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Pierogi: a Polish comfort food

Pierogi: a Polish comfort food

They won’t do any favours for your cholesterol levels, but these golden dumplings are good for the soul

They won’t do any favours for your cholesterol levels, but these golden dumplings are good for the soul

Imogen White | January 3rd 2019

In Melbourne, where I grew up, my experience of dumplings was limited to the cheap, deep-fried “dimmies” you could buy from the local fish-and-chip shop, the student-on-a-budget special of pre-packaged ravioli from the supermarket, and shared plates of steaming vegetarian dim-sum at an insalubrious restaurant in Chinatown, where rumours of failed health-and-safety inspections added a frisson to the dining experience.

In my 20s I spent some time in Toronto and started dating a Polish-Canadian man. One day he cooked me a plate of dumplings, their beigeness offset by a carrot and apple salad. They were called pierogi, and my date was aghast when I confessed I’d never heard of them, let alone eaten them. Pierogi turned out to be salty, stodgy and delicious – the best kind of comfort food. They were fluffier but also crispier than the dumplings I’d eaten before. The filling was a moreish mixture of mushrooms and onions with the slightest hint of marjoram. I had a vision of a future life with a dangerously high cholesterol count.

In Canada you can find frozen pierogi in almost every supermarket. In the early 1980s, tens of thousands of Poles fled to Canada to escape an authoritarian communist regime which had introduced martial law and was imposing curfews, disconnecting telephone lines, censoring post and locking up opponents. More than 1m Canadians claim full or partial Polish heritage, a further million have a Ukrainian background, and the land of maple syrup and poutine has happily adopted pierogi – an Eastern European staple – as another national dish. In 1993 a village in Alberta even went so far as to erect a 8-metre- (27-feet-) tall, 2.7-tonne sculpture of a pierogi on a fork made out of steel and fibreglass.

How pierogi appeared in Poland is not quite so clear. Most eastern-European countries have their own iteration of the dish, also known as varenyky (Ukraine and Russia), pelmini (Russia) and kolduni (Lithuania). In Poland, the first written trace of pierogi appears in a 17th-century recipe book, but food historians disagree over whether they were brought from China through Italy during Marco Polo’s expeditions, or whether the marauding Tartars brought the recipe over from the Russian Empire. Another theory pinpoints their arrival to 1238, when Hyacinth, later anointed the patron saint of pierogi, ended a famine ravaging a Polish hill-town by asking the hungry hordes to pray. As the hail-ravaged crops began to grow again, he was thanked with a steaming plate full of those golden half-moons of stuffed dough.

I ended up marrying the man who made me those pierogi – and yet he refuses to let me reveal his grandmother’s secret recipe (“every Polish babcia keeps her best recipes a mystery”). But the basics are always the same. Making pierogi is slow, fiddly and arthritis-inducing. It requires patience, a clean, flat surface and a high level of dexterity. To make the dough, mix flour and water with an egg. Then roll out the mixture till it is smooth and thin, and cut out small circles using the lip of a glass or mug. Spoon small dollops of the filling into the dough, and carefully shape them into little ear-shaped packages, ready to be boiled or fried.

The filling is where big decisions get made. Traditionalists might forage mushrooms from a forest and cook them with onions, or combine minced pork with marjoram, butter and sauerkraut. Another option is the pierogi ruskie, a gloriously fattening blend of potatoes and cheese. Pierogi don’t have to be savoury. At Zapiecek in Warsaw, a restaurant that amps up the kitsch “Babcia’s kitchen” schtick without skimping on the quality, I tried blueberry-filled pierogi which my awkwardly translated menu promised would be “Rich in Vitamins!”. Sweet pierogi taste good by themselves themselves or with yogurt, while the savoury ones should be served with diced bacon, fried onion and sour cream.

Tiny pillows of starchy joy, pierogi are best suited for those moments when an artery-clogging combination of carbs and fat is the only thing that can fill the void.