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A pocket of dough filled with meat, fish or vegetables is so basic a concept that it is difficult to trace its true origin. From Chinese dumplings to Cornish pasties to Italian ravioli to Mexican tamales, it is simply a convenient and delicious way to both carry and consume a meal. So while searching for a “first” may be a fruitless enterprise, it is certainly intriguing to eat one’s way around the world in stuffed “envelopes” of dough. And Polish pierogi, the country’s most famous dish, is a robust example.
Polish Pierogi recipe come with a wide variety of fillings, but there are some basic components. The dough used is unleavened, made without yeast. Mashed potato and cheese are the most common fillings, but ground meat, grains, mushrooms, cabbage, sauerkraut can all feature, as can sweet pierogi. Poland’s national dish has been served there since at least the 13th century, but the word first appears in a 17th century cookbook. Because of its basic similarities to so many other specialties, there are all manner of theories as to how the dish came to Poland: perhaps Marco Polo brought it back from China, or the Tartars or the Mongols left it behind from their campaigns in Russia? What is not in dispute is its staple as a celebratory dish in Poland, where various pierogi are served at specific holidays. Christmas pierogi are filled with sauerkraut, cabbage and mushroom. This dates to an early Catholic church rule of fasting and abstinence on the day before Christmas, which also meant that one’s meal should be “abstinent” of meat and dairy, hence this “vegan” version of the pierogi. Wedding pierogi can have a variety of fillings, but are usually much larger than normal, as befits the occasion, but the most traditional filling is chicken, and the resulting dish has its own name, kurniki.
Even the word, pierogi (which has half a dozen variant spellings that are all considered acceptable) comes from the Slavic word, pir, meaning “festivity,” hence the association of holidays with this treat. You’re also meant to eat a lot of them, because pierogi is plural (the singular would be pierog, but it is almost never used). So entrenched is the pierogi with Polish culture that it has its own patron saint. A traditional thing to shout if you are surprised is: “Swiety Jacek z pierogami,” or “St. Hyacinth and his pierogi!” Just what this 13th century Polish saint did with his pierogi that would lead to this expression of dismay is a matter of speculation.
For my own pierogi, I set out to try a few different fillings. Being an inherently lazy cook, it was the idea of making the unleavened dough that sounded particularly intimidating, or rather, fiddly. The dough in hand, I was happy to try out a variety of fillings. The most common, mashed potato and a curd cheese, is an easy choice, as is Ruskie pierogi, from the region once called Red Ruthenia, which mixed potato with sautéed onions. The Christmas version, as we mentioned, has mushrooms, cabbage and sauerkraut, and a popular dessert pierogi is filled with fruit, and becomes like a personal pocket pie. Any of the above can be served topped with sour cream, and they really do make a meal, if eaten in the plural, as the name indicates—this is no light starter or side dish. Once the basic dumpling form is assembled, you can also cook in a variety of ways: boiling, sautéed, deep-fried and so on.
I know that dough is just flour and warm water. Yet somehow the sticky messiness of it brings out the laziness in me. If I could convince someone else to do the cleaning, perhaps, but I’m such a klutz when it comes to keeping a tidy work surface that I just know I’ll be finding flour in the oddest of places. So I’d rather buy the dough, although I know this will not satisfy purists, and certainly won’t taste as good. The ingredients for the filling are then sautéed, while the flat dough is cut into squares. I add (not too much) filling to each square of dough, then fold it in half and pinch the sides together. In theory this sounds easy, but in practice I manage to mangle the edges, which certainly don’t look nicely braided, like the images I see online, and the dough rips often, either in my hand or when it hits the boiling water. The result tastes fine, but I think my dough was too thick, as it’s quite heavy. I imagine that this “simple” dish actually requires the ninja skills of a Polish grandmother to make a truly great version.
When called upon to make your own dough, with the flying flour and sticky fingers and dough scraps that inevitably find their way into my hair and slippers, I prefer to leave it to the pros. Next time I’m in Poland, I’ll head over to a pierogarnia, a restaurant specializing in the Polish pierogi, and order up an extensive sampler.