As we near the Christmas season, and you consider a trip to Poland in the winter, you might wonder what the best Polish foods for Christmas are. Polish cuisine is all delicious and affordable, but only some of the special Polish dishes are specific for Christmas time. Also, there are some specific dishes specially made for a Christmas meal with the entire family. However, you will still find some of the classic Polish foods at the Christmas meal table, such as pierogi and barszcz.
This list holds 12 of the best Polish foods for Christmas that you might want to try. The number is 12 because traditionally, Polish families will eat 12 dishes for their main Christmas meal, to match the number of Apostles from the New Testament of the Bible. Christmas is inextricably tied to Catholic and other Christian religious traditions, and food is no exception. Because of these important links, the end of this article will include some information on these traditions, as well as advice on where to try this delicious food.
While the Poles may eat the entirety of what is on this list in one meal, you should try as many as you feel comfortable eating. Unfortunately, some of the foods are such where you need to make them yourselves or be invited into the home of a Polish family to eat them. I will go into more detail on this at the end of the article. For now, I hope you find a meal for you. Smacznego!
Opłatek will not be the tastiest food you can have for Polish Christmas, but the tradition and historical importance behind opłatek still makes it one of the best Polish foods for Christmas. Opłatek means wafer in Polish, and that is simply what opłatek it. It is a thin wafer made of unleavened and unsalted bread that can be etched with designs of religious figures, especially the Virgin Mary, for the Christmas season. It is tricky to make yourself but can be bought in a Polish piekarnia (which are the Polish bread bakeries different from a cukiernia that specializes in sweet treats) before Christmas Eve.
The opłatek can trace its history to early Christians, and the tradition of breaking bread common in the Christian tradition of Eucharist. Nowadays, Polish families use the opłatek as an opportunity to wish good fortunes on those with them at the Christmas meal. The opłatek is passed around the table, with each member of the family tearing off a small piece and giving a wish for a specific person or the entire family. This continues until every piece of the opłatek has been broken off. So, while this Christmas dish has no nutritional value, it is still perhaps the most important “food” that is part of the Polish Christmas traditions for these reasons.
Barszcz is a Polish food that is available year-round in Poland. You may be more familiar with the Ukranian version called borscht. Polish barszcz is different from its Slavic counterpart’s soup, with a thinner broth and lighter color and taste. Barszcz is made from beets and other pickled vegetables and is served plain as a sort of hot juice. Barszcz can be found in every respectable Polish restaurant and is a staple in the Polish home.
For Christmas, barszcz often has tiny Polish raviolis called uszka. These are stuffed with various vegetables and added to the soup. Barszcz is often served as the first dish of the 12 Polish Christmas dishes, as its light flavor and make-up makes it a pleasant start to a meal. In fact, barszcz is perhaps the most popular Christmas dish in general at the Polish dinner table, and if not, it is certainly the most popular soup available. Either way you look at it, barszcz is scrumptious, and one of the most important and best Polish foods for Christmas.
3. Zupa Grzybowa
Mushrooms are extremely popular in Poland. During the beginning of the autumn season, Poles wander the many forests of Poland, using their extensive mushroom knowledge to pick mushrooms that are safe to eat, and then putting them in jars for later use or for selling on the streets. Thus, it is not surprising that mushrooms find their way into Polish Christmas food. Zupa Grzybowa is a simple soup made up of dried mushrooms, with other ingredients added, which includes vegetables, dumplings, pasta, and cream.
Other than barszcz, zupa grzybowa also is one of the popular Polish soups used as a starter for the meal and is often served in tandem with barszcz as two of the 12 dishes for the Christmas meal. Its heavy flavor complements the lightness of the barszcz. However, the most important part of the soup is the quality of the mushrooms. If you can find an older Polish people who knows their way around the Polish forest, you will certainly have a better experience with zupa grzybowa. All in all, this soup is essential to the Polish Christmas tradition, and is without a doubt. one of the best Polish foods for Christmas.
This is the second dish with mushrooms that finds its way on this list. Pierogi are perhaps the most famous cultural export of Poland. These dumplings are filled with all sorts of fillings, from savory to sweet, and are popular throughout the Poland and Polish-speaking diasporas around the world, such as in Chicago. Pierogi are cheap, filling, and delicious, and even if you are not coming around Christmas, you should certainly stop at a pierogi restaurant to get your fill of this essential Polish food.
But pierogi are still one of the best Polish foods for Christmas. It would be a mistake not to include them. However, due to the Christmas season, and the Catholic tradition of avoiding red meats, the typical filling of meat topped with bacon is avoided. Instead, pierogi are stuffed with cabbage, sauerkraut, or mushrooms and spinach for the Polish Christmas meal. This choice is just as delicious as any other pierogi choice. You may also find sweeter pierogi served in other regions, filled with plums or poppy seeds. All in all, pierogi always reign supreme on the Polish dinner table.
Because of the Catholic tradition to not eat red meat for Christmas meals, fish become a popular entrée on the Christmas menus of Catholic countries. In Poland, perhaps the most popular, and one of the best Polish foods for Christmas, is karp. Yes, karp is carp, spelled with a k in the Polish way. Karp is very important in Poland, with tens of thousands of tons of karp caught and produced every year. Much of this is probably used for the Christmas meal.
Karp can be prepared in multiple ways. The classic way is serving karp filet-style on a plate, with a plethora of sides. These include hot sauerkraut, more mushrooms (the Poles really cannot get enough of mushrooms), other vegetables, and of course, potatoes. Another way to prepare karp is Jewish-style karp. This recipe cooks the fish in a stew, and is then served in a jelly with onions, almonds, raisins, and breads. The final product resembles all those jellies you see in those old American Jello magazines, except it is much more appealing. There are many other regional varieties to try too. All in all, karp is one of the best Polish foods for Christmas because of its versatility and flavor.
Śledzie are simply herring but are still one of the best Polish foods for Christmas. These fish are abundant in the beautiful Baltic Sea that borders Poland to the north. Thus, śledzie quite commonly find their way into Polish cuisine, but are especially popular at Christmas time. Hundreds of thousands of the Baltic variety of śledzie are caught every year.
At Christmas time, śledzie become a centerpiece of the Christmas meal alongside karp. There are dozens of recipes available. Some popular ones are fillets, similar to how karp is prepared, cooked in oil and served with vegetables and potatoes on the side. Additionally, śledzie can be served in a casserole form, with sour cream, apples, onions, and lots of root vegetables. The versatility of śledzie makes it one of the essential and best Polish foods for Christmas.
One thing I will note if you who are reading this article care about this sort of thing, is that Baltic śledzie are known to have higher amounts of certain chemicals than are normal. However, they are still well below the permissible level, and are safe for consumption. If this is a concern for you, there are other varieties of śledzie available without this concern!
7. Sałatka Jarzynowa
When eating a big meal on Christmas Eve, you also need side dishes to go with the main dish. Perhaps the most essential side dish of the best Polish foods for Christmas is sałatka jarzynowa. While you will not usually find sałatka jarzynowa on other lists of best Polish foods for Christmas, this food item was suggested by my girlfriend as too important to miss. And while the sides do not usually get the shine, this one should. Sałatka Jarzynowa is essentially potato salad, with a high number of cooked vegetables, and slathered in a sauce made of mayonnaise, mustard, and spices. It is a popular food in Poland year-round, but especially at Christmas.
Sałatka Jarzynowa is very similar to potato salads you might find at a BBQ restaurant in the US, but sałatka jarzynowa has much more significance to Polish culture. It has been popular for many centuries, first brought from Russian migrants to other parts of Europe. It has been adapted many times to make it a low-cost food. Its low cost made it especially popular in Milk Bars during the 70s and 80s when Poland was under communist rule. Like other food from the era, sałatka jarzynowa has become a nostalgic food item, and a treat year-round. You do not want to skip this side during the Christmas season.
Piernik is in my opinion the tastiest of the best Polish foods for Christmas on this list. Piernik is not anything fancy or complicated to make. In fact, it is maybe the easiest food on this list to purchase. Piernik is simply Polish gingerbread. Poland has a long tradition of making piernik. In the amazing city of Toruń, a great day-trip destination from Warsaw, spices brought from the east by the traders to the wealthy town combined with abundant local wheat resulted in lots of piernik.
While Poland may not have been the first country in the world, or even Europe, to produce it, Poland is still responsible for spreading it through Europe, and eventually to the US, where it is even more important for Christmas than in Poland. Today, you can buy piernik at Christmas Markets throughout Poland during the Christmas season, as a perfect snack or a small dessert after your big meal. While not traditionally served with the Christmas meal, its historical importance makes piernik one of the best Polish foods for Christmas.
While piernik may be more world-famous, makowiec is the most classic dessert of the best Polish foods for Christmas. Makowiec will be served on the dinner table at Christmas as a dessert. Makowiec is a cake, made up of layers upon layers of poppy seeds, sugar, honey, and dried fruits. This delicious dessert used to only be available for the wealthy of Poland, and more common in eastern Poland. It was served for special occasions, mostly important Catholic holidays, with Christmas included in this. Poppy seeds were eaten traditionally to bring joy and ward off evil.
Today, makowiec continues these traditions at the Christmas tables of most Poles. Makowiec can be prepared in many special ways, depending on which region you are from. The most popular ways are in cake form, which looks sort of like a fruit cake, or in strudel form, with layers of poppy seeds swirling through sweet bread. While you can buy makowiec year-round, makowiec are a food you must try at Christmas, due to its deliciousness and historical significance.
As you may have seen in other foods on this list, dried fruits are popular components of the best Polish food for Christmas. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is kompot. Kompot has been around for hundreds of years and is an essential part of Christmas Eve dinner. Kompot is a fruit drink, served in a large pitcher or glass, full of dried fruit and herbs and spices. The most common fruits you will find are plums, apples, apricots, cherries, pears, or whatever fruit the maker has on hand. It is popular at the end of the Christmas Eve meal as a palate cleanser, and digestive aid.
Kompot is another item on this list that is extremely easy to get in the winter. If you visit any Polish restaurant in December, or even other winter months, you will find kompot on the menu. You can usually buy a big pitcher to share with those around you, or you can buy a hefty individual glass. Additionally, kompot is purchasable at some Polish restaurants even after the Christmas season, but usually only at touristy Polish restaurants found in the city center. Regardless of when you try it, kompot is delicious, and an essential part of the best Polish foods for Christmas (even though it is not a food).
Grzaniec is an element on this list that is not unique to Poland in any way. In fact, you will find this item across Europe at many Christmas Markets and at many restaurants during the winter season. But grzaniec is still an essential part of the best Polish foods for Christmas. Grzaniec is either mulled wine or a mulled beer that you will find throughout Poland during the winter. Grzaniec is warm, full of delicious spices and fruity flavors, and adds a kick to your day.
The reason grzaniec is so popular in Poland is due to the bitter dark and cold and winter that Poland usually experiences. From experience, a glass of grzaniec at a Christmas Market, which you are probably visiting in the evening with the sun long gone and the cold winds blowing in, and maybe some snow on the ground, will warm you right up. And it pairs well with many meals if you are sitting down at a delicious Polish restaurant. Additionally, if you do not drink alcohol, there are usually nonalcoholic versions available. Either way, you want to drink grzaniec while in Poland. It will warm you up!
Oscypek is a delicious food that you also will not find on the Polish dinner table at Christmas. However, it is still most definitely one of the best Polish foods for Christmas. Oscypek is a delicious cheese made from sheep’s milk made in the highlands of southern Poland, near the delightful winter destination of Zakopane. Oscypek is famous throughout Poland for its amazing smoky taste, and is commonly enjoyed grilled, and served with bread, meat, or cranberry sauce.
Oscypek is special in that it is protected by the European Union. This means that oscypek, to be called oscypek, must be made in a very specific way and near Zakopane to be considered real oscypek. Thus, you are guaranteed to get the real thing based on the name!
Oscypek is the easiest to get in Zakopane. Of course, you can also get cheeses very similar to oscypek at Christmas Markets throughout Poland. These cheeses are of course still delicious, but you will notice that while they look like oscypek, they will never be called oscypek. Even in Zakopane, most of the cheeses sold on the main tourist route are not actually oscypek. If you want to guarantee yourself real oscypek, visit the Oscypek Museum in Zakopane to buy some, or even make some!
When is Polish Christmas food traditionally eaten?
As mentioned previously, Poland is a very Catholic country. Over 90% of Poles identify as Catholic (although a much smaller number regularly attend church). Thus, with centuries of Catholic tradition influencing Polish traditions, a Polish Christmas resembles a Christmas you might find in other heavily catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, or Portugal. This first explains why all the food you will find on this list is free of meat except for fish, as beef, pork, and chicken are avoided by Catholics at this time due to tradition.
Additionally, Poles typically eat their Christmas meal on Christmas Eve, so December 24th. Poles break the opłatek, eat soups, then the mains, and finally desserts. After finishing their meal, many Poles head to midnight mass to celebrate Christmas. Even Poles who are not Catholic, like my girlfriend’s family, follow some of these traditions, eating their main meal meat-free except fish on Christmas Eve.
Other foods on this list may be eaten throughout the Christmas season. Oscypek, or something similar, is quite popular at Christmas markets throughout Poland, and can be eaten as many times as you want. The same can be said for grzaniec and kompot. Piernik is the easiest food to get year-round, as a trip to Toruń will undoubtedly include a trip to the piernik stores found on every corner. But overall, Polish Christmas food is eaten for the Christmas meal, and then not again for the rest of the year.
Where can I try this delicious Polish food?
Most of the food on this list can be quite hard to find. Unlike some Polish food, you will not be able to walk into a grocery store and find a microwaveable version of it. Additionally, many restaurants will not serve this food as it is viewed as special for home meals. But, if you were to find this food in a restaurant, it would be during the month of December. However, you will not be able to eat a full meal on Christmas Eve, as restaurants are generally closed for family time.
By far the easiest ways to try this food are either to cook it yourself, as all ingredients can be bought at local grocery stores and there are countless recipes online, or to be invited into the home of a Polish family for the holidays. For the prior, make sure your place of lodging has a good kitchen, and make sure to shop a few days before Christmas, to ensure the store will be open. The latter is my recommendation, as nothing beats home-cooking from a Polish family, usually prepared by the babcia (grandma).
Conclusions about the Best Polish Foods for Christmas
Poland has delicious food in general, and Polish Christmas food is no exception. This list includes the best of the best. A final note is that this list was vetted by my Polish girlfriend, who supported the list and suggested changes to create the 12 best Polish foods for Christmas. When you travel to Poland in the winter season, you should try to eat or drink as many of the dishes on this list as possible.
If you are looking for some places to find recipes to cook the food on this list yourself, find some linked below. The great thing about having a food list is that you can cook much of what is on this list on your own with ingredients from your home country! This is a great choice if you want an introduction to Polish cuisine before a future trip or cannot make it at the present time. But I recommend coming to Poland in the winter, so that you can try the delicious food on this list in its place of origin, a tasty experience you should not miss.