Why Polish Borscht is True Comfort Food

Share

On a trip to Warsaw and Krakow, writer Amy Rosen finds her roots in a bowl of borscht.

At Pod Samsonem, a Jewish‑Polish restaurant on a pedestrian thoroughfare just north of Warsaw’s Old Town, we take our seats at a picnic table under a red umbrella and order cold beer and cool beet borscht swirled with sour cream, shredded cucumber and fresh dill. “This soup has the genetic fingerprint of our grandmothers,” my brother David announces. It’s so good I could eat it forever.

Lunch continues with juicy fried mushrooms, a strolling musician playing tunes from Fiddler on the Roof (now there’s a man who knows his audience) and a plate of old‑school gefilte fish: chopped pickled carp covered in aspic and served with horseradish sauce. While our meal is delightful in every possible way, not all is sitting well with us on this trip to Poland.

Related: Where to Find Canada’s Best Bagels (and How to Make Your Own)

My brother and I had come to explore the Jewish Trail in Krakow, looking for links to our dad’s side of the family along the way. Both of his parents were born in Poland and came to Canada as babies. And while we hadn’t been in the country very long, we’d seen enough to recognize that the faces that met ours, as we ate foot‑long zapiekanka sandwiches and sipped third‑wave flat whites at Krakow’s cobblestone‑lined cafés, did not reflect those of our ancestors. Still, ever the optimist, I felt we could turn this around.

August 27, 2021
An aerial shot of Warsaw's Old Town at sunset with many people walking through a square
Warsaw's Old Town.    Photo: Victor Malyushev

So we hopped on a train headed for Warsaw, a few hours away (after getting off of the wrong train, headed for Siberia), hoping for a new perspective. In the city’s Jewish cemetery, tourists, nuns and boys wearing prayer caps shuffled among the headstones that marked the graves of rabbis, writers and industrialists. Shafts of sunlight cut through the forest canopy, spotlighting weathered Hebrew inscriptions. Before World War II there were 3 million Jews in Poland, one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. Today, there are between 10,000 and 20,000.

Buoyed by the borscht at Pod Samsonem, I ask my brother if he feels a connection to the place where our grandparents were born. “None whatsoever,” David says without hesitation. “There’s a difference between being Polish and being a Polish Jew.”

Related: Grocery Shopping the Planet with 7 Hungry Photographers

I agree, with one big caveat: We had basically just enjoyed two bowls of Boobie Ronnie’s famous beet borscht, even though she had lived in another country an ocean away. In Canada, Boobie had been surrounded by family and lived a life that was happy, full and free. Now that’s some borscht.