When I planned a trip to Poland, I had vaguely included visiting a Milk Bar as one of the To Do’s in Krakow if time permitted. The reason for my nonchalance perhaps stemmed from the belief that Polish Cuisine is bland uninspiring. After a 3 day trip to this pretty picturesque Polish city; the culinary experience in the milk bars of Krakow emerged as the highlight of my brief sojourn in Poland.
What is a Milk Bar
As the name suggests; milk bars are not really outlets where milk is sold from the tap and patrons guffaw around sipping on tall glasses of milk shakes. “Bar Mleczny” or Milk Bars in Poland are a relic from the Socialism era. The first milk bar was set up in Warsaw in 1896 serving dishes based on dairy items and traditional Polish cuisine. These outlets with cheap and nourishing food played a prominent role during the Great Depression of 1930’s right through World War II. In the aftermath of devastation and war; Poland came under communist rule from 1945 imposed by former Soviet Union . In their over zealousness for socialism, private establishments including restaurants were nationalized and the moderate to expensive ones were eventually closed down. The state subsidized milk bars thrived during this period serving dairy based food; sometimes egg and pierogis (dumplings). Meat and Alcohol were strictly off the menu and people survived on basic fare of potatoes, wheat and cheese. There are stories around cutlery being chained to the tables in the milk bars to prevent diners from taking them away during the times of induced scarcity.
Winds of change have blown across Poland after the curtain call on communism in 1989. Over time the country became a part of the European Union opening up the path to economic progress and prosperity. The economy of shortage gave way to modernity in all spheres but the milk bars of yore were retained with a nostalgia of the past in their look and feel and a makeover in their menu to include meat items. These self service outlets run by ladies in crisp aprons serve non ostentatious but healthy delicious grub at very cheap rates. They are mostly frequented by students, pensioners and anyone looking for a quick meal that is light on the pocket. Sharing tables with strangers is pretty much the norm and not an exception in these places.
Milk Bar Hopping in Krakow
On a hot summer afternoon in Krakow, I decided to walk into one of these milk bars for a bite. A quick google search threw up Pod Termida a few metres away on Grodzka. I obediently followed Google’s instructions to my destination. The small blue sign with bold white letters “Mleczny” Pod Termida can be missed if you are not looking out. The place was neat and spartan and to my comfort; the “Jadlospis” or Menu had English translation of all the items. Better still, the lady donning a crisp apron had a smile on her face and we managed to converse in English. I ordered a plate of Kluskie Slaskie with Mushroom Sauce and she quickly conveyed instructions to the kitchen in rapid Polish while handing over the change. In the next few minutes that I waited at the table for my food, streams of people queued up at the counter. The odd tourist in the melee of locals could easily be identified by the long pause in front of the menu on the wall.
The steaming plate of Kluskie Slaskie looked rather dull but my apprehension led to a wide smile once I took the first bite. The potato dumpling was made from a dough of boiled mashed potatoes, flour and salt, small balls of which were subsequently flattened and steamed. The buttery mushroom sauce had loads of onion, garlic and spiced with pepper for taste. I devoured every bit of the spongy dumpling, occasionally observing the ladies across the table. They spoke in hushed tones exchanging smiles that would have been surely concealed behind the down turned lips in their younger days under communist rule. Some people were politely turned away as their favorite Beetroot Zupi (Soup) was over for the day. These outlets do brisk business and are generally done with their limited produce within a few hours of opening. So if you are looking for choice, better to pop up early and with cash since most do not accept credit cards. A good 30 minutes later, 15ZL (4 EUR) lighter but satiated with happiness, I slipped out into the cobbled streets of Krakow for a day of sightseeing.
I was zeroing on another Milk Bar for the following day when my Air BnB hostess suggested that I should perhaps go to a Pierogernia too and sample the home made dumplings. Pierogernia’s are similar to Milk Bar’s in offering and price point. They are reviving the culture of relishing the Polish delicacies in a warm, no frills cafe like environment with innovative fillings ranging from sweet to savory.
The hand painted wall decor, lamps, and tables in Pierogernia Krakowiacy was colorful. It was almost like walking into a Polish folklore greeted by a traditonally attired young Polish hostess donning a floral crown. The menu for the day with grilled turkey, tomatoes and pepper seemed enticing but I wanted to have a few sweet ones too.
My dilemma was soon dissolved when she kindly agreed to give me a half of the day’s special savory (Lepiaki na Slono) and a half of a sweet one (Lepiaki na Slodko) so that I could taste both. They looked pretty similar and drab; but appearances are deceptive as they say. Turkey, Tomato and pepper served with some sweet apple relish did quite well though the pepper was far too mild for my spicy Indian palate.
The cherry and mascarpone cheese stuffed dumpling sprinkled with powdered sugar tasted much better than it looked. The sweetness of the filling countered by the not so thick layer of flour doused in thick creamy sauce was a treat for the tongue. It reminded me of my grandmother’s coconut and jaggery mix stuffed dumplings cooked in thickened milk. As I travel around the world exploring as much with my stomach as I do with my eyes, I realise that cuisines merge into each other at some point; the basic concept remaining the same leaving the innovation and differentiation to local ingredients.
It was hard to look away from the slices of cheese cake (Sernik) loaded with berries that was kept on the counter. After a fill of pierogies, I controlled that burp stuck in my throat and gave in to my senses. The squishy cheese cake at 7 ZL less than 2 EUR was a delight with all those rich attractive berries adding color and taste.
I tried my luck with Milk Bars in Warsaw too but sadly the menu was in Polish and they were all too busy catering to the office crowd. If you are in Krakow; would highly recommend a meal in a Milk Bar and it will be a memorable date with recent history. Don’t forget to carry cash since most of them do not accept cards and remember to ask for a mix of dumplings so that you can get the best of it as a tourist.
Back home in India, these self service spartan places are the norm of the day be it the Dhabas in the North, the Darshinis in the south or the friendly street carts elsewhere. I frequent these outlets often, taking their existence for granted. Milk Bar hopping in Krakow got me thinking; may be a 50 years later when India has progressed ahead and I am long gone, these pocket friendly eateries that feed the masses will be but a relic of the past holding on to nostalgia in some corner though I sincerely hope not.