Of pierogis, bagels and other Polish recipes of a visiting Polish chef

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 22 May 2016

Ahram Online reflects on Polish cuisine and culture with an acclaimed Polish chef visiting Egypt

Polish cooking class

Maciej Majewski is a Polish chef who was recently in Cairo upon invitation of the Embassy of Poland in Egypt, bringing a taste of Polish cuisine.

For three consecutive days Majewski cooked to the delight of groups of Egyptians and members of the foreign diplomatic corps in Egypt.

The dishes offered to the joy of the chef’s guests included marinated beef with compressed cucumber and chives, beetroot jelly with goat cheese mousse, quail eggs filled with mushroom paste, mini stuffed cabbage leaves, beetroot and herring carpaccio, and of course the inevitable pierogis with a filling of goat cheese and potato paste.

Polish cooking class

“I just wanted to get my guests off the idea that Polish cuisine is just about lots of pork, because actually it is not. I mean, really, it wasn’t, and now it is even less so than before,” Majewski told Ahram Online towards the end of his successful culinary show.

According to the visiting Polish chef, the "traditional" recipes of Polish cuisine always had a space for pork, of course — especially pork cutlets — but also had a large space for beef, fish and a diversity of fruits and root vegetables.

Polish cuisine has evolved over the centuries to be very eclectic. And it was always influenced by socio-economic developments that ranged from the close approximation of parts of Poland with the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, the inclusion of Poland into the USSR-dominated Eastern Bloc, and the post-communist era.  

“For example, before World War II Polish cuisine was very similar to French cuisine, in terms of the cooking techniques, and also to Italian cuisine in a sense. But then came the war and people had to eat what they could find, literally, so there was considerable consumption of potatoes and artichoke,” Majewski said.

He added: “Then came the communist years and it was very difficult for people to find the things they wanted at groceries. People were actually getting their food through ratio cards and they just had to take whatever was there. This at times meant that for a whole week one person could get no more than 300 grams of beef, for example.”

Polish cooking class

“With the end of communism and the urge of people to try things that they had not tried before, or to use ingredients they were unfamiliar with, or long deprived of, grew,” the visiting Polish chef said.

That was the moment, he added, when Polish cuisine was sidelined for a time in favour of fast food and international recipes. “Following that there was the coming back to origins, with lots and lots of traditional recipes, and then along with the rest of the world people were trying to customise their meals to the requirements of healthy eating,” he explained.

According to Majewski, it is even becoming very fashionable for owners of restaurants to have their own farms from which they get fresh and organic products for their use.

So what Majewski would serve today for his guests in Warsaw, Cairo or elsewhere is not exactly what he would find in his grandmother’s recipe book, but rather variations of these originals.

“Some food is considered now too heavy and too unhealthy, and some items are considered as requiring too much time to prepare,” he said.

Polish cuisine has Slavic origins, which means lots of cream, eggs, pastries and meat. It also means it that comes with starters, especially pierogi (a thicker version of Chinese dumplings, or the Egyptian qattayef), which are served either steamed or fried. It also means that the main meal has to have soup, with cucumber and tomato soups being all time favourites.

In the course of the years, Polish cuisine merged into an overall Eastern Europe kitchen, while some of its top items, like bagels that were introduced by the influence of Jewish ethnic cuisine, were introduced to international tables and are associated with US chains. “But bagels are originally from Poland,” he said.

Majewski said that his guests for the three days stay in Cairo would not immediately identify their dishes as Polish. “They just thought it was nice and it was something they did not know about.”

According to some who enjoyed the dinners offered by Majewski, it was a first time for them to learn about Polish cuisine. 

Some seemed to correctly associate Polish food with "caviar and apples”. Others spoke of “sausage and alcohol.”

This, Majewski argued, is an indication of why perhaps the Polish Embassy in Cairo invited him in the first place. “I think it is always useful for people to know about one another’s culture, and of course cuisine is essentially about culture.”

Polish cooking class

Limited general knowledge of Polish culture is perhaps associated with the fact that close Cairo-Warsaw relations date back to the communist era, which is now a matter of history for the largest segment of Egyptians who were born after the end of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Another factor, perhaps, is that Polish people have not lived in Egypt en masse, despite the fact that many passed through, on their way out of Eastern Europe during the Hitler years.

Nor would many know that Sophie Moss, associated with the heydays of British intelligence in Egypt, during the years of World War II and beyond, was in fact no other than Zofia Tarnowska, a citizen of Polish origin who only came to Egypt after having lost her family in historic Palestine, to which she had fled to avoid the Nazis.

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