The best part about Christmas is the coming together of family and sharing a meal. Or, in my case this year, it’s being invited into someone else’s family… a hardcore Polish family. D’s grandfather grew up in Poland, survived WWII, and immigrated to the US where he met his wife and raised 8 children. Through all this, he has kept the Polish tradition of a Christmas Eve supper (a Wigilia) alive.
D’s dad has assumed the role of chef and has hosted Wigilia at his house every year for as long as D can remember. Wigilia is observed as a meatless meal as the Roman Catholics are in fasting during advent and/or due to the scarcity of meat (info taken from Internet research so I cannot vouch for the validity). Nevertheless, a lot of fish can expected.
I know very little about Polish cuisine. In fact, I’m pretty sure I knew nothing about it before attending D’s family Christmas dinner… as demonstrated by me walking in the door, seeing a plate of little balls of dough, and exclaiming:
“Dumplings!” (This was last year – my first year.)
“Actually those are pierogi, babe.”
I was flabbergasted that Polish cuisine has food that looked EXACTLY like Chinese dumplings!!
And this year, I came with the lesson I had learned the previous year in mind: save your precious stomach real estate for the pierogi.
But first, many courses are to be eaten before the pierogi:
The meal starts with a prayer and breaking bread. Thin crispy wafers are broken and shared amongst all guests, along with a warm wish for the upcoming year.
A variety of fish appetizers are set out on the table. There is everything from the palatable (smoked salmon, smoked white fish) to those requiring a more open mind (raw oysters, sardines, pickled herring). I wasn’t feeling particularly brave, but D encouraged me. “We need to practice for Denmark. This is street food over there!” he said as I received a spoonful of the pickled herring.
And you know what? It was surprising good! It just tasted like very sour fish.
Next came what could possibly be the weirdest dish of the night: jellied fish (or aspic), which is basically gefilte fish balls set in a fishstock jello.
Doesn’t look appetizing? I wish I could say that it’s better than it looks, but I’d be umm.. exaggerating. The gefilte fish has the consistency (and the taste) of very wet pate. And the jelly part tastes like…. well, fishy jello. This dish is served with lemon juice poured on top, which immediately changed the flavor profile into something more palatable. With the lemon juice, you can almost pretend the jelly is lemon jello.
The seafood stew, bouillabaisse, comes next: a steamy hot bowl of chunky fish broth packed with every kind of seafood imaginable: oysters, scallops, fish scraps, prawns, crab legs, etc. Pretty much a seafood party in a bowl… I rather liked this coarse, rustic version of bouillabaisse.
Remember how I said the aspic was the weirdest dish? I may have spoken too soon, for the next course is fish with horseradish cream sauce… though it’s more like horseradish cream with chunks of fish. This is actually less scary than it looks/sounds.
Finally comes the last course – the one everyone’s been waiting for – pierogi! D’s dad has spent the entire day making the filling (sauerkraut, mushrooms, garlic, and onion) from scratch and wrapping each dumpling by hand. Here is where he deviated from traditional Polish recipes a little, and used Chinese mushrooms for the bolder flavor (and in honor of his wife’s Chinese heritage).
And they are absolutely delicious! The dough is chewy; the filling is tangy and savory with just a hint of spice. They are so good that as soon as a batch comes out of the boiling pot, it is quickly gone… greedily gobbled up by the first lucky few to get the plate, while the others impatiently and enviously await the next batch.
Finally my tummy is happy and once again, over-stuffed.
While I did not enjoy every single course, I love the passing down of the recipes and continuing the tradition of an authentic Polish Christmas Eve dinner. There is something so magical about having kept alive the traditions and memories of a home so far, far away. Through these dinners, the next generations also gain a connection to their heritage.
“Who will make this dinner when I’m too old?” D’s dad asked.
D promised he will learn to make all the dishes, fishy jelly and horseradish cream and all.
But this also begs the question: will D be the last generation to continue this tradition? With less and less direct ties to Poland, will the next generation dismiss this tradition as irrelevant? The food as too strange to cook/eat?
I really hope not.