Pierogi, Pork, Poppy: The Chicago Guide To Polish And Ukrainian Groceries
Poland and Ukraine share a border in Europe. But their main communities in Chicago also nearly bordered each other for a century.
Many Poles settled near Ashland and Division, while Ukrainians put down roots closer to Western and Chicago. And both have since moved their communities into the northwest suburbs.
Not surprisingly, they also share a lot of culinary traditions. So Worldview recently toured the aisles of Rich’s Fresh Market In River Grove to get a primer on how to shop for both Polish and Ukrainian groceries.
Sorting through their huge variety of sausages, dumplings, beer, and pork fat products can be overwhelming for the rookie shopper. To help, we enlisted the guidance of two avid cooks — Polish-American Anna Zolkowski Sobor and Worldview’s very own Ukrainian-American producer Julian Hayda.
This story is a part of the Worldview-Chicago Sun-Times “Hungry For Home” series, which helps newbies navigate the many international groceries in the Chicago area. Find out how to cook Polish mizeria and Ukrainian borscht at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Sobor, a Chicago native raised by Polish immigrant parents, said her mother and aunts grew their own vegetables, canned summer produce, and composted before it was trendy. She now enjoys putting her own twist on traditional Polish recipes. Hayda is a third-generation Ukrainian and second-generation Chicago native. His first memories include pinching dumplings with a dozen church ladies in Munster, Indiana.
The home cooks came up with more than a dozen items for beginners to buy at Polish or Ukrainian markets. (They also had a few suggestions on what to get at the hot-and-ready prepared section.)
Breads: Breads, buns, and rolls are typically categorized as dark or light.
“Darker, whole-grain bread — like sunflower bread — is good for open-faced sandwiches and other finger appetizers,” Hayda said. “Lighter, seedless rye breads are perfect for meaty deli sandwiches.”
Dill: This fresh green herb is ubiquitous in Eastern European cooking.
“It has to be fresh because we sprinkle it on everything!” Sobor said. “For beginners, I would recommend making the Polish salad mizeria by chopping dill with sliced cucumber and onions, sour cream, and lemon juice.”
Sunflower oil: This neutral-tasting oil is a major export of Ukraine. It's good for cooking or on salads.
“Sunflower oil has a very high smoke point — so it’s ideal for frying things in a skillet — but it also has a unique raw flavor that can be tossed with greens, beets, or cucumbers and a coarse salt for a quick salad,” Hayda said.
Pork fat (salo and smalec): The Poles and Ukrainians prepare pork fat differently. The Polish version, called smalec, comes in a jar, and the Ukrainian version, called salo, comes as a slab of pork belly and fatback.
“Poles render it and put it in a jar and call it smalec,” Sobor said. “You can cook with it or just spread it on a piece of bread like butter. The great thing is that it coats your insides, so if you are doing vodka shots or something like that, I think it diminishes the effects.”
“Ukrainians salt or smoke it in slabs and call it salo,” Hayda said. “Cut a thin slice and put it on a piece of black bread with garlic and just pop it in your mouth. It’s a delicacy.”
Kasha: Dried buckwheat that's a fiber-rich starchy staple, sometimes used as a stuffing.
“I like boiling it in chicken or vegetable broth, and then topping it with a runny fried egg and maybe some hot sauce. … It’s also great re-heated because the wheat gets crunchy,” Hayda said.
Dumplings: The staple dumplings in Polish cuisine are called pierogi, and the same dish is called varenyky in Ukrainian. You can find dozens of varieties of these dumplings in the frozen section.
“Frozen varenyky are good to have standing by because all you have to do is boil them until they float,” Hayda said. “They’re also great pan fried on low heat until brown on each side. Pair the savory varenyky with plain sour cream, caramelized onions, and any fried fatty pork. Dessert dumplings are served with sweetened sour cream.”
Fruit syrups: Concentrated syrups in flavors like sour cherry, currant, blackberry, or birch
“You can add them to hot tea as a sweetener, or you can add it to bubbly water for a homemade soda — or, of course, you can make cocktails with them,” Sobor said
Cakes (poppy seed and sernik): These cakes can be filled with poppy seed paste or sweet farmers cheese.
“If you come to dinner at a Polish house, they will usually serve you tea and something sweet like this sernik or a light cheesecake or a poppyseed cake,” Sobor said. “These are not too sweet and very traditional.”
Candies: Boxed chocolates and chocolate-covered wafer bars.
“When you’re going to a Polish home, you always have to bring something with you, and many people bring these beautifully packaged Polish chocolates,” Sobor said. “My favorite is the dried plums encased in chocolate.”
Sausages: Smoked, baked, or cured encased meats with a little to a whole lot of garlic.
“For beginners, I would recommend the wedding sausage because it is not too spicy or garlicky,” Sobor said. “And I like the medium, not too dried, pork kabanos sausage that you can just cut up into little pieces and serve them with pickles, rye bread, and a little beer. And you have a great appetizer.”
Prepared vegetable salads: Beets, cucumbers, carrots, sauerkraut, and marinated red peppers in sour cream, oil, or mayonnaise.
“For Poles, these salads are a major part of any meal,” Sobor said. “Probably three quarters of your plate would be covered in these vegetables, and only a quarter would be a meat and starch.”
Soups: Polish and Ukrainian grocers offer house made versions of several soups, including pea, chicken, pickle, tripe, and several varieties of borscht.
“Soups are a traditional dish, especially in the winter, because you can reconstitute dried vegetables and meats,” Hayda said. “These grocery stores sell some of the more popular flavor combinations, but the base ingredients are almost always the same.”
Cabbage Rolls: This blanched cabbage is stuffed with a savory filling and served on both Polish and Ukrainian tables.
“You blanch cabbage leaves and then stuff them with ground pork, veal, and rice,” Sobor said. “And then, they’re cooked in a mushroom or tomatoes sauce.”
Beer and liquor: Polish beers are mostly lagers and pilsners. Distilled spirits, like vodka, are also popular.
“These beers are all named from different towns because that’s where the water comes from,” Sobor said. “I would encourage people to just buy a selection (of individual bottles) and then buy what you like again.”
A snack before shopping
Eastern European delis often have an ice chest near the registers full of plastic-wrapped ice cream cones from Europe. One of these cones is a shelf-stable meringue-like ice cream treat called plombir, which was invented in France and became very popular in the former Soviet Republics.
Other top snacks for beginners:
Sunflower seeds: The sunflower seeds sold in Eastern European stores often have thicker shells, but can be bigger and more flavorful.
Chocolate wafers: Polish candy aisles carry several varieties of individually-wrapped wafer cookies covered in chocolate that make a light snack that’s a lot less sweet than most American chocolate bars.
Other Eastern European groceries in the Chicago area
Andy’s Deli: A Chicago establishment since 1918, the company’s flagship butcher shop and bakery are in West Garfield Park. There’s also a location in Jefferson Park.
J&J European Deli: A humble deli with a broad selection of meats and pre-prepared dishes in Portage Park.
Lassak Market and Deli: Two locations, one in west suburban Willowbrook and another in south suburban Palos Hills.