Putting Polish dishes on the Deanes Deli menu is a brave move, but it gets my vote.
There are lots of reasons why we should be pleased that so many Poles are setting up home here in Ireland. Like the Irish (I include the Ulster Scots among them) the Poles have frequently been bruised and battered by the jackboot of a neighbour’s oppressive regime. They are religious, hard working and industrious and enjoy a drop of the devil’s buttermilk just as much as we do. They are often better looking and smarter than us, which gives rise to envy and occasional ugly outbursts of cowardly migrant-bashing, or rather, migrant’s-parked-car-in-the-dead-of-night bashing.
They also share a love with the Irish of carbohydrates, starchy foods, cabbage and beetroot. Is there a specific diet for historically oppressed nations? If there is, the Polish and the Irish share one. I recently had lunch at Crakow City Restaurant — where every client is Polish — in Belfast’s Cregagh Road. This indicates that the local Polish population either rates the place as an authentic little slice of home, which is very good, or there’s no choice but to come here as it’s the only Polish restaurant in town.
The goulash soup I had was a generous bowl of chunky vegetables, disintegrated potatoes and very good quality cubes of beef. But apart from being fairly salty and beefy and without any hint of paprika or sour cream, it would not have drawn any complaints had it been sold up the road in an Ulster café as Irish Stew. The pancake with soft cheese, sugar and cinnamon, on the other hand, was distinctly eastern and while we have all the pancakes in the world over here, there was a subtle but significant difference in the flavours we would be used to. The peppery and deeply floral flavours preferred by the Polish are unusual to us and take some getting used to, but once you acquire the taste it’s hard to leave behind.
A quick trip down to the Taste of Polska event at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival marquee in Custom House Square should quickly determine whether or not you agree.
On the other hand, you may prefer the comfort of Michael Deane’s new Polish restaurant in Bedford Street. Only kidding, but Deanes Deli’s chef, Jarik Jankowski, is Polish and for the next two weeks a surprising series of Polish dishes feature on the menu in a tribute to Polska Year and the Belfast-based Polska Folk! festival.
Deane and Jankowski kindly let me have a sneak preview of some of the dishes. And what surprises they are too. At Deanes Deli, Polish food takes on an entirely new meaning. Herby, peppery, sour soups with lots of marjoram; pierogi dumplings just like you get in a Chinese; pork belly with prunes and a delightful mound of buckwheat, are the kind of things you will see and I urge you to run down there quick and get some. The sour soup with garlic is a pick-me-up with big flavours. The marjoram, a feature of Polish cooking as widespread and central to the whole identity of the cuisine as parsley might be for us, offers up a sense of central Europe — a forgotten aroma, as powerful and evocative as the smell of the dark, wet soil of the country itself.
What Jankowski modestly describes as simple food with few ingredients is a wonderful breadth of tastes, textures and oddities. The distinctive eastern European love of pickled vegetables and spices is alien to us and probably as different a sensation for us today as the early Indian and Chinese restaurants must have been in the sixties.
Possibly the most outrageous of all the Polish offers at Deanes Deli is the bowl of shocking pink, chilled beetroot soup. This jaw-droppingly bright soup completely wrongfooted me. Packed with thin slivers of cucumber and chicken, little chunks of young beetroot and half a boiled egg, the cold soup was a beautifully balanced mix of savoury and tangy flavours. Accompanied by a plate of pierogi, the soup makes a perfect lunch for £7.
Deane should be respected for his confidence in allowing Polish food to be prepared in his place. He jokes as I eat: “Is it rough?” Both of us are prejudiced and suspicious that the Polish dishes will be stodgy and hard work. I reassure him that on the contrary, they are refined and delicate. It’s true. Apart from the pierogi, which are quite agricultural and provide packing, the dishes are truly revealing.
Whether Deane goes the whole hog and decides to follow up with belt-busting makowiec, a poppy seed pastry, or drozdzówka, a type of yeast cake, remains to be seen. In the mean time, there is a serious wealth in the Polish culinary lexicon that deserves exploration. Look out for chlodnik (the chilled beet or fruit soup for hot days), golonka (pork knuckles cooked with vegetables), kolduny (meat dumplings), zrazy (stuffed slices of beef) and flaki (tripe).
Chilled beetroot soup and pierogi £7
Pork belly and buckwheat £14
Glass pinot grigio £6.50