogs, palm trees and pasta snails that to anyone else would have looked like abstract Play-Doh art or just unidentifiable blobs. My contributions were 20 times thicker than the real noodles, but they all went into the pot of boiling water together – and once the noodles were cooked, Babunia would carefully ladle out all the odd-shaped ones and put them in a bowl just for me.
Polish Christmas Eve (Wigilia) was a big event in our family, and excitement would always build from the day that the Christmas tree went up, knowing that the family feast of Wigilia wasn’t far off. My mother and grandmother cooked up a storm of special food for the occasion: mushroom barszcz (soup), potatoes with dill, pierogi z kapustą i grzybami (boiled dumplings stuffed with cabbage and mushroom) and Babunia’s famous sałatka czerwona (red salad), where the star ingredients were beetroot, potato and pickled cucumber, with cooked carrots, peas, onions and herring added to taste.
My contributions were 20 times thicker than the real noodles, but they all went into the pot of boiling water together – and once the noodles were cooked, Babunia would carefully ladle out all the odd-shaped ones and put them in a bowl just for me.
Babunia doesn’t really cook these days, but our family has maintained a tradition of decorating Polish eggs for Easter. Mum fills a soup pot with onion skins, and Babunia, my stepfather and I gather leaves from the garden. We sit at the table and, under Babunia’s expert instruction, we smear the leaves with Vaseline and stick them to the eggs in different patterns, tie up the decorated eggs with pieces of pantyhose, securing each end with knotted twine before placing the eggs in the pot, ready to be dyed by the onion skins. My stepfather and I try all sorts of artistic variations, but Babunia’s eggs always turn out the best.
This year, because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to see each other in person for our Easter tradition. Then mum rang up one day with a brilliant idea. "I’d like to commission a drawing from you for Mother’s Day for Babunia to colour in," she said. And so began our family series: I would draw pictures and send them to mum to print out for Babunia, who would colour them in. She began with pencils and simple colours, but has gradually started experimenting with textas and bright colourful patterns – proving that, at age 94, artistic expression knows no bounds! My next picture was going to be of kites, to celebrate spring. But after writing this, I think instead the kites will be noodles, dancing across the page like streamers, with a wobbly star or two and a snail hiding in the background.
This piece was originally submitted for New Voices On Food, a project dedicated to promoting diverse voices on food.
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A traditional Polish cream pie, karpatka is made with choux pastry layered with the vanilla pudding cream.
The beauty of this homemade apple cake (besides the treasure of homemade goodness) is that it’s not only soft and light in texture but it’s not overly sweet, which lets the apples and spices do all the talking. There’s your cake for breakfast validation, in case you needed it.
Created in the Polish city of Bialystock (hence the name), this small, chewy round roll is often compared to a bagel. Rather than a hole in the centre, an indent is made and filled with cooked onions and poppyseeds, and the dough is baked rather than boiled.