When you travel to a different country as a foreigner, how do you learn about its people, its history, and its values? For most of my travel, I have worked on farms owned by locals. I was able to explore questions about countries by talking to local people, seeing the way that they lived, and learning from them. I was able to sit at their table and share a meal with them.
However, I am currently taking a hiatus from working on farms, and instead simply being a tourist in the cities that I’ve always wanted to visit. I am staying in hostels, meeting other travelers, going on walking tours and visiting museums. But, as I’ve tried to explore these countries as a tourist, I have found it more difficult to witness the everyday life of local people. Tourist districts may include walkable streets and English menus, but the opportunities for meeting people from the area are more limited. The question for me is, how do I learn about a country, if I’ve never sat down for a meal with a family from that country?
Well, obviously, I still start with food.
I have always believed that some of the most important messages that we say are sent through food. Whether it’s the (albeit disputed) origin of the phrase “to give the cold shoulder”, or the warm welcome of a hot plate waiting for you at home after a journey, we use food as a form of communication. There is information, history, and meaning carried in food.
So when I arrive in a new city or country on this trip, I look to the food to learn. In Poland, especially, I used networks like couch surfing and food tours to learn about the local cuisine. Here are a few of the messages that I saw in Polish food.
The most iconic Polish food, fried or boiled dumplings with various fillings, can say a lot. Their preparation is very time intensive, from the effort to roll the dough to the careful stuffing each one. The most basic pierogis contain just potatoes and flavorings, and others can contain any mix of meats and cheeses. There are succulent pierogis stuffed with sweet cheese and fruits, and I have even seen pierogis stuffed with smaller pierogis (that was a tourist trap). There are types of pierogis appropriate for weddings, and different ones for funerals. And truly, no one makes them better than a grandmother. Whatever the occasion, a hearty pierogi sends a comforting message.
Vodka, pickles, and fish
There is a saying in Poland, “fish like to swim”. Though this phrase may sound obvious, it has a subtler meaning: herring, a popular bar snack, is best eaten with a shot of vodka. That fish likes to swim in vodka. And according to some Polish people, there are other foods that like to swim in vodka: pickles. That’s right, after a delicious vodka shot, many people like to bite into a juicy pickle.
While these combinations may sound strange to American university students used to other chasers to vodka, there is reason behind this tradition. Both herring and pickles are supposed to keep away hangovers, and allow you to drink more without becoming sick.
However, to all my other weak-blooded American friends, no matter how many pickles you may eat, I urge you to never try to keep up with an Eastern European when it comes to drinking liquor.
My favorite Polish food, beyond any doubt, is barszcz, a beetroot soup. Its acid taste traditionally comes from leaving it to naturally sour, but today it is sometimes replicated with lemon juice or vinegar. The white barszcz (biaty), is soured with fermented wheat flour, and the amaying zurek contains sour rye flour. All of these soups, if made traditionally, contain healthy bacteria for your stomach. These sour elements come from the days when many things were pickled and fermented to save them.
The ultimate hearty soup, bigos, or hunter’s stew, comes from that tradition. This soup is made with many different meats, saurkraut, and fresh cabbage and mushrooms. The mixture can be stewed for hours, or days, without going bad, and it keeps for a long time. It is the symbol of the hearty countryside food.
Today, in Poland and elsewhere, there are many migrant workers. Young people leave the country and migrate to the city. However, just like in Bulgaria and Romania, these young people still visit home often. When they travel back to the city, they are identifiable because they usually lug large jars of bigos back with them. Bigos does not go bad easily and it is a healthy meal, so it is ideal to take back home from the coutnryside. Today, in Polish, these migrant workers are now being referred to as “jars”.
A bowl of apples may not seem like a revolutionary act, but for Poland in 2014, consuming apples turned into a political statement. When Poland expressed support for the Ukranian people against Russia’s actions in 2014, following some of the EU’s sanctions, Russia responded with a ban on Polish fruit imports. This left Poland with a 700,000 tonne surplus of apples, which were historically shipped to Russia’s enormous market.
In response, some celebrities and activists in Poland tried to start a campaign: eat Polish apples to annoy Putin. Celebrities photographed themselves with apples, restaurants tried to buy what they could and give them away with meals, and cidear consumption tripled. While this may not have been enough to fully aid the struggling orchardists, it certainly brought attention to the issue. There has never been a more delicious political message.
In Poland, I visited many museums and read many histories. These are important and valuable teachers. However, I also learned about the country from sharing everyday meals, or in asking about the history of a dish. Messages are sent in many different mediums. There is rich information stored in the things that we do everyday too, like eat food.
And, most importantly, this kind of learning is delicious.