If your first thought about Białowieża is: bison! – you are definitely right. But be prepared for much more and open your mind and mouth for the unique taste of local cuisine inspired strongly by East. Bon apetite! In Polish: smacznego!
Podlasie region’s cuisine is mostly a simple rural cuisine. It uses a lot of natural products like mushrooms and fruits: apples, pears, raspberries, and blueberries… Rural breads, sausages, cheeses and vegetables create its unique flavor. Numerous dishes from potato are famous throughout the country. As the area is covered with woods, there is also a wide range of meats: of wild boar, dear and even bison (the meat of bison that met the selection criteria – not hunted for restaurants). Many dishes are strongly influenced by eastern neighboring cultures: Belarusian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Russian but also Jewish – the local cuisine reflects the multicultural nature of the Białowieża region. So what sort of tasty surprises may wait for you in Białowieża?
First of all, natural products like milk, butter, cottage cheese – homemade or locally produced. Podlasie is also well known for handmade sausages and meats like Lithuanian Kindziuk – dried pork sausage and venison. For vegetarians it is better to try Koryciński cheese produced by the traditional method according to old recipes by housewives from the neighborhood Korycin. And of course let’s not forget local honey.
Traditionally that would be some cold meats, sausages, sirloin, bacon, dark bread with lard and gherkins (or newly-pickled cucumbers).
Solyanka (in Polish: soljanka) – a national Russian soup, salty and sour. There are three basic types of solyanka: with meat, fish or mushrooms. All of them contain pickled cucumbers with brine and often cabbage, salted mushrooms, sour cream and dill.
Chantarelle or muschroom soup
Ukrainian borsch (in Polish: barszcz ukraiński) – soup of Ukrainian origin made of beetroot.
Cooler soup (in Polish: chłodnik) – a cold soup made of vegetables and yogurt.
Varenyky (in Polish: wareniki, from “waren’je”- jams and marmalades that were initially used for fillings) – sort of dumplings, but a little bigger. Served with cabbage and mushrooms filling, meat, Russian style or with blueberries.
Pelmeni (in Polish: pielmieni) – dumplings consisting of a filling wrapped in thin, unleavened dough.
Dumplings (in Polish: pierogi) – the most important difference between varenyky, pelmeni and pierogi is the thickness of the dough shell—in pelmeni this is as thin as possible, and the proportion of filling to dough is usually higher. Pelmeni are never served with a sweet filling, which distinguishes them from Ukrainian varenyky and Polish dumplings, which sometimes are. Also, the fillings in pelmeni are usually raw, while the fillings of varenyky and dumplings are typically precooked.
Potato cake (in Polish: babka ziemniaczana) – better ask before you order is it vegetarian without any addition of meat – that may happen.
Potato sausage (in Polish: kiszka ziemniaczana) – with meat
Cepelinai (in Polish: cepeliny, kartacze) – meat stuffed potato dumplings
Potato pancakes (in Polish: placki ziemniaczane)
Haluski (in Polish: haluszki) – in Belarusian it means scoops made from potato and flour pastry, sometimes called in Polish “kopytka”.
Bison goulash (in Polish: gulasz z żubra)
Other meats: sir loin, venison
Kutia (in Polish: kutia) – a sweet grain pudding with the addition of ground poppy seeds and honey, sometimes with nuts and raisins, the first dish in the traditional twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper.
Tree cake (in Polish: sękacz) – a cake whose tradition dates back to the culture of the Balts, baked over the fire on a special rotating roller.
Beverages and Spirits
Russian tea – served with a jam, syrup, cakes, cookies, candies, lemon and other sweets.
Traditional liqueurs and aromatic vodkas (in Polish: nalewki) – made of local fruits and herbs. The oldest tincture is Kiermusianka which is produced according to a closely guarded recipe from 15th century from the fresh prune, cloves, linden flower, bark cinnamon and 16 herbs. Other liqueurs worth trying: pigwówka, Żurawinówka and herbal gin.
The most famous vodka from the region is Żubrówka prepared with the addition of aromatic bison grass growing in the Bialowieza Forest.
Kvass (In Polish: Kwas chlebowy) – a traditional fermented beverage commonly made from black or regular rye bread with low alcohol content (0.5–1.0%). It has been a common drink in Eastern Europe since at least the Middle Ages. It may be flavoured with fruits such as strawberries and raisins, or with herbs such as mint.
Birch juice (in Polish: sok z brzozy) – is the sap from a birch tree, a water-like sweet liquid. The only time you can collect the juice is during the 20 day period from the middle of March to the beginning of April – that’s when the core of the tree is filled with juice. A small birch can produce up to 5 liters of juice per day. Fresh birch sap can be preserved for 5-6 days at most. It contains sugars, proteins, amino acids and enzymes.
Photo of bison on the top by Mateusz Szymura