I know what you’re thinking: sauerkraut soup?! (with a face expression to be described as, at least, surprised, if not disgusted). I get that. For someone who didn’t grow up in Poland, or any other country in Eastern or Central Europe, the idea of eating fermented cabbage, and (even worse) making a soup out of it, can be daunting.
but Europe is not the only place with a taste for fermented (stinky, yes) foods. far from it. take Korea, for instance. Korean favourite, omnipresent and ubiquitous, kimchi is a form of fermented cabbage: spicy, sour and stinky. if you don’t put your kimchi in an airtight container before placing it in the fridge, you can be sure that it will stink the fridge out. and yet – i love it. i could eat kimchi everyday and never grow bored of it.
sauerkraut is a bit more complicated matter, though. without any distinctive flavour (like kimchi, which is spicy), it’s rather an acquired taste, and for some it can be an adventure to eat it raw. it is sometimes, at least in Poland, eaten cold, with an addition of freshly chopped onion and grated carrot, as an accompaniment to dinner, but I think sauerkraut is much more popular and widely used as a part of a meal: a filling for pierogi, a base for bigos (Polish hunter’s stew), or a soup.
Kapuśniak is a rather interesting soup. sour, hearty and comforting, the sauerkraut version of this soup originated in Tatra mountains, and it’s called kwaśnica there. kwaśnica is a little bit different than kapuśniak though: it’s more sour, and meaty, and it doesn’t contain any vegetables apart from potatoes. if you’re ever in Zakopane or any other part of Tatra mountains, kwaśnica is a must try. put aside what your own culture has taught you about sauerkraut (stinky, rotten food, not edible, etc.) and try. fermented foods are amazingly rich in vitamins and other nutrients, and sauerkraut is especially rich in vitamin C. I remember my mum always feeding me and my siblings sauerkraut in the winter: you won’t get ill if you eat it, she’d say. this is probably how I developed my everlasting love for all things fermented.
as for this kapuśniak: it’s super special. it’s a soup with a story. a legend of a soup. Ewa, my friend and one of my favourite people on this planet, used to cook kapuśniak quite often when we both lived in Krakow, in the memorable old building on Dietla street, characterised by a significant state of decay.
the building, by most of us called simply kamienica, was our little haven, family-like setting, with the flats occupied by (mostly) students, and one lady, who we used to call ‘pani z pieskiem’ (lady with a dog). we all knew each other and used to leave all the doors unlocked, in case someone wanted to pop round for a coffee or a cheeky shot of vodka. i’m not gonna lie: we tended to over-indulge in alcohol back then from time to time, as the student life was stressful and hospitality job emotionally draining. plus, we were young, free and wanted to have fun.
kamienica is a 5-storey building, with a big gate through which everyone could enter (as the lock didn’t work), and so it was often occupied by various peoples who either were looking for a shelter or made this gate their own haven in which to consume a bottle of booze. or two. in result, the gate leading to the staircase often smelled like urine, making every trip in or out quite a memorable (and rather unpleasant) experience. the place was loved by all of us and hated by all of our parents, who didn’t understand its magic. the square staircase led to huge, huge flats, I think 4 on each floor, and all occupied by friends, most of them from Gorlice or Biecz. I was sonly 18 at the time, making me the youngest tenant, which led to awakening of all sorts of maternity/paternity instincts in some of my friends, who decided to embark on the mission to make sure i will graduate from high school.
i met Ewa while working in my first hospitality job, at the age of 17; the job was making crepes, big and thin French-style pancakes, in a tiny creperie in Krakow. Ewa was pretty, witty and teeny bit intimidating, but in a good kind of way. every shift i worked with her, i kept hearing stories about the legendary and apparently well-known in town kamienica; my imagination would go wild, trying to picture this mesmerising, full of fun and joy place. with the time being, i have become friends with Ewa, and it’s become our tradition to go out dancing to a famous (and now non-existent, after the staircase collapsed) building in which 4 super-cool clubs were nested. if you didn’t like the music in one, you’d hop to another one. gin was our drink back then, and the amount of adventures (and hangovers) we had back then was impossible to count.
i don’t know if the hangovers were what has started the kapuśniak tradition. Ewa would always cook a HUGE pot of it, which would never last longer than two, three days anyway, as there were many hungry people in the building. many of them suffering from long-untreated hangover, too. don’t get me wrong, i am not trying to advertise drinking alcohol as the only way to have fun. i am just going back to these times, from (oops! over 10 years ago) with a hint of nostalgia and a smile on my face. my friends always used to laugh at me, that i had my student life while still in high school, which is not far from truth. back then, none of us thought about being all serious and grown up; we wanted fun, we wanted to dance, we owned the world; it was there, in this old, rackety kamienica, in which the lack of the piece of a kitchen window made temperatures indoors fall below zero in the winter, it was there where the friendships and relationships have started, which – we didn’t know it back then – would last for years.
we all moved out from there after few years, as the cheap rent was not able to make it up for the things we all grew to appreciate with time: the comfort and peacefulness of a flat shared with a loved one, the kitchen with working hob and unbroken windows and the staircase not stinking of urine. but all of us, or at least the people i am still in touch with, will always remember this place and talk about it with a nostalgic sigh for the times gone.
you can imagine my astonishment, then, when i set up the date for the trial wedding make up in Krakow, and Małgosia, who is a guardian angel without whom my wedding wouldn’t have been what i think it will become, led me to this kamienica, on Dietla street in Krakow, saying that’s where my trial make up will take place. i stood there, in front of the once always-opened gate, and was looking on the brand-new lock and bars. we waited for Joasia to come downstairs and open it up for us. i found myself in the same staircase (minus the smell of urine), (i think) same set of the old, for years unused and now dusty bikes, same balustrades, same stairs, same doors leading to the same flats. i was back, and that was the moment i knew that jakoś to będzie.
but back to kapuśniak. as i don’t live in Poland now, and Ewa have decided to move to Gorlice, which is a 2-hour drive from my village, there weren’t many occasions to try her legendary version of this soup. in fact, there were none since we both moved out from kamienica. every now and then, i’d say to Ewa, more jokingly than seriously, to cook some kapuśniak for me next time i come visit. can you imagine my surprise when, on New Year’s Eve, we arrived at Ewa and Marcin’s house in Gorlice, and she said: i made kapuśniak for you!
oh joy! first time in years, almost 10 years, i was to have Ewa’s kapuśniak! i was overjoyed, touched, and i felt so, so special, as it was especially for me she made this soup. and you know what? in the course of three days i spent there, me and Ewa have managed to eat the whole pot (as our partners are not the greatest fans of this soup)! the memories came rushing back, all the days we spent on partying, or talking, or simply doing nothing – were back.
i would like to share the recipe for Ewa’s legendary kapuśniak with you guys. i know that this soup means nothing to you, i know that you might still not be convinced to try and maybe you’ve read this post with a smirk, but hey, life is all about adventures, isn’t it? i have a feeling that trying kapuśniak will surely be an adventure for some.
EWA’S LEGENDARY KAPUŚNIAK
half rack of ribs, pork
2 carrots, grated
2 small parsnips, grated
1 small celeriac, cubed
300g smoked bacon
4 bay leaves
4 all spice berries
1tsp cumin seeds
4-5 big potatoes, cubed
HOW TO MAKE?
1. Cook the ribs in cold water, with bay leaves, all spice berries, salt. Wait for it to boil, skim the fluff. Add carrot, parsnip and celeriac. Cook for about half an hour.
2. Chop the sauerkraut. Add to the pot with meat and vegetables. Cut potatoes into cubes and add to the pot.
3. Cut the bacon into small cubes and fry slightly on the frying pan with a tbsp ion butter. When the bacon is golden add it into the pot with soup.
4. Cook everything for about an hour, on low heat.
5. You can fish out the meat and take it off the bone. Add it straight to the bowl with soup or back to the pot.
6. Season the soup with cumin, marjoram and black pepper.