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Interview #18: Zuza Zak's Pierogi
Marbled. Baked. Stuffed with kasha. Fried in goose fat. Learn all about Zuza Zak's brand-new book that goes deep on Polish dumplings.
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Historically, Instagram—at least for me—has seemed full of landmines designed solely to tweak my anxiety. It wasn’t until I started using the app primarily for researching dumplings that I started to find it enjoyable (and, even, actually like what the algorithm serves up to me on my Above the Fold feed).
Cookbook authorZuza Zak, who grew up in Poland until relocating to the UK at the age of eight, has also shown me how Instagram can, really actually and truly, be something good (emphasis on can!). About a year ago, deep in the throes of dumpling research, I came across her account, where she was sharing images of strawberry knedle (a Polish fruit dumpling wrapped in potato-based dough), chocolate pampuchy (Polish steamed buns), and toasted buckwheat-filled gryczaki (a style of pierogi popular in Lublin) getting folded and assembled at home.
When I reached out to fangirl over them—and she kindly responded—I learned that they were in service of her third cookbook, which would be all about dumplings. (Squee!) The seeds were planted for an eventual interview, and that day is finally upon us!
Zuza’s beautiful book, Pierogi, debuted on August 18 in England and lands in the US on September 13. It features about 50 different Polish dumplings, with regional traditional recipes (like the three styles mentioned above) alongside Zuza’s own modern creations (such as marbled pierogi filled with chocolate and cream).
Much of the book production process took place during the pandemic, which made in-person research in Poland less of a possibility. Which is where Instagram-as-a-good-thing comes back in. “I was hoping to travel around the regions of Poland and because of the coronavirus, I didn't really get to do that,” Zuza says. “And yet, I got to travel through the recipes, because I just reached out on Instagram and so many people came and procured old family recipes for me.”
On September 11, you can experience Zuza’s dumpling work virtually—she’ll be hosting a dumpling workshop alongside fellow dumpling pro and cookbook author Alissa Timoshkina on Zoom, where you’ll learn how to make both sweet and savory pierogi. Tickets are £25 (just under $30 USD), and all proceeds from the event will go to #CookforUkraine.
In the interview below, learn more about the process behind how the book came together, Zuza’s earliest memories of making dumplings in Poland, and the experience she’s dubbed “the dumpling spa.”
When were you first aware of dumplings growing up?
They were always there. Some of my earliest memories with my grandmas, who looked after me a lot when I lived in Poland until I was eight, were actually making dumplings. My Babcia Halinka lived in this pre-war block near the Warsaw Old Town, and it was this strange apartment that was sort of a circle. The kitchen was placed in the middle, and it didn’t have any windows—it felt kind of like a nest.
I really clearly remember sitting in there with my grandma cutting kopytka [pictured, above], or “little hooves,” which are dumplings that I often used to make with her. She would prepare the dough and roll it into snakes, and I had the very important job of cutting them into little hoof shapes with a knife. That was actually one of my earliest memories of cooking.
My Babcia Ziuta was a cook, by profession, and she would cook for her huge extended family. They would gather in her tiny apartment on the ninth floor of a communist tower block, with all their neighbors. She would cook huge amounts of food and various types of dumplings, but my strongest memory is of making pierogi with her and her pinching it after me to actually close them because my little hands couldn't quite close them properly.
I remember reading in your previous cookbook about Polish cuisine, Polska, that you originally set out to prove that Polish food had so much more breadth than "just dumplings." When did that change for you sentiment-wise?
In my first cookbook, I mentioned the fact that someone once insulted me by telling me that Polish food was “only just dumplings,” and I had no right to an opinion about food or something. I had a real bee in my bonnet about that, and I was just like, I'm going to prove them wrong. They need to see what Polish food is all about. And yet, I still ended up having a dumpling chapter in my first cookbook, Polska, because I was like, well, you can't just pass them by. They're such a big part of the cuisine.
Polska came out in 2016. At that point, Polish food, and Eastern European food in general, wasn't that well-known whereas now, I think the world has changed. There's still a huge amount to explore and there are a handful of us doing it, but I think people like Olia Hercules and Alissa Timoshkina have been changing perceptions about this part of the world.
I also think things like Instagram have made people more aware of all the different cuisines. People are less prone today to calling Eastern European cuisine “just dumplings” or “just meat and potatoes” or whatever. So now, it feels like a really good time just to celebrate all the different dumplings.
It was very deliberate that you called the book Pierogi instead of something more broadly around Polish dumplings, correct?
I thought I’d use the fame of pierogi to explore all the different regions of Poland and all the ways you can be creative with Polish dumplings, and to just really celebrate that part of cuisine.
Everyone eats pierogi for Christmas and different types of pierogi at different times of the year. But also, there's a huge amount of Polish people or people of Polish heritage living all over the world that have their own take on pierogi. It’s like an emblem of Polish-ness, so I wanted to use that as a kind of opener and an enticer for people to come in and explore the whole range of Polish dumplings.
I was aware of different ones in different regions, but this book was also one of exploration. It was definitely a real journey of discovery for me as well.
Were there any that you had been particularly surprised about during your research?
There are a few recipes like that. I have a photographer friend, Magdalena, from Paris, and her Grandma Janina's dumplings from Lublin are in the book. I had been traveling around Lublin before, where they have a lot of kasha, or toasted buckwheat groats.
I had something there called gryczaki—they're pierogi, but called gryczaki there because they're full of kasha gryczana. And yet, I’d never had sweet ones. And Magdalena got this recipe for sweet ones with twaróg cheese, I think you call it farmer's cheese, with toasted buckwheat groats and sugar.
It's a simple twist, but they are absolutely delicious. They're one of my family's favorite pierogi now, and it's a recipe that I'm so glad can live on through the book because this cultural heritage will get lost if someone doesn't record it, really. Younger generations might not end up making pierogi that often or ever, and some recipes might just fade away and die that way. So it's a real honor to be able to preserve them.
Another one that comes to mind is from someone that I just met through the internet. She told me about her auntie's Easter pierogi, which are stuffed with egg and chives and then served in żur, which is a fermented rye soup.
Yeah. It took ages to get this recipe, and she literally got it in there like a day before I was handing in the manuscript because her auntie wasn't on the internet and it was very difficult. I was so grateful that people made all this effort just to get the recipes for me, which means so much.
Dumplings are a very labor-intensive thing to create, and that process can be a really rewarding and wonderful one. Cookbooks are their own total labor of love to put together. I'm curious how a dumpling cookbook was for you process-wise—what was testing 50 different dumpling recipes like?
I have to say this book was just the most fun book to write. I tested all the recipes myself. And then when we did them all again on the photo shoot, we did more than we thought we were going to do. I mean, it is labor intensive. But once you make a dough, which is very simple, you could just make a lot of dough and then a few different fillings and especially if there's a few people working at the same time, it just feels like fun.
We called the shoot the “dumpling spa.” We felt like we were on a dumpling spa break because it was relaxing and it was therapeutic and it was just...Don't get me wrong. I love my other two cookbooks. They're bigger than this one for a start, and there's a lot more history, a lot more room for mistakes. With this one, because it's a slightly shorter book and it's just one theme, it didn't feel so intense. It just felt like really a lot of fun and a lot of joy.
The idea of a dumpling spa break, that is something I would pay to go to.
I know. How can we monetize this?
I would love to hear more about the cookbook cover illustration. It is so stunning.
Thank you. I love it.
How did it come together?
Basically, when I put together the proposal for Pierogi, I used some graphics which I found on Pinterest. I thought they were just some vintage postcards, and I used them to make my proposal look pretty. And the publishers found the person who did that graphic.
It turns out it's an illustrator from Wales, Rhi Moxon, and it was part of her university dissertation for which she made a Polish cookbook.
There's a certain type of vintage Polish posters and stamps that were this kind of style, and she's just got it down to a T. And the fact that she liked Polish food enough to actually illustrate a cookbook for her dissertation, it was just beyond me. I can't believe they found her. It was wonderful.
You posted many dumplings you were working on during the book production process on Instagram, and I’d love to ask you about a couple that really jumped out at me. The first one was of baked pierogi, which I thought were so interesting.
Yes, yes. Are they pierogi, or are they patties or empanadas or something like that, right?
Were you at all concerned with categorization or what “counts” as a dumpling? I spend a lot of time thinking about that, and then I'm like, that’s so missing the point.
I've had those conversations with a lot of people, just my friends, asking, "So what is a dumpling to you?" Because in Poland, there is no word for dumpling really. I mean, I guess you would translate dumpling as kluska, but a kluska isn't a pierogi because a kluska is just a bit of dough.
A kopytka, for example, could be kluski or made out of potato or something like that. A kluska can also be a piece of spaghetti or something. So in Poland, there isn't this big pigeonhole. You would just say maybe, “produkty mączne,” things made out of flour, you know?
So we don't have this problem. But in English, there's the whole “dumpling” thing. And then you can't help going down the rabbit hole of what is and isn't a dumpling. And obviously, things that are steamed? Yes. Things that are boiled? Yes. But then as soon as we bake them, hmm, that's no longer a dumpling, is it?
And if you think about stuffed bao for example, which are steamed, there are also baked bao. There are fried bao.
We have something similar, pampuchy, in Poland as well. It's in the book, steamed pampuchy, the Polish bao bun which can be eaten with a Sunday roast. My friend who did the photography for the book, Ola, said her mum makes these and they eat them with a roast on Sunday. My recipe has them stuffed with caramelized onion, for example, and steamed. So yes, they're a bun.
So then you're like, "Is it a dumpling?" Well, it is kind of a dumpling, too. I think maybe we need to be a bit more broad in our classification. Being that it's a Polish cookery book, I decided to just sort of do whatever feels right to put in there to explore that whole culinary genre. It was a very conscious effort not to go down that rabbit hole of what is and isn't a dumpling.
There are 50 different dumplings in the book. Not to make you play favorites, but I guess also to make you play favorites, can you tell me about a few?
I've got one right here actually. This was a really good find in an old cookery book, called “English-style marmalade pierożki fried in goose fat.” They're called “pierożki” though they're just as big as the pierogi, but sometimes when things are sweet, they'll be called pierożki because they're not a “meal.”
They are just so delicious. And I love the fact that they're called “English style.” So I've put them in the “festive” section because I thought they were really Christmas-y.
And then there are my Babcia Ziuta's slow-cooked beef and vegetable pierożki in broth. These are called pierożki because they're small—small pierogi can be called pierożki as well. I'd forgotten this recipe that my grandma used to make. And when me and my mom remembered it and we tested it together, it was like we found ourselves on that ninth floor in my grandma's flat. It was just the taste of her home and of her cooking.
I'll just mention one more from the modern section of the book. I really enjoy making marbled pierogi because you have two colors of dough. It makes them look really pretty, but it's actually very easy to do—you just have two doughs, and you just knead them together, and you don't have to faff around too much. It’s rustic and unfussy.
I've got a rhubarb and custard marbled pierogi, and a chocolate and cream marbled pierogi, which are my favorite sweet pierogi at the moment.
You also have a recipe for kartacze, or zeppelins, which are also known as cepelinai in Lithuania, and a recipe for Polish manty as well. There are so many kinds of Polish variations of dumplings that are more well-known elsewhere, but I wonder if pierogi sometimes just overshadows them.
It's really interesting because of things like the pierogi manty—which you'd find in the Podlasie area in Poland, which is kind of in the northeast and you have the Tatar communities there—they're so different from the Ukrainian manti, for example. To some people, they might look like Georgian khinkali dumplings or Tibetan momos. Sometimes you go, oh gosh, people see these as khinkali for example, so they're going to think this is inauthentic or something. And then I was like, but actually, this is the gold dust. This is the stuff that's really interesting, because what's authentic? It opens up all these different conversations about food and how we see things, and it maybe helps to change perspectives.
Maybe they had the same origin, and then they just spread into different regions around the world. And the language changed and their names changed and their fillings changed, and everything just developed in its own way. So I wanted to include as much of that kind of variation as possible.
In the traditional chapter of the book, I guess people might think, "Well, some of these are really not traditional right now at this moment in time," but then I'm looking backwards as well. For example, the knysze, which used to be served at wakes. I've been to a few Polish wakes and I've never been served knysze. So now, these pierogi aren't really served at wakes anymore, but luckily you can still find them in one area of Poland.
But unless you go to this area which isn't very touristy, you wouldn't eat them. I wanted to find as much of this culinary heritage as possible and just preserve it.
Above the Fold was created by Leah Mennies. Logo + design elements by Claudia Mak.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.