Polish cuisine may not be as popular as Thai or Italian ones, but it has some really delicious meals and tastes that you have never tried before in your life. The best places to try authentic and cheap food options in the Polish cities are so-called 'milk bars' (bar mleczny in Polish). These are the cantines that stayed in our culture since the end of the 19th century and are still mostly associated with communist times. Here's one page from a diary of a Polish foodie - the chapter on milk bars.
The term 'milk bar' is used for describing an affordable cantine that serves home-like meals of typical Polish cuisine. Its interesting name comes from the fact that the major part of the dishes were based on milk ingredients, accompanied by flour-based products. The idea became extremely popular during the interwar times and flourished into being a part of a typical communist landscape. The idea of the cantine was also preserved in one of the most popular Polish movies, 'Miś', depicting these times in a distorted mirror.
A 'milk bar' is a great place to get acquainted with traditional Polish cuisine. Besides various kinds of meat, you can try all sorts of milk and flour-based products, such as pancakes with different fillings, kopytka (a Polish version of gnocchi) and the most popular - pierogi (sweet or savory dumplings). I could easily say that they are a meal to die for. These little pockets made of flour dough can be stuffed with sour cabbage and mushrooms, cooked meat, a combination of cooked potatoes, onion and quark. There are sweet versions as well - with various kinds of fruits inside, like seasonal blueberries, or white cheese with sweet cream on the top. Other interesting options might be flat fried potato pancakes known as placki ziemniaczane. You can have them accompanied by sour cream or a spoon of sugar - I suggest trying both. Once in the cantine, you should also try various kinds of soups on offer. Žurek is made of sour rye and served with hard-boiled eggs, and barszcz is a clear beetroot soup accompanied usually by little dumplings with mushroom filling. Another kind of beetroot soup, Chłodnik is served cold and based on soured milk, while a cucumber soup is made of sour-salted pickled cucumbers.
Because everything is affordable and sold separately, you can compose your own meal, consisting of healthy options: salads, soups, rice, potatoes or millet, to accompany the main dish. It is also worth trying a home-made lemonade with seasonal fruits (called kompot). The reason for the very low prices in the milk bars are the subsidies provided by the city. It's a great social project that allows everyone to have something healthy and warm to eat every day. While visiting you might need to ask for help or use a translator to understand the menu, but when I recently visited one of the bars in Warsaw's Praga district - Bar Ząbkowski, I noticed that they have them available also in English and Spanish! Another interesting place to check, closer to the city center, is recently renovated Bar Prasowy. This cult place became quite popular after its metamorphosis, and it frequently greets younger customers for a cheap lunch.
Milk bars are perhaps not the most luxurious options for trying out Polish cuisine, but I would strongly encourage you to check them out on your next trip to Poland. Don't expect to see white tablecloths, but I'm certain you can find good food, reminiscent of Polish grandma's kitchen. If you're a vegetarian like me, you will surely find some options as well, but I'm afraid there won't be much for vegans. For this part, I will show you some vegan options around Warsaw in one of my next chapters of the diary of a Polish foodie. For now, I hope I convinced you to make a trip to old-style dining in the milk bars.
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