From pierogi to pickles: learning to love cuisine
The Poles are the largest immigrant community in Ireland, yet we've been slow to embrace their dishes. That's gradually changing
Ireland has become increasingly multicultural and you only have to look at the diverse choice of food available to us for everyday evidence.
Some food cultures have been particularly influential. If you were judging by the number of representative restaurants, you might guess that the largest group of non-Irish nationals living in Ireland are Chinese... or Italian perhaps, given the volume of pasta, pizza and panini that Irish folk consume.
Of course, there are more reliable measures of a migrant community's presence. We know from the 2016 Census that the largest group of non-Irish nationals in today's Ireland are Polish, at 122,515. That figure is almost unchanged from 2011, having doubled in the five years from 2006.
Perhaps the question is better considered the other way around: given how many Polish people now call Ireland home, to what extent has their food culture influenced Irish food culture?
The answer appears to be relatively little... on the surface of things at least. And yet there are plenty of delicious dishes to be discovered in Polish cuisine for those willing to seek them out.
There are surprisingly few restaurants, cafes, food trucks or market stalls specialising in traditional Polish food. One Polish-Irish couple, Ola and Jonathan Farrar, did try selling pierogi (Polish dumplings) at a Dublin market, but they gave up after a tough 18 months despite an enthusiastic review in the McKenna's Guide.
"Polish food is delicious," says Ola. "But it was very hard to get people interested in it."
Even for those Irish folk who seek it out, Polish food is relatively hard to find. Piotr Gwiazpowska of Sopot Restaurant on Mountjoy Square expresses a mixture of pride and disappointment at being the only Polish restaurant in Dublin, given that Gospoda Polska on Capel Street closed within a few years of opening. While there is no shortage of Polish shops and supermarkets, with some chains such as Polonez boasting up to 30 stores nationwide, these still attract as few as five per cent Irish customers.
"When I speak to Irish people," says Michal Dzigielewski, marketing manager at Polonez, "they're still afraid to come into our stores, even though lots of our prices are lower than Lidl or Aldi." He thinks that the breadth of choice offered can be overwhelming to the uninitiated, with seven different styles of Polish flour to choose from, for example, or over 50 types of sausage and cold meats.
However, Lidl's quarterly 'Polish Taste' promotions seem to pique Irish customers' curiosity and Polonez often experience an upsurge when those promotions have finished. Lidl plan to significantly increase the regularity of those promotions due to popular demand, while Tesco now have a very extensive range of Polish groceries - these include sausages and cold meats, as well as fruit juices, pickles, kefir style yoghurt and Polish chocolate.
Scratch the surface and you'll find a growing influence. Some fans may lament the demise of U Wuja, a hole-in-the-wall purveyor of pierogi that is no longer trading in Moore Street's underground food mall. But others are busy frequenting Goraçe Gary U Barbary Kuchary, which has opened inside Mroz.ie Exclusive supermarket.
Pawel Skura relocated from Tullamore to open the canteen-style Goraçe Gary in early September, and says it's been "mad busy" ever since. Their daily menu always includes pierogi, soup (maybe a broth with pork knuckle) and popular specials like chicken rolled with mushrooms and herbs. His predominantly Polish customers are often joined by well-informed Irish diners. "Lots of them have Polish partners or friends or colleagues, and they know what's good," Pawel says.
Piotr Gwiazpowska of Sopot agrees that Irish people are increasingly familiar with Poland's many national dishes. The classic Polish hunter's stew known as bigos is very popular, as is zurek, a sour rye soup with hard-boiled egg, pancetta-type bacon, sausage, vegetables and dill. Sopot attracts a mixed crowd, either through business lunches or an increasing number of Polish-Irish couples. "And when they come once, they come back again."
The number of mixed Polish-Irish households has doubled since 2011, as many of those Polish people who came to Ireland in their 20s have put down roots and made new lives here, often meeting and marrying locals.
Gavin and Marlena Murphy belong to a growing proportion of Irish-Polish families with Irish-born children. General manager of Dockyard 8 in Bray, Gavin says he was "astounded" by both the diversity and quality of Polish food - and by how much of their income Polish people are prepared to spend on ingredients.
"Also, maybe it's just coincidence, but a lot of the things I saw in Poland 15 years ago, I see here in Ireland now," he says, citing our new appreciation for sourdough breads and fermented foods. He observes that those food skills that most Polish people grew up with are becoming newly valued here.
Polish-born Magda Japola manages the fermented food section for Stephen and David Flynn at The Happy Pear. "Coming from Poland, she's a real dab hand at it," says Stephen. "And she's not afraid to experiment, in the way an Irish person might be." Likewise, many of the new-wave Irish bakers employ skilled Eastern European bakers for their experience in handling sourdough.
Piotr Sztal arrived in Ireland from Krakow on his 21st birthday with plans to stay for a summer, but is still here 16 years later. He met his husband Frank Kavanagh in 2005, with whom he owns Cloud Picker Coffee and runs Dublin's Science Gallery Cafe.
The couple have fond memories of their 2011 wedding in Frank's home town of Buncrana. As is traditional at Polish weddings, they served borscht broth with uszka ('little ear') dumplings filled with wild mushrooms and sauerkraut. "The thinking is that the beetroot is good for your liver," explains Piotr, although this pre-emptive cure had its work cut out in Donegal. "All the Polish people got drunk on wine because they weren't used to drinking it," he laughs. And the Irish? They got "absolutely hammered" on the vodka, a bottle of which was on every table.
The couple are full of stories of epic family feasts. Piotr remembers decamping with the whole family to his granny's kitchen during cabbage season to create a year's worth of kapusta kwaszona (sauerkraut). "There'd be a bit of craic as well," Frank adds, alluding to the all-important vodka at such gatherings. Perhaps as a lingering habit from food-scarce days under communism, Piotr's mother still regularly buys a dozen free-range chickens at a time to "have a chicken party". Guests depart well fed with a stash of frozen chickens.
Piotr and Frank's own pierogi parties are a hit with their Irish friends, who are drafted in to help with the prepping - and eating. "They're very laborious to make and you have to be very organised," says Piotr, "so you might as well make two or three hundred of them!"
The couple eat a lot of Polish food at home, especially comfort food like rosól soup (clear chicken broth with sliced duck and tiny pasta) when they're poorly or pork schnitzel when it's cold. They make regular trips to Polish stores for favourite ingredients: pickled herrings, Polish sausage to slice thin and fry into 'sausage crisps', or special cuts of meat like pork neck to roast on the barbecue. Polish dishes get a good response in their cafe too - especially pierogi.
"Gherkin soup has such a beautiful fresh flavour but people think it sounds mad," says Piotr, pointing to what is perhaps the biggest barrier preventing the Irish from discovering the joys of Polish food: our misguided preconceptions.