I visited Poland sometime in the spring of 2013. I had only a vague idea of the country, except for the fact that through the person of Karol Wotyla it had provided the Catholic world the first non-Italian Pope in centuries. I also knew that this Pole would subsequently be credited with doing much to combat Communism, both in Poland and throughout the lands behind the Iron Curtain. That the country is profoundly Catholic is a common assumption. Indeed, this is possibly true, but my own introduction to the country would take place through anthropologists of South Asia, who were anything but Catholic, some of who adopted pagan beliefs with an uncommon delight.
It was in the company of this merry band that I was introduced into insights into the Polish world. Our meeting, and my introduction to a larger circle of friends, was to take place in a restaurant. I was insistent, that we meet in a Polish restaurant. I was not going to travel so far and not taste Polish food I had declaimed. Even as I was insistent on Polish food, however, I wondered what Polish food could possibly be like. Surely a lot of potatoes, I suggested to myself in an appalling display of ignorance. Conceding to my desire to quite literally consume Poland, dinner was scheduled at U Kucharzy.
For every traveller, there is a moment in the initial part of the journey when one experiences the place through conceptual frames that we already have in place. These frames could have come to us through prejudices we inherit from our social location, ideas picked up from books, or images from films we have viewed. It is an unreal moment when one feels that one is sucked into an unreal world, and one, ideally, tries hard to fight out of the preconceptions and try to figure out things as they are actually happening.
My experience in U Kucharzy was somewhat similar. On entering the space I felt I had been sucked into a time machine. While cloakrooms are not uncommon in Europe, there was something about the one at the restaurant that seemed to flick on a switch to time travel. The memories of the visit are too hazy to be definite but the entire experience, but one thing is sure, on entering U Kucharzy I felt that I was in the 1930s. There was a grand piano in the main hall of the restaurant and there was someone easing music out of it. The walls were covered halfway in tiles and there was definitely an old-world charm to the place.
What was remarkable was the fact that some amount of the food was being produced before us. One of the foods we chose to eat was the restaurant’s renowned steak tartare. What made the experience especially surreal was that the tiny man with a chef’s hat mincing the meat for us did not seem too pleased to be there. Whispering amongst ourselves, we reckoned that it had to do with the ugly bruise that he had on his forearm, and the dressing down that he had just received in full view of half the establishment.
The food that appeared on our table with dizzying speed included a variety of the most delicious ways to eat beef and pork. We had sweet breads, hoof in jelly, and a variety of other foods whose exact description fail me now. As the evening progressed it was clear that even though we were stuffed, the food kept coming, and it was just so good that we kept stuffing it down our throats. All of this was aided by the nectar-like krupnik that the establishment had on offer. Produced from honey, with herbs that added to the flavour, this sweet liquer added some amount of fire to the evening. If you ever travel to Warsaw, then the one thing you must do is eat at U Kucharzy.
(A version of this post was first published in The Goan dated 14 March 2015)