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Walk down Hoża in central Warsaw and the streets coming off it and you’ll find food from all over the world – sushi, burritos, burgers, Italian, and Israeli food are just a few examples. Nothing strange there: Warsaw is a cosmopolitan city and this area comes alive at night, when locals and visitors encamped in the neighbourhood’s numerous hotels and hostels, mix on the streets and in the bars. These people need feeding. But, there’s one thing many of the restaurants mentioned have in common: they’re vegan.
According to Happy Cow, a website dedicated to the best places to eat vegan, vegetarian and healthy food around the world, Warsaw, Poland’s capital, has the third best vegan dining scene on the planet, after California and Berlin, based on the number and variety of restaurants. And in this neighbourhood in the city's downtown, the vegan options are staggering, including pastries, and for the morning drinker, porridge and cocktails.
One of the most popular vegan restaurants around here is Youmiko Vegan Sushi, where you can enjoy an omakase (chef’s choice) menu, or smaller set meal, along with a small selection of a la carte starters, washed down with teas, kombucha, homemade lemonade, or sake, for really not much money at all (the omakase is 69 złoty for 18 pieces, around $19/€16).
Celeriac, tomato, avocado and cabbage take the place of fish, and having spent the previous day gorging on various kinds of meat tartare, I’m glad for the break when I visit. In fact, you don’t miss fish at all: these flavourful bites stand on their own, rather than simply as substitutions.
One of the chefs beavering away to create this delicious food is Marysia Przybyszewska. Having become a vegan a little over a year ago, after 11 years as a vegetarian, she was looking to cook more plant-based food – “I was tired of working in restaurants with meat,” she tells me – and when Youmiko, one of her favourite vegan restaurants, approached her to become the new head chef, she jumped at the chance.
She had no experience with sushi, but came with great credentials, having staged at Noma, where, she admits, she fell off the wagon when it came to eating meat and fish.
Now she’s almost 100% vegan, butter is a problem though and she “can’t stop eating the real thing," she tells me. Many of the customers are less strict, in fact the majority at Youmiko are flexitarians and often tell her they prefer plant-based to fish sushi.
Przybyszewska tells me she is planning to leave Youmiko when we meet in early summer to concentrate on her own projects and when we catch up later over email, she has indeed left: to work temporarily at a restaurant called Opasly Tom, which is most definitely a meat restaurant, but also to become an ambassador for RoslinnieJemy, a campaign to introduce more people in Poland to healthy and vegan food; and, she says, she is about to open her own restaurant.
Down the road from Youmiko, on a busy thoroughfare called Krucza, is another great vegan spot, a small bistrot called Lokal, which specialises in traditional Polish food, done vegan and is the kind of vegan cafe many of us will recognise from our cities. There’s a vegan pork chop, which doesn’t taste like real pork, but is hearty and satisfying nonetheless, and seitan bacon; but also plenty of Thai influences, with curries and salads, and seitan satay - I’m actually told that Southeast Asian vegan food is perhaps the big thing the vegan scene in Warsaw is missing, along with really good fast food - plus North African inspired dishes, all of which come flying out of a tiny kitchen at breakneck pace.
There are vegan restaurants spread across Warsaw however and just over the Vistula river, close to the Skaryszewski Park, in an area popular with young families, is one of the city’s most talked about, the Vegan Ramen Shop. What started as a pop-up and now has lines stretching out of the door of its bricks and mortar premises on weekends.
There are four ramen on the menu currently: a spicy miso, which is thrillingly so, a creamy shio, a clear shoyu, and a tanten-men. The broths take around six hours to make, but it’s the tare (the ramen seasoning) and the flavoured oils that provide the flavour. That flavour doesn’t run quite as deep as a meat-based ramen of course, but these are bold and filling bowls of noodle soup packed with umami that demand to be slurped and finished with a hearty gulp from the bowl.
For co-owner Maja Święcicka, vegan ramen is all about proving that vegan food can be hedonistic too. “Being vegan is not easy if you’re a foodie,” she says. “This [ramen] is not healthy – you shouldn’t be eating it five days a week, ” she adds, proudly.
As elsewhere, many of the customers at the Vegan Ramen Shop are curious flexitarians across all ages – they’ll even cook an egg for you if you bring one in – and Maja, who has been a vegan herself for six or seven years, will occasionally dip into a non-vegan ice cream if there aren’t vegan options available.
That’s the crux of the vegan scene in Warsaw currently: it’s not militant, which is what makes it so attractive to non-vegans. It’s part of a wider lifestyle choice, to live more ethically, by using less plastic and eating as locally and seasonally as possible, for example.
While many on the outside may have a view of Polish cuisine as heavily meat-based that isn’t necessarily the case: vegetables are a huge part of the Polish diet and there have always been farmers markets – Poland was a lot slower to industrialise agriculture than other European countries.
Speaking to chefs on the Warsaw vegan scene about the roots of its current popularity, one name pops up frequently: Marta Dymek. A vegan cook, writer and broadcaster, her blog Jadlonomia gets over a million hits a month, she’s published two books on the subject and has recorded six seasons of a vegan travel show that has taken her all over the world. She’s possibly the most influential vegan in Poland, so I ask whether she’s surprised at Warsaw’s standing on the international vegan scene?
“Absolutely not!” she says. “Polish people are curious, open-minded and we have wonderful conditions for veganism. We have four very different seasons and each one brings different products. In a summer you can enjoy bell peppers, courgettes and the best tomatoes in the world (not kidding!) and in the winter you can dig into pickled cucumbers, lentils, millet and buckwheat. Plus there are a lot of talented young cooks!”
The stereotype of meaty Polish cuisine originates in the post World War Two, Socialist era, she says, when a lack of food meant that meat took on an almost mythical status. Now, she says, Polish people are getting back to their roots.
“When the hard times ended meat still had this high status so no wonder people were seduced with low prices and the incredible availability of meat in the 1990s,” she says. “But after years of rapture something had to change. Now Polish people are trying to reduce meat and are looking forward to trying vegan food. In the 16th century the Polish diet was really vegan-friendly, there was even a proverb ‘Fasting like a Pole,’ because according to the Catholic calendar there were so many meat-free days. What a great history to aspire to!”
So whether you’re a strict vegan, a flexitarian or simply just curious, Warsaw should be top of your list of places to try.