Truthfully, this dish is called ryba po grecku, what translates as Greek-style fish and it is a much beloved Polish dish, often served at Christmas Eve. It’s usually served cold, and everyone in Poland knows, that it tastes best two-three days after cooking. Does this Greek-style fish has anything to do with Greece?
The word has it, that ryba po grecku is a (much removed from original) version of Greek psari plaki – a dish consisting of fried/baked fish served with vegetable sauce, which is cooked separately. Nonetheless, apart from the visual resemblance, the two dishes have not much else in common.
Greek-style fish is not the only dish in Poland that has a (supposed) place of origin in its name. There is also śledź po japońsku (Japanese-style herring), pierogi ruskie (Russian-style dumplings), kawa po turecku (Turkish-style coffee), barszcz ukraiński (Ukrainian-style borscht) – and, as you have probably guessed, these dishes have not much to do with the countries they supposedly come from. Why, then? According to some, these dishes are Polish imaginings of the cuisines of different countries, developed as a response to the encounter with different cultures. The great example of how these imaginings work, is Polish version of Chinese-style chicken (kurczak po chińsku). Pieces of chicken breast are fried with spices, which are considered Asian (without much reflexion about the fact that Asia is a huge and diverse region, and so the spices are not the same in Chine as they are in, say, Thailand), with vegetables (often enriched by bamboo shoots from the tin, so Chinese!) and mushroom (rarely Chinese or even of Asian origin). Voila! Quite bland, Polish-tasting stir-fry is ready. A Polish imagining of what Chinese people eat.
I find it fascinating, the whole process of imagining other cuisines and ‘recreating’ them at home, but without much care for the authenticity or even actual preparation of a dish which serves as a template. Sometimes, I imagine the process this way: someone sees a dish or a photo of a dish from a foreign country, and based on that visual image alone, he or she creates it from scratch: with Polish ingredients, seasoned to Polish taste, still very familiar to Polish tastebuds. Only the look of it is a little bit foreign, out of ordinary.
The reverse process, where chefs are changing ‘their own’ cuisine to make it more palatable for the foreign consumers, is nothing new. “Chinese” chop suey was invented in America, “Italian” spaghetti with meatballs has more to do with New York than Italy, and if you try “Thai” food in one of the eateries at Khao San Road in Bangkok, you will be shocked how not-spicy and bland your curries are, dumbed down to fit the palates of the swarms of backpackers from around the world.
The Polish process, where the imagination of chefs, cooks, and housewives was the driving force for creating something new, something out of ordinary, fascinates me. Many of the dishes were created during the time of Polish People’s Republic, when many foodstuffs were not available, food was periodically rationed and one often cooked what was currently available to buy. To break the sameness, the variations were born, (supposedly) representing the cuisine of foreign, faraway lands, but really, a desire for change.
The Greek-style fish was never a part of my family’s menu. In fact, I tried it for the first time after I moved out from my family home to Krakow. Krakow is a true student hub, a place packed with young, talented, hungry for adventure and keen to socialise people. To the extent that during Christmas or Easter time, holidays traditionally spent with families, the city is quite deserted, with all the students gone to celebrate in their hometowns. My first encounter with ryba po grecku happened in Krakow. We were planning a house-warming party for one of our fellow colleagues (I worked in a cafe during my 3 years at uni), and everyone was supposed to make something to eat. Enter Krzysztof, a super-tall and super-energetic guy from somewhere near Lublin (a part of Poland I’ve never visited at the time and had a vague knowledge of) and his huge pot of ryba po grecku. I’ve heard about the dish before, of course, but was not too keen to try a cold piece of fried fish served with cold, previously cooked grated carrots, parsnips and celeriac. It was delicious. The fish was soft and sweet, it absorbed some of the vegetable juices overnight. But you know what? I still prefer it served hot, as a light fish stew. Last time I made it, we had it with some buckwheat groats on the side. But again, what would be cooking without imagination and change?
UNDERCOVER COD (OR RYBA PO GRECKU)
500g cod fillets (or any other white fish)
3 carrots, grated
2 parsnips, grated
1 small celeriac, grated
1 big onion
1 small leek
2-3 tbsp tomato concentrate
freshly ground pepper
3-4 allspice berries
1tsp paprika powder
How to make?
1. Wash the fish and dry it thoroughly. Cut into big chunks, sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside.
2. Add grated carrot, parsnip and celeriac into a pot, pour enough boiling water to cover the vegetables, add a pinch of salt and cook for 20-25 minutes, with a lid on (although not fully on). Add allspice berries and bayleaf 5-7 minutes before the end of cooking time.
3. Cover the pieces of fish in flour and fry until golden. Remember to heat up the oil first, otherwise the fish will be soggy. Once fried, take out the pan to the plate lined with kitchen towel, to soak up excess oil.
4. Ladle out a cup of hot liquid from the pot with veg and mix the tomato concentrate in.
5. Chop leek and onion and fry until glossy, add cooked vegetables (together with the liquid) and the tomato concentrate. Bring to a boil. Season to taste: add salt, pepper, paprika powder and some chopped parsley (optional).
6. Prepare a casserole dish. Assemble the fried pieces of fish on the bottom of the dish. Add the vegetables and cover the dish with a lid. Now, you have to options: a/ put the dish in the fridge, cool overnight and eat cold the following day(s); b/ add the branch of thyme and put the dish in the preheated oven for 15minutes, serve hot after this time. I opted for the second option, and served it hot with buckwheat groats and chopped parsley – a highly unconventional and non-traditional way of eating ryba po grecku.
7. It’s best to make this dish two, three days before intended serving. The time will allow the flavours to mix beautifully, the vegetable juices will thicken and the whole dish will gain a lot, all the above resulting in a interesting depth in flavour. Up to you!