Polish Christmas is unique. It really is. I haven’t heard of any other country where people set an additional plate for the coincidental person who may end up at their door for some reason (for example because they’re homeless) or put straw under the tablecloth.
But I think the most amazing thing about a Polish Christmas is the food.
Take for example, the symbolism of it: 12 dishes to honor the 12 apostles. The waiting until the first star appears in the sky. Then, we break the holy wafer, by which I mean, we awkwardly go around and take a piece of someone’s holy wafer and then they take a piece of our holy wafer and then we wish each other a Merry Christmas. I say that it’s awkward because sometimes it is just that. Among families, however, I think it’s a nice tradition (which reminds me that I need to buy some wafers).
The food itself is also very unique and amazing. And it’s apparently also very healthy. I don’t know of similar traditions in other countries. In Germany, for example, goose (and apparently, as I am told, Polish geese are the best) is a typical Christmas dish. When my Dutch teacher asked us about traditional Christmas in our countries, people say there isn’t any special dish. In Poland, it’s 12 dishes.
In the cooking magazine of my local supermarket chain, I found an interesting way to describe food from certain countries not by listing the typical dishes but rather, by focusing on the ingredients. So here there are: the smells, tastes and ingredients of a Polish Christmas.
In my family, the beetroot is the star of the evening. We make soup out of it. And not just any soup, but The Soup: borscht, or as Polish people spell it, barszcz (sz is sh and cz is tsh). Made with fermented beetroot, vegetable and mushroom broth, it’s the world’s best soup. The beetroot can also make an appearance in a salad for example.
For many of you, Christmas is the smell of spices: cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg… for me it’s the smell of mushrooms. I remember when I was a child that I would be woken up by the mouth-watering smell of mushrooms that my mom prepared for Christmas. She would brown some onions, add the mushrooms and make a filling for so called uszka– dumplings that are inseparable from the above mentioned beetroot soup.
It goes into pierogi, together with the mushrooms. Yes, I know we’ve already had a type of dumplings with mushrooms but these are totally different dumplings and besides, the filing for uszka is just mushrooms. But there must be sauerkraut, of course. Sometimes, it’s served with peas- in something called groch z kapustą meaning literally “peas with sauerkraut” but figuratively, it means “chaos”.
- Poppy seeds
I can’t imagine a Polish Christmas without poppy seeds. The Polish people like them sweet: in an amazing cake called makowiec (lots of a poppy seeds, honey, orange peel, raisins and nuts) and also in something called kutia– a mass of finely minced poppy seeds (which is actually very similar to the aforementioned makowiec, except for the fact that this one also has grains in it).
- Grains and flour
Grains and floury goodies are also a staple in on the Polish Christmas table. For example uszka (dumplings), pierogi (the other dumplings) are also made of flour. And let’s not forget grains- they’re used in kutia, together with the poppy seeds and other delicious stuff.
Polish people do not eat meat on Christmas Eve. It’s considered a time of fasting, reflection and expecting the birth of Jesus, by which I mean stuffing our bellies full of food that lacks meat but is rich in fish. Fried fish, jellied fish, herring and salmon. We love fish so much that we sometimes let it live in our bathtub before we cut its head off.
- Dried fruit and nuts
My mother makes fruitcake every year for Christmas and Easter. But dried fruit, including prunes, and raisins are used in kompot (a drink made with fruit and sugar, a kind of juice). And don’t forget the so called keks –(yes, it comes from the English word cakes) which is basically a Polish version of fruitcake, except it has more cake batter than fruits and nuts while the fruitcake my mom makes contains pretty much just fruit and nuts and they’re held together but just a little bit of dough, serving as glue. Guess which version I prefer.
For borscht, you need to cook beetroot, vegetables and mushrooms and combine all of these three tastes. You only use the broth, not the vegetables or mushrooms for borscht. The mushrooms, you’re using for uszka and pierogi. But what do you do with the cooked beetroot and other vegetables? The Polish Christmas borscht is clear, the only chunks in there are uszka so do I have to throw the delicious (if slightly red- coloured) veggies away? No. Here’s what you do: you dice them, add copious amounts of mayonnaise and you serve that as a colourful salad. The beetroot itself can be sliced and served as yet another salad (remember, you need 12 dishes). So that’s a great way to add veggies to your Christmas table.
The Polish Christmas Eve meal is a vegetarian one. No meat consumption happens that day. It’s supposed to be a day of reflection, just as I said. Fish is one way we get to cheat a little bit. Eggs are another. They’re the star of the Easter meal, of course but they also make a presence for Christmas. they go into the mushroom stuffing for pierogi and uszka. They go in the making of thereof. They go into salad, and as decoration.
Now is the time for spices, the thing you all probably associate Christmas with. We use cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg as well for example in a cake called piernik (gingerbread) and in little cookies called pierniczki, but I’d like to shine the spotlight on different spices: bay leaf, pigment, marjoram, caraway and juniper.
What smells, tastes and ingredients do you associate with Christmas?