That’s hello in Polish for those of you who don’t know, like me, until sometime this afternoon.
I’ve been in Krakow since yesterday, and suffice to say that it is quite the experience for anyone remotely interested in Jewish identity and culture. Once a thriving community of 65,000 Jews, 90% were killed in the early years of the Holocaust, with only a few hundred remaining in the city today. Communism drove the community underground, with many Krakow Jews losing their identity through intermarriage or simply a self-imposed denial. Food, once the bedrock of the Jewish world here in the land known as Galicia, dissapeared from the Jewish plate, as communism’s restrictions and the lack of kosher supplies rendered the dishes of eight centuries a mystery.
Such has been the story all over Eastern Europe: Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia, in the lands where the shtetl was once vibrant, and the Ashkenazi cuisine formed the bedrock of what we eat each time we visit the delicatessen. In these places, all that remains of Jewish identity are the skeletons of synagogues and cemetaries. But Krakow was different. As the intellectual hub of Poland, the tail end of communism sparked an interest in Jewish culture and history…from gentile Poles. Since the Holocaust the Jewish past was buried, and they decided to bring it alive, celebrating the Jewish contribution to Polish history and culture as an expression of their own individuality.
What started as a small film festival in 1988, blossomed into a Jewish cultural festival, with concerts, lectures, and art exhibitions. Art galleries and small restaurants emerged, serving the foods that the Jewish community once ate (the recipes were provided by the few surviving members and old cookbooks). When Steven Spielburg filmed Schindler’s List here in 1993, it set off a tourist bonanza, that has brought millions to the Jewish quarter here, known as Kazimierz. Money from the visits, and international donations have funded the cultural festival, the restoration of several synagogues, and museums.
But this is a blog about food, so I’ll jump to that. When the area was rebuilt, preserving and expanding on the Jewish heritage, several restaurants emerged that served Jewish food. Most were owned and operated by Christian Poles (as are most of the Jewish museums and institutions here), with foods that were typical of Galician Jewish cooking. What’s amazing is that these are foods that provided the basis for the Jewish American Delicatessen, yet would never be found in any deli on that continent. It is historic cooking, and short of picking up a cookbook, the best way to experience deli’s roots.
The first place I visited was called Ariel, though it must be said that all of these restaurants have similar menus. This was the first of the Jewish restaurants, but it is also the most tourist oriented and extremely tacky…to the point of being offensive. There’s live klezmer every night (as in all these restaurants), but Ariel also sells Jewish trinkets, including little figures of Hassic Jews holding bags of money. Supposedly Poles find them to be good luck. It’s straight out of Borat.
At Ariel I had two things:
Berdytchov soup: This is a local soup from a nearby town, which is basically a honey and cinnamon beef based borscht, minus the beets. Imagine sweet and sour cabbage soup, with cubed potatoes and carrots, little bits of brisket (very little), and a taste that mixes tomatoes and baked apples. Sweet is an understatement, although the Polish Jewish taste always had a proclivity toward sweet.
Stuffed pipkes: Once upon a time, goose and duck were the protein of the Jewish diet. Chicken was leaner, and less desired, and beef was very rare in the shtetl. But oh, the joys of a fatty goose. Pipkes are a classic dish, which involve stuffing the skin of a goose neck with a mixture of chopped chicken liver and little tiny bits of dough. The neck is then closed, and the whole thing is fried, emerging as a crisp, golden, shell of fat with warm, oozing chopped liver on the inside. Light it ain’t. I never imagined something that could make chopped liver seem like diet food, but this is so rich in fat, it’s like the poutine of Jewish food. Still, when fried perfectly (one was overdone and gamey), it is a blessing…imagine crisp chicken skin wrapping sumptuous, creamy chopped liver with little buds of dough. It reminded me of fried haggis…but that’s not a comparison many of you will know.
Today I had a whirlwind of eats.
Started off by bumping into a baigel vendor on the street. No, it’s not spelled wrong. They call them baigels here. Your morning nosh was invented in Krakow, possibly 400 years ago, by Jewish bakers. And though Jews don’t bake them, the round bread has found its way into Polish cuisine, so that it’s sold on every street corner by little women in carts. They’re more like pretzels here, thinner, and with a bigger hole, but as one Jewish survivor told me, the Jewish versions were actually even more thin. How did it taste? Like a bagel. The crust was super crisp, and it was twisted (like those of Montreal), but the inside was light, sweet, and dense, like those in New York. Best of all, you could get salt, poppy seed, or sesame seed flavored.
In fact, there’s a New York bagel place here called Bagelmama, which was opened by an American a few years back. His bagels are more the shape one finds back home (smaller hole, more surface, less crunch), and he does them up with cream cheese and all the trimmings. I have to say, his are better than most of the bagels I’ve had in LA, or Chicago, or other areas of the hinterlands.
For lunch I hit up Alef, which recently moved from the Jewish area, close by to a new hotel. Rather than play up the whole shtetl kitch angle, the new dining room is surprisingly refined and tasteful. So too is the food.
The kreplach soup I had was possibly the best ever. The chicken broth was dark and heavily flavored with onion, while the meat inside the perfecly pinched little pockets of dough, was garlicky and extremely tender.
What really won me over at Alef was the pate of goose liver, which was basically a terrine of cooked goose liver (not fattened like foie gras), that reminded me of a gamier meat loaf. It was surprisingly light and soft, and it came with the most amazing horseradish chrein sauce that was creamy, sweet, and fiery (in that succession). Rather than play up on the Jewish imagery, they focused on the food and elevated it to a higher place.
Belly bursting, I’ve now just arrived from dinner at Klezmer Hois, the largest of the Jewish themed restaurants here in Krakow. Housed in an old mikvah, it is definitely a nostalgic place, though the focus is on the music and creating that bohemian atmosphere. A very good band played classic Jewish and klezmer songs with mixed enthusiasm.
I tried two absolute classic Galician dishes:
-Carp Jewish Style: this is cold, cooked carp buried in a thick, sweet jelly with slivered almonds. It is actually eaten by Poles every Christmas and very typical to the area. All I can say is…interesting. Acquired taste for sure. More like fish jello. Probably a good reason so few delicatessens carry this.
-Cholent: the traditional sabbath stew that slow cooks overnight. A mixture of meat, beans, vegetables and potatoes. It’s meant to be eaten and then slept upon, to fully enjoy the sabbath rest. Imagine the thickest beef stew you’ve ever encountered, then add in tons of starch and protein and cook until it’s a paste. The flavor is mild, and rather appealing, but it now lives in my gut for a good few years.
Anyway, the cholent is begging me to sleep, and I have a big day tomorrow…Auschwitz and then off to London. So I’ll leave it here. But I will say the following…
Most Jews think of Poland as the place where Jews died. But for 800 years it was a place where they lived, loved, worked, thought, studied, prayed, and ate. The foods we love at the deli came from here, with much influence from Polish life. Don’t judge Poland on what the Nazis did. Yes, there exists some anti-Semitism, but the renaissance of Jewish culture here, brought to life by non-Jews, is astounding and must be seen to be believed. Open your heart as they opened theirs.