Friday, October 18, 2013

Jewish Food in Poland

Reposted from my food blog post Polish Dinner, I thought this would be relevant to the theme of this blog.

Sunday we had dinner at  the Senator Restaurant in the Old City of Warsaw. We were invited by our friends Renata, Marek, and Michal, after a day at the new Jewish Museum and a splendid castle. (I'll be writing about them on Maetravels.)

First we walked through the Old City at sunset.
The inviting restaurant doorway was a bit past the main square ... 
And inside the entrance: collections of decorative items
(you can see Renata and Michael just barely reflected in the mirror).
The traditional style of the restaurant's decor and furnishings is in keeping with the very traditional Polish menu.
Renata behind the Belle-Epoch-style lamp
Pickles and a meat spread preceded our first course 
We chose two appetizers to share: potato pancakes with smoked salmon
and pirogis garnished with onions, both served on large platters. Above: my plate.
Most of us had roast duck with apples, cranberries, and roasted potatoes.
You can see that Renata's beer has a deeper color than mine: she chose the option of having
a small glass of raspberry juice to pour into it.
I was interested in the choice of cranberries, which are one of the few widely-used foods native to North America.
There were several similarities between the Senator Restaurant, where we ate on Sunday, and the Jewish-style restaurant where we ate in Krakow Saturday. For example, both served duck in a similar style, but their pirogis and several other dishes were subtly different.

The historic food styles of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles had many similarities and mutual influences, as well as influence on the evolution of American Jewish food in the early 20th century. The excellent, crisply-fried potato pancakes at this old-style restaurant, for example, were totally familiar to me -- similar to those I make but I think they were better than mine. In America today, chicken is far more common than duck or goose, but both were frequently raised and eaten in former times in Eastern Europe, so they still appear on traditional menus, both Jewish and not. I don't know if they are also common in modern Polish home cooking.

Naturally, one wonders about how faithfully these flavors and recipes reflect the cuisine of a by-gone era when most of the Jewish population lived in poverty. Most importantly, cooks in the Jewish restaurants of Krakow obviously are reconstructing the world of a people that was annihilated. They are cooking for tourists from a variety of places, not for locals who experienced an unbroken tradition. Some of the restaurants are even frankly Israeli, advertising such specialities as hummus. Certain dishes, one suspects, are more in a Polish than in a Jewish tradition. The nature of the restoration of "Jewish culture" in Krakow leads to lots of questions.

Royal Castle Warsaw, 1945 (Wiki Media)
The entire city was reduced to rubble.
The issue isn't limited to Jewish cultural restoration, however. In the past century the entire Polish population, including the vanishingly small number of Jewish survivors, have experienced several ruptures with their past. World War I, the reverberations of the Russian Revolution, and the independent Fascist years until 1939 when the Nazis invaded repeatedly shook up the country. World War II was incredibly destructive to Warsaw -- the entire old city where the Senator Restaurant stands was nothing but rubble in 1945, and had to be rebuilt based on photos, memories, and a few paintings by the Italian artist Canaletto.

Under communism, the Poles experienced severe shortages of all basic foods and commodities. These conditions obviously affected the types of recipes that people could make at home as well as what could appear on the menus of restaurants during those years up to 1989. Perhaps some traditions survived in the cuisine of the privileged communist authorities. But to a large extent, the cuisine and the restaurant interiors of today are restorations, based on memories and records -- perhaps with input from some of the Polish cooks who lived outside of Poland, especially in the US, during the 20th century.

All that said, I'm reluctant to make any judgements about authenticity of the food. It tasted very good to me -- in Krakow, the cooking met my expectations for Jewish food as I know it. (I've written a lot about it, but especially see this blog post about a pre-war book on Polish-Jewish cuisine.) Polish people including our hosts find this old-style cuisine, both Jewish and non-Jewish, appealing and perhaps nostalgic of some time that they remember or have heard about. And that's what counts, I think.

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