My grandmother Alice (nee Aleksandra) was born and immigrated from Zwierzyniec, Poland as a toddler, along with my great-grandmother Maggie (Magadalena) Grabowska in 1913. Maggie had been a cook for wealthy Polish Jewish families, so had a wide range of recipes in her repertoire. I fondly remember my Babcia (“grandmother” in Polish) making farmer’s cheese, potato, and sauerkraut pierogi from scratch; first she would boil them, then pan-fry in butter to make them crispy. They were served simply, with sour cream or grated horseradish and beets. She rarely wrote down any of her recipes (the few exceptions being her baked goods; I’ve previously posted her sour cream coffeecake, poppyseed roll and cheese coffeecake recipes), so I’ve spent many years trying to track down Polish cookbooks that captured the taste of her homestyle dishes like bigos (hunter’s stew), golumpki (stuffed cabbage rolls), and pierogi. I’ve had pierogi several times at Legs Inn in Cross Village, MI on our yearly vacations Up North, and sure, they were good, but they weren’t the same as babcia’s. I’m too much of a pierogi snob to settle for storebought, although shortly before moving from San Antonio, I found some small-batch pierogi that were very close to homemade. Here in Japan Polish food is pretty much nonexistent, so I’d given up any hope of finding anything authentic that approximated the dishes I’d grown up on.
Yesterday I had the great pleasure to take a pierogi class through Tadaku; I’d previously studied shojin ryori with a different Tadaku instructor, and am also signing up for additional international classes (French, Moroccan, Spanish) hosted in the Tokyo area. My host for this class was Karina J., a Polish cook and artist. Karina and her husband picked me up from the train station and whisked me away to their beautifully green suburb in Tama; the small apartment was adorned with Karina’s paintings and a treasure trove of spice jars used in her Polish cooking classes. My classmates were three Japanese women, several of whom had studied with Karina previously (she offers several Polish cooking classes based on holiday/seasonal menus (traditional Polish Easter and Christmas, fall menu, etc.). Karina taught in Japanese but translated into English for my benefit.
Beginning with tea and a recipe for a quick pickle (no vinegar, simply hot water, salt, dill seed, whole allspice, marjoram, and pepper), we started with making the dough and several vegetarian fillings (chopped cabbage, onion, homemade cheese, mushroom). Everyone was involved in prep, from chopping and peeling veggies (I was in charge of dicing cabbage and peeling potatoes) to kneading and rolling the dough and filling the pierogi (all of us). In addition to three filled savory pierogi, we also made “lazy dumplings” similar to gnocchi as well as a sweet fruit-filled pierogi in a sour cream sauce for dessert. We tasted the various fillings and ingredients as we prepared, and soon the smell of frying butter, onions, and sauerkraut brought memories flooding back of chatting with my babcia as she cooked in her small apartment kitchen in Kalamazoo.
The time flew by and soon we were sitting down to a veritable feast of pierogi served simply with sauteed onions and garnished with herbs from Karina’s balcony garden, washed down with Japanese beer (alas, I’d been harboring the secret desire to try Okocim!). On the first bite, I had to close my eyes in bliss and was instantly transported back to my childhood; I hadn’t had homemade pierogi since long before my grandmother’s passing nearly 20 years ago.
I had always found myself intimidated by the idea of making pierogi even though I make my own yeast breads all the time; it turns out that other than a mountain of pots and pans, it’s really not all that intimidating and just takes practice to master the sealing technique. It honestly wasn’t much different from learning to make Taiwanese jiaozi with Jodie last year in Taipei! Those too were steam fried, although Karina only boiled hers.
I look forward to improving my pierogi technique and serving them for family and friends! Smacznego!