If you ask a Polish person what they like the most about Christmas they may say family time, being off or Christmas atmosphere, but the truth is that is all about food. Christmas Polish food is festive, very traditional and exceptionally good. And the most exciting of all is the Christmas Eve meal. Dishes served on the 24th are made only once a year and the recipes used to make them are often family secrets that are passed down from generation to generation. The preparation of the Christmas Eve feast can take days. Rules are strict, the workload is high, but the reward is absolutely worth it.
If you are spending your next Christmas with a Polish family or you want to cook something different this year this ultimate guide to Polish Christmas food is for you.
Polish Christmas Eve dinner
In Poland, the 24th of December is probably the most important day of Christmas and therefore the most effort goes into the preparation of the Christmas Eve dinner. The tradition says that there must be exactly 12 dishes (including desserts) on the table and everyone has to try every each of them. Thanks to that the whole year (12 months) is going to be happy and successful.
Traditional Christmas soups
What is served that evening depends very much on the region, but there are also a lot of similarities. What you can be sure of is that there will be no meat on the table. Until the midnight mass, the lent is still on so Christmas Eve dinner is all about fish, winter vegetables, and wild mushrooms.
The dinner starts with a soup. The most common choice is clear, bullion style beetroot soup served with small dumplings stuffed with cabbage and mushroom (here is the recipe if you fancy trying making it yourself). Other options are fish soup or wild mushroom soup. Both quite light and clear. The main purpose of the soup is to start the digestion process and allow you to eat more later. Let’s face it, you need to eat 11 more dishes that evening!
Christmas fish dishes
The biggest star of the evening, and that can surprise many people, is carp. This fish is not eaten in Poland on any other occasion but for some weird reason, it became Christmas Eve staple. If you want to watch something quite disturbing you can google how people used to keep live carps in their bathtubs and kill them just before the Christmas dinner. This custom died out with the end of communism and thankfully now carps are sold dead and even filleted. Carps are prepared in many different ways: fried, roasted, in gelly (yes, you read it correctly) as a soup or in the traditional Jewish way.
Another really important fish on the Christmas Eve table is herring. Pickled and prepared with onion or plums it’s a quite popular choice for busy people who can buy it prepared and ready to be eaten. Other families prefer it in cream or as a part of a potato salad.
Last but not least white fish like cod or hake is very often fried or roasted and served as another choice. Poland has some funny communistic dishes that became part of the tradition and one of them is Greek style fish dish that has nothing to do with Greece. White fish is fried and then roasted with grated rooted vegetables like carrot and parsley and tomato concentrate (all those things were available during communism) and served proudly on the Christmas table. It may not be Greek, but it is delicious so don’t be shy to try it.
Other Christmas Eve hits
Thankfully for people who don’t like fish, there are other specialities. Pierogi stuffed with wild mushroom or cabbage (or a mix of both), fried with onion can please even the most sublime palate. Going with the cabbage theme, lots of families prepare cabbage cooked for hours with wild mushroom and a bit of sauerkraut for the right balance of flavours. In different regions cabbage is cooked with peas. And if you are lucky you may even have a chance to try both.
Cakes and Christmas Eve desserts
If you fancy something a bit sweeter you should try Kutia. Tradition Kutia is made of wheat berries, poppy seeds and honey, but very often walnuts, raisins, almonds and other dry fruits are added. It’s a lovely sweet dish that can give you a break from other quite heavy dishes.
There couldn’t be a Christmas Eve dinner without a big portion of a Christmas cheesecake or a poppy seed cake. As with many other dishes on this list, every family has its own special recipe, but you can be sure one thing. This is going to be one epic cake.
Last on the list is Christmas compote, a non-alcoholic drink made of dry fruits (plums, apricots, and apples) cooked in a water with sugar. It’s served cold and helps with digestion.