The essence of feeling at home – a night at a Polish table

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We come down a spiral staircase into a large and warmly lit space, panelled in rich brown wood on three sides and with a floor-to-ceiling window on the fourth, giving us a view of a small garden beyond. In the centre of the room is a large, round table, white tablecloth adorned with plates, silverware and crystal. Classical music wafts through the air. And standing by the table are our hosts, smiling as we enter and greeting us with friendly “hellos”.

The words “feel at home” pop up a lot in English, often as a polite stock phrase deployed by guests or hosts to soften the atmosphere, or woven into the marketing language of restaurants and hotels. Today is different. Though we are meeting these people for the first time, we feel like we’re arriving for dinner at the home of a good friend. This is the Embassy of Poland in Tokyo, and the small group welcoming us with such warm smiles are all diplomats – Piotr Szostak the counsellor; his wife Katarzyna Kraj-Szostak the first secretary; Dominika Giordano, Polish consul and the organiser of today’s meal; and her husband Michele Giordano, a Guatemalan diplomat. They have gathered here and gone through the effort of preparing this meal and this meeting to introduce Polish food and culture to us, a pair of journalists; all very professional. Nevertheless, any hint of us-and-them, of formal distance, vanishes the moment we step into the room and exchange the first words of what will turn out to be hours of conversation.

The table quickly vanishes under plates and platters of hors d’oeuvres. Piotr vanishes for a moment and reappears with a slender bottle wrapped in a thin coat of frost. He opens it with a look of anticipation and carefully pours measures of clear liquid, smooth and syrupy with the cold, into the small crystal glasses set next to each place at the table. There are many traditional liqueurs in Poland, Piotr tells us. But this, this is vodka. With delicate glass in hand, he suggests we cheers to get the meal officially underway.

vodka

Polish vodka, a cold and clear start to the meal.

And so we do, crystal clinking above the table with a hearty “Na zdrowie!” (For health!) followed by measured sips (no need to toss it back in one go, thought that is an option). I have rarely if ever drink vodka straight. In fact, I didn’t think it was the kind of drink you could drink straight. I was mistaken. This vodka is delicious, the best I have ever tasted by far, and with no harsh burn as it goes down the throat. It is velvety smooth, with an aftertaste laced with subtle fruit accents. Piotr asks if I’d like a refill. I want to say yes, but respectfully decline a second glass. This stuff is wonderful and, considering the potent alcohol percentage, I know I’d be in some trouble if I stepped on the proverbial gas.

Toasts made and refills poured for those who want them, we turn our attention to the table and its collection of hors d’oeuvres, headlined by a selection of chilled meat creations and backed by plenty of brown bread and substantial blocks of butter. The hosts say that bread is very important to Poles, so much so that it has taken on ceremonial importance. When newlyweds return from their wedding ceremony, for example, they are presented with bread and salt. What’s more, says Piotr, homemade bread recipes and the family sourdough starter are passed down from generation to generation.

Now I know I’ve been using the term “hors d’oeuvre” for what’s on the table, but the image of dainty and delicate amuse bouches that term usually conjures up does not do justice to the volume and variety of dishes packing every sliver of available space on the tablecloth. There is “Russian Salad,” a potato salad mixed with peas and cubed vegetables. There is a thick pork roll rubbed with marjoram and with a prune core, chilled and promising a beguiling combination of sweet and herbal-accented savoury. Ringing the pork are slices of a chicken meatloaf run through with liver and seasoned with garlic and more marjoram. There are little domes of consommé gelatine, tiny chunks of chicken, veggies and sprigs of fresh dill locked in suspended animation within. And there is a beet soup so vividly pink it looks like it jumped off a colour palette.

Russian Salad

Russian salad.

As the conversation unfolds, I learn that this vast spread is not the work of an embassy chef, but of these diplomats, with Dominika doing the lion’s share of the cooking and hunting down the ingredients. It’s a stunning thought, considering the difficulty of finding the right ingredients here in Japan, the number of handmade dishes and their obvious complexity, not to mention the time and work it must have taken to make them. Being a diplomat is a busy profession, and yet they have devoted the time and energy to carefully craft this dinner.

When I express my thanks for all their effort, Dominika replies with a smile that it is definitely not fast food.

chicken cold meat

A pair of chilled meat hors d’oeuvres, a baked meatloaf on the left, and chicken with a core of seasoned liver on the right.

I try the chilled meat dishes, dabbing a little berry and horseradish sauce – a stalwart condiment on the Polish table – on each morsel. The pork-and-prune creation is rich and flavourful, the meatiness accompanied by a flood of other tastes – full-bodied sweetness from the prunes, fresh and fragrant marjoram – that complement and enhance one another perfectly. The chicken slices are expansive on the tongue – deep, dark liver enriching the tender chicken. Paired with the berry-horseradish sauce, the taste takes on even more layers, the topping adding notes of bright fruit and just enough spice to tickle the back of my nose.

Polish pork rolls stuffed with prunes

Pork rounds, rubbed down with marjoram and stuffed with prune. See the recipe here, provided by Consul Dominika Giordano.

I turn my attention next to the diminutive domes of consommé gelatine, which our hosts tell us are traditionally served for celebrations. Piotr goes on to explain that there are, broadly, two ways to eat them: topped with lemon juice, or with vinegar. Piotr is solidly on Team Vinegar, and expounds enthusiastically on its advantages as Dominika quietly picks up a lemon wedge. Katarzyna, who made the little savouries, says she prefers to eat them without any topping at all, which draws exclamations of incredulity from her vinegar-loving husband.

Polish Poultry Jelly

Heavenly little consommé domes, consumed with a dash of vinegar or fresh lemon juice, or on their own. See the recipe here, provided by First Secretary Katarzyna Kraj-Szostak.

In all honesty, most of the jelly dishes I’ve ever tried have been underwhelming, so I have never expected much of them. But then I’d never tried this Polish creation, and it is a surprise of the best kind. Rich consommé floods over the tongue before being channelled and tamed by the lemon or vinegar, smoothing the flavour and opening the gate to the green freshness of the dill – freshness so full it’s like walking through a summer herb garden. It reminds me how important is the balance of ingredients is to great food.

Next is a bowl of that intensely pink soup, its eye-popping colour the result of the mixture of beets and sour cream that makes up its backbone. The sourness is smooth and flowing, and along with it come hints of dill and lemon juice, producing a balanced richness. Served cold, it is a mainstay of the Polish summer menu.

summer beet soup

A super-pink and super-fresh beet and sour cream soup, served chilled.

That sounds quite general, and indeed our hosts have done their best to present dishes today that one may find all across their home country. However, they say, cuisine in fact varies a great deal depending on the region, with common culinary ground coming usually only on particular holidays like Christmas and Easter.

After what has already been a delicious journey through so many dishes comes the main course: veal slow cooked in a creamy mushroom sauce. My partner on this reporting job is from Canada, but his maternal grandmother is originally from northern continental Europe. After just one bite of the perfectly browned meat and rich sauce, he says that he feels like he’s been transported back into his grandmother’s kitchen – a child digging into the heart-warming tastes of home. Though as a Japanese person such flavours didn’t feature prominently in my own childhood, I understand what he means. In fact, neither of my partner’s grandmothers was from Poland. One was from the Netherlands, and the other from Britain, so this veal isn’t quite the same as the traditional foods he ate as a boy. Nevertheless, the taste – gentle, velvety, lovingly and carefully created over perhaps hours in the kitchen – triggers a deep nostalgia.

Polish veal with mushroom sauce

Veal, browned to delicious perfection.

“We say that when there’s a guest in the house, (there’s) a god in the house,” says Dominika of traditional Polish hospitality. And for the Polish, hospitality is expressed in food. If you’re ever invited to a Polish household, it seems you’re more than likely to go home very full indeed. “When you come to a family’s house, everyone will try to serve you, to feed you to make you feel the most comfortable and welcome,” Dominika says. Piotr adds with a laugh that, when a guest in someone’s home, you may have to politely decline seconds (or thirds, or fourths) several times to halt the flow of edible generosity. And even that may not stop your host.

Michele tells us that, “in his short Polish experience” gained going to Dominika’s family home, he always comes back a little heavier than he went. The food is fantastic, especially Polish sausage, he goes on. “It is delicious. It is something they cannot find in some other places.”

desserts

Dessert: A cake with subtly sour fruit (left), and a wonderfully intense red berry compote.

Worries over getting fat from eating too much have come to plague the modern mind in the world’s richer countries. But just a handful of generations past, it was the genuine fear of starvation that haunted our everyday lives. The changing seasons, shifts in the weather, natural calamities and man-made disasters had an enormous impact on not just what was on the dinner table, but on whether there was anything at all. In that world of potential scarcity, could there be any greater generosity than to send a guest home happy and full of food, prepared from the best of whatever was at hand that time of year? Perhaps feeding a guest today would leave your family hungry tomorrow. Even so, there’s “a god in the house,” so the table is gladly laid, and the food and drink flows.

When we entered this room, it truly felt like arriving at the home of an old friend – warm and welcoming. That is of course thanks to our hosts, to their ease and openness. But then it may also be because of their roots in Poland’s tradition of deep hospitality. I find myself thinking that I, too, would like to be the kind of person that is this generous. And I felt grateful for the realisation.

Nalewka

Shades of nalewka, a Polish liqueur that comes in a long list of fruit and herbal flavours.

 

Story by: Rika Sakai

English Text by: Robert Sakai-Irvine

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