Anyone who has lived in Chicago knows the extent to which Polish people have affected the city, from architecture to politicians to culture—there’s a reason Chicago is often touted as “Little Warsaw,” given that it has one of the largest Polish populations outside Europe and Poland. But despite that substantial presence and influence, most non-Polish Chicagoans (or Americans) probably don’t know much about Polish food beyond Polish sausage and pierogi, or about Polish culture and history more broadly.
“I think Americans at this point know Italian food and culture like the back of their hand—we’re familiar with Mexican food, Chinese food,” says Aleksandra August. “But there’s really a lack of information on Polish culture and what Polish cuisine truly is, so we wanted to fix that.”
August is the host of the new series Flavor of Poland, which premieres on WTTW Saturday, January 11 at 11:00 am. The show follows the format of other public television cooking programs like Rick Bayless’s Mexico: One Plate at a Time, with August traveling across Poland to learn about the culture and dishes of different regions, then returning to a test kitchen to demonstrate some of the recipes.
In many ways, August is the ideal person to translate those recipes to Americans. She was born in Poland, in a small town called Tuchów about an hour east of Kraków. “There are a lot of rolling hills there, so it looks a little bit to me like Tuscany when it’s warm outside and beautiful,” she says. Her family immigrated to Chicago when she was three years old, “And this is where I grew up,” she says. “Chicago is my second hometown.”
As an actress who speaks Polish and knows the history, literature, and culture of Poland because of her Polish roots, but grew up in the United States, August was a sensible choice to bring Polish culture to Americans. She also fits into the role of recipe-teacher well, because she’s not a professionally trained chef but simply a talented home cook.
“My mom loves to cook,” she says. “She hosted so many different holidays and parties and gatherings, so there was always a lot of food being prepared at my house, and I was my mom’s right hand in the kitchen. I think that at this point, I probably deserve a certificate as my mom’s sous chef.”
August fondly recalls her mother’s szarlotka, a sort of Polish apple pie, as well as żurek, a sour rye soup that both of her parents often made on Sunday mornings. “I think it’s currently my favorite Polish dish,” she says. “It’s a super flavorful soup made out of this sour rye starter that is healthy for our digestion and gives this kind of warm sour note. It’s a really interesting dish that is very typical in Poland but might not be so well known here.”
In the time since August has grown up cooking beside her mother, she has also acquired extra culinary skills. “My mom is a little concerned that I might be outgrowing her,” she says, laughing. “Because she was always my coach, and now it looks like I might be able to teach her a few things.”
Flavor of Poland not only shows new techniques or dishes unfamiliar to Americans, but also demonstrates the variety of Polish culture and cuisine across the country. “We visited 30 towns, villages, cities,” August says, “and every single place was different: a different atmosphere, a different local culture, a different local tradition. They all are so distinct.”
Despite those regional differences, August says there are a few broad defining characteristics of Polish cuisine: “nutrient-rich grains, a lot of forest mushrooms, game meats, a wide variety of seafood and freshwater fish, duck meat, goose meat. There’s a huge variety of soups, cheeses, wine, craft beer. These are the rich ingredients that that maybe we’re not as familiar with in the States that are popular in Poland.”
August also says that Polish culinary traditions have experienced a sort of rebirth in the past few decades, especially since the end of communism in the country. “At that time in Poland, what prevailed in Polish cuisine was what was allowed under Soviet rule. So these were staple simple dishes, nothing too complex, too flavorful, too colorful or vibrant, and that’s not what Polish cuisine is. It’s got so much richness, and there’s so much flavor, and so many different unique ingredients. So now when you go to Poland, you’ll see Polish chefs looking inward, towards what’s growing at home, towards the tradition that extends back hundreds of years.”
Even if you can’t go to Poland and sample that resurgent tradition or experience the rich culture yourself, you can join August and get a taste through Flavor of Poland.