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Up near my parents house in Bounds Green, there are two shops side by side run by, I think, Bangladeshis which sell exactly the same produce, almost none of it South Asian. Like Beigel Bake/Shop, one is yellow and one is white, and although I couldn’t really tell the difference if you asked me, my mum would always send me out to get specific things from the yellow or white shop: rye bread and soured cream from one (always specifying the percentage), pierogi and a sack of onions from the other. These two shops are basically polski skleps in all but name, and if desi shop owners are getting in on it then you know there is a larger demand for them than you might initially think.
Polski skleps - Polish shops - have become an integral part of London in a way that the restaurants generally haven’t. This is not unique to Poland but is a general rule with the Central and Eastern European countries that have joined the EU: there are certainly more places selling Polish, Bulgarian, Lithuanian or Romanian produce (sometimes all in the same shop) then there are restaurants (although Romanian restaurants are well worth someone writing about once this is over). I’ve often wondered why this is: possibly a restaurant is too much of a permanent thing to open when most immigration from the EU is peripatetic, or perhaps it is something in the cuisine itself?
The polski sklep provides just as vital a service as the East Asian grocery stores, although Polish food has not become trendy enough for most people to think of making at home. This guide by Marta Zboralska aims to change that. Polski skleps are treasure troves not just of produce, but ready made items you can start to incorporate into your daily routine, as well as great substitutes for things you may already know. Plus, if you’re bored of fishfingers, have you tried ready made krokiety? Marta’s local is Kłos in Lewisham, which is mainly Polish, but you may have one near you under the guise of a ‘European’ produce store. If you do, now is the time to finally use it!
The Ultimate Guide to the Polski Sklep
Years ago, I was invited to a formal dinner at a well-known Polish restaurant in South Kensington. When it was time for the main course, the chef arrived from the kitchen in a dirty apron, looking like a caricature of a chef (I want to say he was wearing a chef’s hat but my memory may be playing a trick on me here – let’s just say he was), and served mashed potato straight from the pan onto the plates in front of us. I recall being really confused by this performance of rusticity, especially in a relatively fancy restaurant – was this what the British wanted Polish cuisine to be like?
Until recently, I wasn’t much of a cook. Things changed when I realised that, as the only member of my family living in the UK, I had a duty to preserve my own, perhaps equally skewed, image of Polish food. At first, I wasn’t even sure what that image was; only that it didn’t involve any meaningless displays of rustic homeliness, especially in a bougie restaurant. I wanted food that was actually home-made. Discovering I could just learn to cook the things I had been missing was a revelation – so if I haven’t found a Polish restaurant in London that I really like, it’s also because I haven’t gone out of my way to find one. I realised I enjoy the ritual of going to the local polski sklep to buy the ingredients for a specific meal far more than I enjoy going out to eat. I read and write in Polish every day – but I don’t get to speak it very much. The niceties exchanged with the shopkeepers mean that I get to hear my Polish voice (the first few words always come out quite hesitantly). To me, the authenticity of the cuisine lies in standing in the slowest queue of all time during the pre-Easter rush because, as the meat counter lady pointed out to me last year without a shadow of sarcasm, przecież nikomu się nie spieszy (“it’s not like anyone’s in a hurry”).
This is my personal guide to the best of the polski sklep. They can be found now in every borough of London – my local one is Kłos in Lewisham – but if you don’t have one near you, this guide is applicable to other Central and Eastern European shops.
First of all: kefir (ke-feer). Poles take their gut health very seriously and kefir is a staple among fermented dairy products (alongside soured milk, zsiadłe mleko, often used as a smoothie ingredient). I like kefir sokólski (it comes in a very cute green plastic pot) or krasnystaw kefir in a bottle. At Kłos, one litre will set you back £1.19 – a lot less than “fancy” British kefir. You can drink it neat or use it as a substitute for buttermilk and make delicious, tangy pancakes.
If you do decide to make pancakes, you might want to serve them with twaróg. Twaróg (tva-roog) is a type of quark/curd cheese that comes in firm blocks. The varieties are tłusty (full fat/whole), półtłusty (semi-skimmed) or chudy (skimmed). You want to stick to the first two.
To make sweet pancake filling, mash your twaróg with two spoonfuls of vanilla sugar (cukier wanilinowy, sold in small sachets at Polish supermarkets), one spoonful of caster sugar and a large enough dollop of 12% śmietana. [Śmietana (shmee-e-tana) is soured cream that you can get in every polski sklep. It comes in different varieties (thickness) depending on the percentage of fat. 12% is good for use in salads, sauces and soups.] Spread the filling on each pancake, then roll (or fold into triangles). Serve warm or cold.
Twaróg can also be eaten as a snack, on its own or with some bread. Just mix it with salt, pepper, grated radish, chives and some 12 or 18% śmietana. The same applies to serek wiejski – cottage cheese. The consistency is thinner than twaróg so you don’t need to add any soured cream. It is sometimes sold pre-mixed with chives (or with a fruit corner!).
If you are planning on making chicken stock, Polish supermarkets sell small bundles of veg called włoszczyzna (from the Polish word for Italy: Włochy). Each bundle contains the right selection of veg for your stock: two carrots, one parsley root, some fresh parsley, a leek, a chunk of celeriac, sometimes also a piece of cabbage and an onion.
In the summer, during the gherkin season, you’ll find similar bundles for pickling.
Most savoury Polish dishes are served either with potatoes or kasza gryczana: roasted buckwheat groats. Kasza gryczana is good for you (or so they say) and has a delicious nutty flavour. It even comes in a boil-in-the-bag version. The Kupiec brand has cooking instructions in English on the box.
As an alternative to porridge, for breakfast I sometimes have instant semolina (kasza manna). I like the vanilla-flavoured one (89p for a 400g bag). Just boil a glass of milk or water in a saucepan, add 4 teaspoons of the semolina, cook for 3 minutes (or until thickened) on low heat, constantly stirring. Serve with fruit, jam or a splash of fruit syrup (I prefer the Herbapol brand; raspberry is my favourite. You can also dilute it with water and drink cold or hot!).
Two words: pickled beetroot. If you like beetroot (buraczki), the polski sklep is your friend. You can get jars of shredded beetroot (wiórki), sliced beetroot (plastry), fried beetroot (zasmażane), beetroot-horseradish relish (ćwikła z chrzanem). Serve it cold as a side salad. You can also buy a variety of other vegetables in jars: diced carrots, peas, mushrooms, ‘dinner salad’ (sałatka obiadowa; a combination of cabbage, carrot, gherkins, onion and peppers)… Very useful if you want veg that will last but you’re running out of space in your freezer.
The Meat Counter
If your Polish supermarket calls itself a deli (delikatesy), it probably has a meat counter. Polish kiełbasa is, of course, world-famous. My top tip is to get a few kabanosy: long, thin dried sausages. They are an excellent snack: smoky and full of flavour. Because they are dry, they’ll last a while in the fridge – but at around 70p each they’re not cheap (at least not by polski sklep standards). Avoid kabanosy if you don’t eat pork: even the chicken and beef varieties typically have some pork in them. If you’re after cold cuts for your swanky charcuterie board, I’d ask for sucha krakowska (soo-ha kra-kov-ska), a tubular sausage that tastes like smoked mortadella, or the delicious Lithuanian kindziuk (not every polski sklep will have this, but if you’re near Leyton your local Lithuanian shop will).
Paluszki (pa-loosh-kee) are thin pretzel sticks with tiny salt crystals (but they also come in other varieties, e.g. sesame seed). Delicious with beer. £1.09 for a large bag.
Ptasie mleczko. If you don’t know what this is, you clearly don’t work with any Poles.
(editors note: can confirm these are delicious - like a mix between a choc ice and a souffle)
Kisiel (kee-shee-el) Now this is a weird one. The instant variety (e.g. Dr. Oetker’s Słodka Chwila) is basically sugar, potato starch and fruit flavouring (strawberry or raspberry are popular flavours). You pour the powder into a mug, add boiling water, stir vigorously. You end up with sticky fruit-flavoured gloop. Eat with a spoon straight from the mug. One packet costs 49p – take the risk, it’s better than his pizzas!
Chrupki kukurydziane. Corn puffs, a healthy alternative to crisps. They are great: they kind of taste like air and instantly dissolve in your mouth.
Jeżyki. ‘Little hedgehogs’, i.e. biscuits covered in caramel, dried fruit, nuts and a layer of chocolate.
And, finally, if you’re looking for a chocolate bar, I’d go for aBajeczny (crunchy bits of wafer and nuts in milk chocolate), Pawełek (this one has a liquid middle; I like the toffee and Advocaat varieties) or the legendary Prince Polo chocolate-covered wafer (much loved in Iceland, for some reason).
If you are a water connoisseur and/or interested in supporting a cooperative located in the Polish mountains, make sure to get yourself a bottle of the highly mineralised Muszynianka water. 49p for 0.5l.
Nesquik cereal is good, but you haven’t lived until you’ve tried Chocapic.
Before the arrival of lunch, Poles would eat obiad: the main meal of the day, taken between 12:30-3pm and followed by a light supper (kolacja), e.g. sandwiches, in the evening. Obiad normally consists of a soup and a main. Anyone who’s ever been to Poland will know that Poles are partial to a sweet obiad; so either a sweet soup and a savoury main, or more often a savoury soup and a sweet main. The sweet soups – e.g. fruit soup – are disliked by the many and loved by the few (I am one of the few). The savoury soups (chicken [rosół], tomato [pomidorowa], gherkin [ogórkowa], barszcz, sauerkraut [kapuśniak] and sour rye [żurek]) are very popular – many Polish supermarkets sell the Profi brand in hermetically-sealed long-life bags. For the real deal, if you ever find yourself in Poland, I recommend going to a ‘milk bar’ (bar mleczny), a legacy of government-subsidised dairy-based cuisine popularised under communism when meat wasn’t always readily available. As well as different kinds of soup, milk bars offer a vast array of sweet mains: sugary pasta and pancakes with sweet cheese, potato rostis with sugared soured cream, pierogi with fruit.
My favourite sweet main, one that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been fed by a Polish school canteen, is racuchy. Racuchy (ra-coo-khy)are made out of yeasted dough combined with fresh apples and sit somewhere between pancakes and doughnuts; thick but fluffy, sweet and tangy. They’re very easy to make though you’ll need a tiny bit of patience (but could there be a better time to practice patience than now?).
270g of plain flour (different grades of flour are available in Polish supermarkets; for racuchy, choose mąka luksusowa)
A pinch of salt
30g of yeast (equal to around 7g of instant yeast or one sachet of drożdże suszone instant)
A tablespoon of sugar
270ml of milk
Icing sugar for dusting (caster will be fine too)
Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl.
If you are using fresh yeast:
Make a well in the flour. Crumble the yeast into the well and add a heaped tablespoon of sugar. Heat the milk. It needs to be slightly warmer than room temperature, around 40 degrees Celsius (the temperature of a hot shower. I don’t have a food thermometer so I guesstimate it, but you must make sure it doesn’t get much hotter than that. If it’s burning your fingers, it’s too hot). Pour half of the milk (more or less; no need to be precise) into the well, cover with a clean tea towel and leave for around 15-20 minutes. When you come back, the yeast will have started to bubble. Add the rest of the milk (make sure it’s still hot-ish) and 1 egg, then mix everything together. Leave in a warm place for 50 minutes to let the dough rise.
If you are using instant yeast:
Add the instant yeast and a heaped tablespoon of sugar to the flour and salt. Heat the milk to around 40 degrees Celsius (see above). Add the milk to your dry ingredients, crack in 1 egg, then mix thoroughly, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for 50 minutes.
After 50 minutes, check on the dough. It should have filled the bowl. It will look sticky and aerated.
Peel and grate 3 apples into thin shreds (use the largest shredding holes on your box grater). Squeeze and drain the excess apple juice, then gently combine the apple shreds with your risen dough and set aside for 15 more minutes.
Put some rapeseed oil in a large frying pan on a medium heat. You can pour a substantial amount into the pan and shallow-fry or just cover the bottom of the pan and keep on topping up as you fry (the racuchy will absorb the oil as they fry – this is fine and desirable). Pour ladle-sized portions of the dough onto the pan (aim for a height of around 1cm), watch the dough bubble. Fry until golden, then flip and fry the other side. Place your racuchy on a paper towel to absorb the excess oil. Dust with icing sugar (or caster sugar) and serve warm.
Marta Zboralska has lived in the UK since 2007. She was recently awarded her PhD in History of Art from UCL. Her favourite food-related artwork is Alison Knowles’ Identical Lunch and she is @martanotmartha on Instagram. She waived her fee for this article.
The embroidery (!) of the racuchy was made by Rachel McVeagh