Thursday, 25 September 2014

Food for thought

Today I’m going to write about something much more mundane than literature or science. Olga Mecking recently wrote an article about weird Polish foods. I was thinking about it today, when I visited my institute’s cantina. A postdoc must eat; it is known. All over the world the university and institute cantinas provide food for the busy researcher, all according to the local culture. In France, you will eat at a restaurant level for a few euros. I don’t know about United States, but one of the visiting PIs was genuinely surprised that our university restaurant serves real potatoes. “What? Potatoes? Like, not from a powder? Somebody actually peels them every day?”. I suppose there’s some good food in the US, it’s just more expensive.

Poland falls somewhere in the middle. The food is fresh, cheap and made from healthy ingredients. Polish kitchen, however, is not French cuisine - you will get a hearty, simple and tasty meal for your polish zlotys, rich in sauces, meat and with an obligatory salad. Vegetarian meals are a relative novelty at the institutes, and they mostly consist of some noodles with some vegetables. You can also assume that if not mentioned straight away, the meat is pork. The cantina itself usually resembles a regular old-fashioned restaurant, the plastic trays are rarely used and the dishes are not on the display, except for salads.

Traditional salads are made from raw veggies and supplemented with sugar and cream or mayonnaise - pick lettuce salads if you want to avoid it, it often goes with the vinaigrette sauce. Sometimes there are cooked veggies to choose as a salad. I’ll avoid sugar and cabbage in my salads (I’m, uh, cabbage intolerant. No cabbage. Just not.) and that is enough to exclude a lot of them, and it’s the reason I visit the cantina in the neighboring institute, where they have a good choice of veggies.

It’s not lactose free, it’s not gluten free, it contains a lot of animal protein and fats, but somehow if you refrain from eating additional sweets (and avoid fries), you don’t put on weight. You don’t lose it, either. It keeps you going through a busy day.

Below is the today’s Polish cantina menu. It changes each day. Keep in mind that it’s a rather luxurious institute cantina, mostly for the researchers. Students eat elsewhere.

ZUPA (Soups)

Grochowa - Pea soup
Made of split peas, with some bacon or kielbasa, hearty and filling. Polish soups are not pureed, unless mentioned otherwise, so there are pieces of veggies and peas inside.

Szczawiowa z jajkiem - Sorrel (spinach dock) soup with an egg
Sorrel is a herb and a vegetable. It has a distinct sour taste. You can make the dish using the wild herb, but generally it’s cultivated. The soup is sour, with the addition of cream and a hardboiled egg.

ZESTAW (Lunch set)
A full lunch/dinner consists of a soup, a main course and a salad. It’s a bargain, but it’s also a lot of food. Today’s zestaw is composed of pea soup, steamed pork ribs, potatoes and a salad. It could feed a soldier. Sometimes it feeds me.

Dania z grilla (grilled dishes)
Not all cantinas have a grill, so it’s a feature.
Karkówka, surówka - pork chuck steak, salad. Not recommended to people on diet or having problems with digesting fat meats.

Filet z kurczaka, surówka - grilled chicken breast, salad. That’s one simple enough.

All of these come with a starch staple of choice (rice, potatoes, kopytka - a polish variant of gnocchi, fries, buckwheat kasha or pearl barley kasha - these are mentioned at the bottom of the menu).

Main courses:

Kurczak po meksykansku, surówka - Mexican chicken, salad
OK., a crash course in the cantina dishes all over Poland. If it’s called Mexican, it contains bell peppers, paprika, red beans and possibly sweet corn. If it’s called Italian, it contains tomatoes and cheese. If it’s called Hawaiian, it contains a slice of pineapple. Don’t expect anything sophisticated. It can be tasty, though.

Penne ze szpinakiem i pomidorami (excuse me, but I won’t repeat “surowka” all over menu, by now you know it’s salad). - penne pasta with spinach and tomatoes. It’s a vegetarian dish. It will also probably leave you hungry, as these are thought to be diet dishes, so order a soup. This is also not a classic Polish dish. By the way, a word of warning to the Italians. All pasta dishes, especially spaghetti Bolognese, are not what you’re used to. I like it, I will order it, but an Italian will probably shudder. So… go for the local dishes, don’t try our versions of yours.

Sztuka mięsa, sos chrzanowy - boiled beef with horseradish sauce. It’s a classic Polish dish and it’s good. It will remind you of wasabi (all commercial wasabi is made of horseradish). The sauce is very mild, creamy, more sweet than sharp.

Kotlet z ciecierzycy, sos - a vegetarian dish. Chick pea croquette with sauce, covered in breadcrumbs. It’s an invention of this particular cantina, and I haven’t tried it yet.

Chrupki z kurczaka, sos - fried chicken nuggets with sauce. Ah, a familiar one? Or a variation. It’s covered in corn flakes and made of non-minced chicken meat.

Naleśnik po meksykańsku - Mexican pancake. Yes, you guessed it - it’s made with the same sauce as the mexican chicken. It’s probably good. It comes without the supplementary starch dishes. It’s a pancake, d’oh.

Sznycel drobiowy z pieczarkami - chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce (champignons). For those who don’t know - Polish people eat mushrooms and collect mushrooms. It’s a huge industry, and a hobby for some. If you find mushrooms in a cantina dish, don’t be afraid, they are bought commercially and they are safe. Pieczarki are a cultivated variety, they are grown and you probably know them. If the cantina uses the word “grzyby” or “grzybowy”, the dish contains wild mushrooms (dried or fresh ones) or possibly mushroom powder mixed with champignons, this is a cheap version. “Kurki” are chanterelles. “Sos kurkowy” is chanterelle sauce. It is possible to eat them seasonally in an ordinary cantina, if lucky. The dish will be more expensive.

Kotlet schabowy - pork cutlet. Leaner meat than the chuck steak. It’s mashed up a bit, covered with egg and breadcrumbs. It’s always what it says on the box. You want Polish traditional food and you want to be sure what this is, order kotlet schabowy. Not sophisticated at all, but very filling.

Dodatki w cenie dania - supplementaries of choice, in the price of the main course. As I mentioned - rice, potatoes, kopytka, fries, buckwheat kasha or pearl barley kasha. Kashas are great with sauces. I’m a fan of buckwheat, it’s tasty and it’s diet food. It has a recognizable smell, you love It or hate it.

Prices are in polish zlotys. 1Euro = 4.2 polish zloty (PLN)

Salads are not written up here on the menu, they are on the display. There was a choice of four different ones, two traditional and two “inventions” containing, among other goodies, sunflower and radish sprouts. The dips of your choice - vinaigrette or mayonnaise sauce - are free.

I can usually manage a full main course without the soup and I’m stuffed. Keep in mind that I’m a tiny female, though always hungry, so your mileage may vary. There are fruits (mostly apples), homemade cake and coffee for additional monies (And kompot. I totally forgot about kompot, a sugary drink made of boiled fruits, served at the room temperature or warm. It's an all-time cantina classic.). You can also order a take-away meal. So, see you on a postdoc in Poland!

And bon apetit!

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