• Some Polish food is adapting to modern tastes in Australia. (Hardie Grant Books)Source: Hardie Grant Books
Polish restaurants have been adapting to changing palates, but for one filmmaker and cookbook author, this is almost sacrilegious.
Caroline Zielinski

24 Mar 2021 - 9:25 AM  UPDATED 6 Apr 2021 - 9:17 AM

In many ways, traditional Polish cuisine is incompatible with the western palette. A typical breakfast, for example, includes pickle juice, cold meats, raw onion on sliced tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs with horseradish.

There are also kluski śląskie, a type of chewy Polish gnocchi with an indentation in the middle to better capture the sauce, which according to Philip Tait, the owner and head chef of Borsch, Vodka and Tears in Windsor, Victoria"are just too weird, chewy and squeaky" for Australians.

Poland has a culinary tradition going back thousands of years. For a long time, a large migrant community was served by a thriving mini-industry in Australia in which babcias (older Polish women) churned out pierogi and kotlety (schnitzels). But many of those Poles are aged now, don't get out as much or, like my parents, have returned to their homeland for retirement.

Pierogi is the comfort dumpling you can make with almost anything
Use up your leftovers, create colourful edible art or create family comfort food: pierogi is all that and more.

This is pushing Polish restaurants to adapt to new and changing food desires. They find themselves asking a question almost sacrilegious: can you make Polish food "cool?"

"Australians have very little understanding of what Polish food is," says Philip Tait, who along with his wife Agneszka Kaczmarski own Borsch, Vodka and Tears

Having worked as a chef for nearly two decades (most of them cooking Polish food), Tait has observed the changing demography of the area, which according to the 2016 census, is now primarily English, Australia, Irish, Scottish and Greek. He has also observed changing attitudes towards food over the years, and has adjusted his menu accordingly. 

"Polish food is very heavy, very grey, brown and carb-heavy, and that's what it used to be like 25 years ago at Borsch, when mainly Eastern Europeans used to live on Chapel street," Tait says. 

"Today, no one wants to eat a full plate of gołąbki with mash potatoes for $25 in the middle of summer anymore, so I've been alternating our menu to suit a new demographic of customers."

And while some staples remain, such as pierogi  ("Australian people love dumplings, they know what they are") Polish kiełbasa (sausage) and even the highly idiosyncratic żurek (a rich soup soured with fermented rye starter that's served with a boiled egg and a meaty white kiełbasa), Tait says his main customers are no longer traditional Poles, but young foodies.   

"No one wants to eat a full plate of gołąbki with mash potatoes for $25 in the middle of summer anymore, so I've been alternating our menu."

"You go to Poland and you can only get the standard flavours (cheese, potato and caramelised onion, mincemeat with sauerkraut etc), but we're constantly evolving our pierogi: our latest is sweet potato and jalapenos, which people are loving".  

Tait has also introduced vegan and vegetarian meals due to high demand, of which vegan options alone account for more than one-fifth of sales. 

But for Polish cookbook co-writer and documentary director Simon Target, Polish culture, tradition and even religion underpin most of the Polish cuisine. 

"Take bread, for example, Polish Catholic tradition is sacred, and bread forms a huge part of that. This is why you will find a million types of delicious bread in Poland; even the worst hotels and petrol station diners have babcias (grandmothers) baking fresh bread out back!"

Polish spiced honey bread (piernik)

A popular dessert or snack in Poland, piernak lies somewhere between a sweet bread and a dense cake. Scented with honey, caramelised sugar and mixed spice, these gems make a great accompaniment to just about any beverage.

Target was first introduced to Polish cuisine when he married Polish-born family doctor Beata Zatorska, with whom he eventually co-authored a series of Polish cookbooks (such as Rose Petal Jam) based on Zatorska's grandmother's recipes. 

"Beata's grandmother cooked the stuff she grew in the garden, such as Polish grass soup (also known as sorrel soup, or zupa szczawiowa, made from the widely available sorrel plant) and even made cosmetics out of stuff she found in the forest."

It's no secret that Poland suffered terribly for most of the 20th century, the World Wars and Communism left its people without basic ingredients and even refrigeration. 

"This is why so much of Polish cuisine includes pickled vegetables and fruit spreads (powidła): these were foods you could store in the basement (piwnica), which has remained a strong part of Polish culture."

For Target, altering Polish cuisine is almost sacrilegious. 

"In Australia, if you want really good Polish food, you have to find a relative," he says. "While there are many Polish restaurants and cafes around, you just can't beat home cooking."

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @CE_Zielinski and Instagram @czee3388.

Noodles and naleśniki connect me to my Polish grandmother
Slender, hand-cut noodles. Polish crepes served with blueberries. Ania Reynolds' life has been flavoured with food by her Babunia.
This Melbourne bakery serves Polish cheesecake from a century-old recipe
You haven't truly eaten in Melbourne until you’ve had a piece of cheesecake or a baby kugelhopf from this St Kilda institution.
This cafe is known for its hot cross bagels, Polish-American pastries and schmears
From classic bagels to cashew cream schmears and Anzac biscuits, Hobart's Bury Me Standing is inspired by its owners' cultural roots.
No pierogi or Lebanese bread: What life is like for a Polish-Egyptian with coeliac disease
Food is more than a source of nutrition: it's part of your culture and family unit.
Polish cream pie (karpatka)

A traditional Polish cream pie, karpatka is made with choux pastry layered with the vanilla pudding cream.