Sushi is popular in Poland’s urban centers. Seriously popular. An informal study of Warsaw magazines reveals that about 10% of all the city’s restaurants sell it – and even then you probably want to book a table on a Friday night to make sure you get some.
Text by Katherine Knowles
It’s a bright sunny day and the terrace outside beautiful new shopping centre Golden Terraces (Złote Tarasy) is abuzz with the lunch time crowd. There’s a sizable bunch tucking into pizzas and salads, a few at the tapas bar, but overwhelmingly, people are rattling their chopsticks in the sushi section.
“It’s the new carbonara,” says business woman Dorota. “A few years ago anyone who was anyone had carbonara; I’d go out to dinner with girlfriends and we’d all order carbonara. Well, now it’s sushi. If you want to be fashionable you have to eat sushi for lunch.”
“It says that you’re sophisticated, that you have good taste,” says Andre tucking into Akashia’s delicious and popular bento box. “I eat sushi twice, maybe three times a week. I’m a very modern person: I go to the gym, I have an apple notebook - and I eat sushi.”
“I used to live in New York, and people ate sushi a lot,” ex-pat Kate notes, “but here, it’s absolutely everywhere! My local Italian restraint Piccolo Bacio has a sushi menu too – it’s really good. It sounds a bit odd, sushi and pasta on the same menu, but actually it’s genius – my boyfriend hates fish and sushi is my favourite food so for us, it’s the perfect place for a date!”
It seems that to Varsovians, sushi says modernity, taste, and fashion. It’s also one of the more expensive foods you can eat – though really that’s an encouraging sign. Who wants to eat cheap raw fish? So it’s a sign of wealth and success. It’s the food of business deals, of cash rich calorie-reluctant lunching ladies, of trendy about-town urbanites who scoff at their old-fashioned mothers recoiling in horror at the thought of eating uncooked, slimy fish flesh.
Sushi is ‘vinegared’ rice topped with other ingredients – fish, seafood or vegetables being the most common, but as in America, home to the California roll, here in Poland sushi has been adapted to cater to some more local tastes. Smoked mackerel sushi is a popular choice, eel with gherkin packs a tangy if utterly inauthentic punch, and rice stained ‘Barbie purple with beetroot juice’ is a common sight. Anathema in Japan, but popular with most western sushi eaters, the calorific Philadelphia or mayonnaise rolls with deep fried battered prawns or fish and extra avocado are big sellers.
It’s a long way from sushi’s origins back in 17th century Japan, when Hahaya Yohei created a delicious roadside finger food by marinating fish in vinegar and selling it in strips or on a damp cushion of rice. The acid breaks down the fats in the fish, fermenting it slightly and creating one of the five basic tastes identified by Japanese cooking, ‘umami’, defined as a taste sensation that is meaty or savory.
‘Umami’ sounds terribly Eastern and exotic, but in fact it has always been a part of Polish cooking, more so than in other European cuisines. Żurek, a popular broth, gets its umami taste from the fermented rye flour, and bigos, Poland’s national dish of hearty meat stew, gets it from the fermented cabbage, the naturally occurring nucleotides in the mushrooms and the cured sausage – curing increases the glutamate content. The precise minimalist aesthetic of sushi might be a million miles away from this warming hearty food, but the basic meaty-sour taste is not.
And Poland has always appreciated fish dishes, again with an emphasis on curing, brining and smoking – all increasing the umami taste. Strips of herring or sprat fillets lightly brined with allspice, mustard seed and bay has the slippery-fresh rawness of sushi, albeit distinctly Polishflavoured, and it’s been a traditional part of Polish cooking for centuries, making Poland ripe for a sushi invasion.