With Poles eating more than 70kg of meat each per year, Warsaw has long been a carnivore’s delight. But things are changing in this city of palaces, gardens and market squares, where a new wave of foodies are turning Poland’s capital into a vegan paradise.
Think Polish food and you probably imagine rich game stews, hearty pierogi dumplings and kielbasa sausage. “I think Polish food – and Eastern European food in general – gets an unfair reputation for being too bland, too heavy and too rich in meat,” says Michal Korkosz. “I’d even say that Polish food has a bad rep in Poland.”
The Warsaw-based food writer and blogger, also known as #rozkoszny, is setting out to change all that. He’s written a recipe book, Fresh from Poland: New Vegetarian Cooking from the Old Country, which celebrates Polish cuisine, but takes meat out of the equation.
Changing the menu
Michal is part of a growing flexitarian movement among Polish millennials, who are embracing plant-centric dining, while not necessarily giving up meat products altogether.
It’s become such a thing that veggie restaurant-listings website Happy Cow named Warsaw the world’s sixth best city for vegans in 2019. According to the site, there are now 50 vegan restaurants within a five-mile radius of the city centre.
This is a far cry from traditional Polish food culture, which is notoriously meat heavy. There's a strong legacy of farming and animal husbandry (60% of the land is agricultural) and the country's great swathes of forest are the perfect hunting grounds for wild boar and venison.
Harsh winters led to a tradition of preserving veg (Poles love pickles) and also salting, smoking and drying meat in order to have cupboards full of kielbasa sausages in the colder months. But, while animal products are still on the menu, things are starting to change – in the big cities, at least.
Spoilt for choice
“In Warsaw, it’s easy to go out and eat great vegan food. There are a lot of trendy vegan spots everybody wants to dine in and even vegetarian options in other restaurants that are actually reasons to visit,” says Michal.
The epicentre of the capital’s plant-based dining scene is Śródmieście Południowe, a neighbourhood packed with veggie and vegan places serving everything from kebabs to sushi.
It’s also one of Warsaw’s coolest areas – a district of cafés by day and bars by night, of design hotels, independent galleries and shops stocking Polish-made goods. Down streets like Poznanska or Hoza, new places to eat seem to squeeze themselves into the beautiful Art Nouveau buildings all the time.
"There are a lot of trendy vegan spots that are actually reasons to visit"
Vegan burger joint Krowarzywa is a major success story of plant-based dining, with one of its five Warsaw branches here and outposts in every other major Polish city, serving a menu of millet patties, seitan pastrami buns and pea-protein Beyond Burgers.
Round the corner is Lokal Vegan Bistro, a laid-back affair that’s been run by foodie social cooperative Margines since 2015.
“Our main goal was to open a place that we – as vegan customers – would gladly visit ourselves,” says one of the co-founders, Anna Rak. “Our dishes are inspired by all sorts of culinary traditions, but we made a name for ourselves by ‘veganising’ traditional Polish cuisine and street food from around the globe.”
Back to Poland's roots
While international plant-based cuisine is now commonplace in the capital, Lokal is one of only a handful of restaurants producing meat-free Polish cuisine, such as schabowy – Poland’s answer to the schnitzel made from soy.
North of Śródmieście Południowe, a 15-minute walk from the colourful buildings and squares of the Old Town, is Vege Miasto. It was opened in 2011 by Beata and Robert Gawryszewski.
“We were the only ones, or among very few, making plant-based cuisine at the time,” says Robert. The couple, both vegans themselves, started cooking for family and friends, before launching their own restaurant.
Last year they added a second, bigger location, Caffe Miasto, just down the road. A plant-based schabowy is on the menu here too, alongside various forms of pierogi and placki ziemniaczane (potato fritters).
“Stereotypical Polish cuisine is meaty, greasy, heavy. The older generation may still be attached to that kind of tradition, but younger people are moving away from it and are looking for alternatives, which include vegan cuisine,” says Robert. “There’s a boom in vegan restaurants in Warsaw and people have an appetite for it.”
“Poland is also a land of millet, buckwheat and wild blueberries”
Also putting its own plant-based spin on Polish cuisine is Vege Bistro, in Powiĕle, a green riverside district of universities and colleges. It dishes up everything from ‘duck’ and ‘herring’ to flaczki, a soup traditionally made with tripe all made using vegetables, grains and even seaweed.
This neatly illustrates why the Polish vegetarian revolution might not be that revolutionary after all. The ingredients needed are right there, as they have been for centuries. All they’ve done is ditched the meat, dairy and eggs.
“Some people don’t notice that Poland is also a land of millet, buckwheat, fermented food, and gems like cold-pressed rapeseed oil and wild blueberries,” says Michal. “Fortunately, that’s changing.”