Pierogi – The Polish Potato Pillow
The pierogi dumpling, a mere common man’s food, has found its way into the hearts and plates of Polish descendants for centuries. Pierogi is actually a plural Polish word for Pieróg. However, since these dumplings are always served in pairs or more, they are referred to as pierogis. On the surface, it is little more than a half moon-shaped dumpling floating in butter, but to the Polish community, the pierogi represents history, tradition, lore, family recipes and many special memories. And, while most cuisines have some form of dumpling, many of which are similar in shape and size, the pierogi is uniquely identifiable. Now, let’s explore what sets the pierogi apart as a Polish staple.
Serving pierogis during special occasions has been a long-standing Polish tradition commonly reserved for Christmas, Easter, weddings or birthdays. Making pierogis has been passed down from generation to generation. There is no written recipe. Handfuls of this or that, and ultimately, taste and touch ensure the desired outcome. Most are taught by an elder who is in need of an assistant. If you’re fortunate enough to get a lesson from an old Polish grandmother, the master of the pierogi, you will see her knead the dough by hand. This is a labor intensive process, which is why making pierogis by hand is an art and a passion primarily reserved for special occasions.
Similar to how the pierogi making tradition has been passed on, the story of how the dish got to Poland has been handed down generations as well. And like a family recipe, it can be a little different every time. Some say the little pocket of dough resemble the Chinese Jiaozi (aka pot sticker) and came from China from the journeys of Marco Polo. Others say the Polish Saint Hyacinth brought a Pelmeni, a Russian dumpling, back from a visit to the Russian empire in the 13th century. Another legend has the dumpling coming to the country through the Tartars when they invaded in 1241. While the exact inspiration is cloudy, it is clear that since the early 13th century, the Polish were making their version of a dumpling. Over time, this dumpling became the modern-day pierogi.
In America, we associate pierogis as a mere side dish — a Polish potato dumpling — but that is not an entirely accurate representation. Pierogis are not just filled with potatoes. They can and do have many different fillings, and are used as an appetizer, main course, side and even dessert. The original pierogis were made in Poland during the 13th century, long before the potato’s introduction to Poland in the 17th century by the Polish King John III Sobieski. So, while the potato has become the default filling in Americans’ minds, the original pierogis were likely a minced meat and vegetable mixture. As time went on, Poland turned into one of Europe’s potato growing powerhouses. The leftover potatoes made an easy and economical filling, and the Ruskie pierogi (a potato, onion and cheese mixture) became a common pierogi. This type of pierogi was easily accepted and introduced at a good price at Polish establishments in America.
As stated above, pierogis can be anything from an appetizer, main course or even dessert. A traditional pierogi is little more than three components — dough, filling and sauce — but how those are handled determine what type of pierogi it becomes.
Pierogi dough includes eggs, water, flour, salt and sometimes potatoes. Some recipes call for ground potatoes to make a smoother, more tender dough.
Pierogis are defined by their filling, which can be almost anything. Some common filling combinations include:
- Ruskie: Potato, cheese and onion.
- Kurniki (aka the wedding pierogi): Chicken meat.
- Christmas fillings: Sauerkraut and mushroom.
- Ground meat, cabbage and onion.
- Sweet white cheese.
- Blueberries and sugar.
- Strawberries and sweet cheese.
They are a very simple and uncomplicated half-moon shape. Pierogis start off as a small circle, often cut by an empty drinking glass. Once filled, they are folded over and pinched to seal. They are small in size — no more than two or three bites.
The most common form in America is pan fried, but pierogis also can be baked or fried.
Again, this can be almost anything. The sauce doesn’t define the pierogi but is a flavor driver. The traditional sauce for the potato pierogi is butter and caramelized onions.
This simple pierogi represents a part of Poland’s past and the tradition behind a special meal. They are not just a side, they are a dish. The pierogi is an ethnic dumpling, so simple and untouched for years, that in the right hands can act as a foil to many strong flavors Americans are just waking up to now. Flavors that could use an uncarved block, such as the pierogi, as a bridge to a new audience. Imagine a shrimp pierogi in a Thai curry sauce, or potato pierogi in a sriracha honey glaze. The possibilities are truly endless.
Here are the restaurants that inspired this post:
- 8467 Memphis Ave., Brooklyn, OH 44144
- What to get: Pierogi.
- Notes: These and Sokolowski’s were the best in Cleveland.
SOKOLOWSKI’S UNIVERSITY INN
- 1201 University Road Cleveland, OH 44113
- What to get: Pierogis.
- Notes: Sokolowski’s features an old and iconic Polish cafeteria, and all homemade food.
- 1979 W 25th St. #E5, Cleveland, OH 44113
- What to get: Pierogis.
- Notes: This is inside the west side market.
- 13463 Cedar Road, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118
- What to get: Parmangeddon — it was a special, and not on the menu.
- Notes: This is a QSR regional chain that specializes in melts and grilled cheese.
WEST SIDE MARKET CAFE
- 1979 W 25th St., Cleveland, OH 44113
- What to get: Cleveland’s own Pierogi Melt.
- Notes: The market is closed on certain days, so double-check availability.
POLISH VILLAGE CAFÉ
- 2990 Yemans St., Hamtramck, MI 48212
- What to get: Apple pierogi or jalapeño and cream pierogi.
- Notes: This is a very authentic little Polish restaurant in the basement of an old flop house. The atmosphere and food were great. Try the dill pickle soup (I know it sounds weird).
- 295 Niagara St., Buffalo, NY 14201
- What to get: Beef on weck pierogi or chocolate pierogi.
- Notes: This place had some very interesting nontraditional pierogis.
Tasting Poland – Pierogi – The best guide to the most popular Polish dish.
The Spokesman – Review: Grandma’s Polish dumplings elicit delightful memories during holidays.