In Search of the Holy Zurek

It’s been A long time since I last wrote: summer has its price. I work as a tour guide now, and this summer was unexpectedly crowded with Israeli tourists. Then when I already had a day off, it was so sunny and wonderful that all I wanted to do was make use of it, before the winter queen comes and blow away all the fun. Summer in Berlin is so great. People feel human once again, smile at each other and respond to one another. In wintertime, it is not only that the sun is gone and the colors turn gray – the smiles are gone, the people are gray. In summer, everyone is cheery, colorful and talkative, like Emillia and Sashka.

Emilia With Dough Sashka In Background

Emilia and Sashka are my friend Bat-El’s roommates. Since Bat-El is Israeli, she is disqualified from participation in this blog – cause what would make it multi cultural? – so she recommended that I meet her roommates – Emilia, who is Polish, and Sashka, who is a Polophile (you know, Francophiles adore French culture, Polophiles adore Polish culture). Sashka studied linguistics and Slavics at Greifswald, where he met Emilia who studied Baltistics and Fenistic – that is, Baltic and Finish languages. Practical people.

In the emails we swapped before our meeting, Emilia warned me that we cannot cook Zurek unless I find a bottle of ZAKWAS DO ZURKU SLASKIEGO, which is literally Sourdough of Zurek Salaki, an ingredient which in my opinion makes the whole process a bit recursive (how was the first Zurek Salaki ever made then?). And so, like the mythological Jason, I went in search of the golden fleece. And what a quest was that! It appears that in the very narrow niche of Polish culinary shops, Zakwas is a highly requested item. They were out of it the day that I came, and took my name down in order to put it aside for me after the next day’s shipment arrives, just in case it runs out before I come in the next morning. And this way, on the day of the meeting itself, I managed to get my hands on a true and original bottle of Zurek.

Original Bottle of Zurek

For those of you who live in Berlin, here’s a list of Polish shops here. Look under “Niemci – Berlin” and then “Sklepi”. If you live outside of Berlin, just wait till one of your friends comes back from a vacation in Poland… or you try to make the Zakwas yourselves. Magdalena Widder explains how in her Blog.

Zurek (Zhurek), a sour soup, is mainly served in Poland during weddings. Weddings in Poland are traditionally held for two days, so in order to get the people through the second day of drinking and partying, they have to help them get over the hangover caused by the first day of drinking and partying. The sourness of the soup is supposed to act as a hangover remedy. This piece of information, delivered to me by Emilia and Sashka, lead to a conversation about how weddings are held in Israel vs. Poland, and eventually to a demonstration of other cultural highlights, such as swearing in Hebrew. Emilia, the actress, was fascinated by the amount of feelings that can be put into a swear such as Kushalaimimashcha, a worn down and melted into one word combination of a full sentence, originally in Arabic, meaning a vagina on your mother’s mother.

The “Slaski” in the name of the dish refers to the region of Silesia, an area which is now divided between Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, and in the past switched hands time and time again between the three. It is curious that a Polish dish with potatoes would be named “Silesian”, and I can try to infer the origin of the name. During the mid 18th century, Silesia was annexed to Prussia, Germany’s predecessor, by Friedrich the Great – an enlightened king and reformer, who also introduced the potatoes to what later became Germany. Fritz had a hard time trying to get his subjects to plant potatoes. Although potatoes were already widely accepted in France, the Prussians thought they were toxic. At the time, the European noble families were culturally very influenced by the French. They spoke and ate French, so Fritz was well aware of the wonders of potatoes. He also knew that potatoes need less water and less space to grow per calorie than wheat, which was the main carb source in the Prussian empire back then. It is said that during one drought, Friedrich the Great wrote letters to all the district rulers, presenting them with the idea of planting potatoes. They did not like it. One mayor even wrote back to him: “The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?”

One might easily despair and leave the fixated German peasants to eat sandwiches for the rest of eternity, but not a clever king like Fritz . He planted 50 acres of potatoes in the royal fields, and posted a real live Prussian soldier, dressed in full battle uniform, from his high army boots to his helmet feather, to guard the field. The clever peasants understood that anything which is worth such a guard is definitely worth stealing, and stole the potatoes under the nose of the human scarecrow (who was of course ordered to look the other way). The story does not reveal how these peasants came to the conclusion that the thing that was worth stealing was also worth a 40 minutes cooking in water and serving in, say, Hollandaise souse, but let’s leave it at that: the Germans thank Friedrich the Great to this day for insisting on the potato thing, and to this day put fresh potatoes on his grave in Park Sanssouci at Potsdam.

Friedrich and Potatoes

Credit to Jay Perley.

How do I know all this? Because I visit this grave with Israeli tourists something like once a week, on the tour to Potsdam. And why am I telling you all these interesting things about Prussian cuisine when we are all about Polish food? Because Silesia, as we have mentioned, was a part of Prussia at the time! All ends meet! This would explain why a Polish soup with potatoes would be called Silesian – the introduction of Potatoes in Poland could have been done through Silesia, which was under Friedrich the Great’s potato-regime. As you might have read in my previous post, the integration of potatoes (as well as tomatoes, beans, corn, and other things) into any cuisine almost always has an interesting story behind it, since all these were introduced in Europe only after the so called “discovery” of America.

There’s also a TON of marjoram in this dish – 1 cup, which is A LOT for a dried herb. By the way, marjoram is also called “marjoran” or “marjorana” in some languages. Although it is called “majorana” in Spanish, my guess is that in Mexico they did pronounce the R. Try to say “marjorana” in a Mexican accent, and you’ll get the Mexican nickname for cannabis, later adopted by American legislators in order to make the whole thing sound fishy, illegal and generally bad – like the Mexicans, you see. I could not find any evidence for this theory on the net, but I think it all goes together too well.

There is no limit to how sour this thing can taste. The Zurek is what makes it so sour. And I was given the honor of tasting the dish in order to determine if we should add any more of it – not, as I first assumed, due to my good taste, but due to my lack of Polish background and out of concern that the soup might taste too sour for me.

Maayan Tasting Zurek

It was sour – and great! They are such a lovely couple, Emilia and Sashka. I hope they get married some day. Really. I’m not just saying that because I want to get completely drunk and have Zurek Slaski on their wedding.

The recipe can be found here. New post, about how we’ve made lovely Polish dumplings (Pierogi), will be published soon.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “In Search of the Holy Zurek

  1. Pingback: Zurek Slaski – Recipe « Multi-Kulti

  2. imush

    What a very interesting and FUNNY post, and of course I love it. The sour soup is common in most of eastern cold Europe, sometimes containing Kvas as in Russia and sometimes pickling liquids as in the Rumanian tchorba (which name is derived from the Arabic word for soup (Shurba-from the verb to drink) and that probably happened during the days of the Automan Empire). It is also the source of my lamb and spinach soup, which comes from Bulgaria, but its sourness comes from a LOT of lemon juice, and talk about multi kulti – I add many Persian dried and charcoaled lemons into it. In short, I could go on and on regarding Kvas and the like (קוואס
    קְווַאס (квас) הוא משקה מוגז, מיוצר מתסיסה של חיטה ושעורה, כמעט ולא אלכוהולי, צבעו שחור וטעמו מתוק. למשקה מוסיפים תוספות כדי לשנות את טעמו, לרוב מוסיפים מנטה וצימוקים.
    להמשך המאמר ראה Wikipedia.org… )
    and about recrusive things (how was the first pliers were made? remember that story?) but mainly I enjoyed the ambiance and intelligence of your post and the interesting stories around the recepies, not to mention the style of writing which is light and humurous. Most of all it made me crave a lot of vodka and zurek immediately and btw, is it possible to exchange the sour cream into sweet cream? you know your mom…
    Love you,
    Ima

    • Ima, you are an inspiration! thanks for the long and wise comment.
      Don’t think it would work well with sweet cream – this soup is to rough and sour to be eased down with cream.
      Maybe Mayonnaise? (JK)

  3. Gili

    Great post! Funny and interesting. The only part I didn’t understand was the majoram thing, please explain. BTW, following your mother’s comment, Romanians indeed have a very sour soup called chorba. The sourness comes from using the liquid of the sauerkraut that is used in the soup, instead of water. And it is indeed very likely that the name spread during the Ottoman Empire, as the word for soup in Turkish is also shorba.

    • My Mom wrote a more elaborated version of her reply, and related to the same name evolution:) I insisted that she’d publish it. My mom knows everything!

      • imush

        Thank you! I’m blushing 🙂
        But still, I’ve never told you, but there are still some things I don’t know, and they multiply with the years 🙂
        Love you and proud of you
        Ima

  4. Netta

    great post. and photos!

  5. kushi

    I loved reading your post!
    you have such a magnificent way of making dull things (potatoes?!) appear fascinating. I think that’s one of your blessings, and that’s what makes your whole life so advantageous, for you and for others.
    Can’t wait for your next post, not to mention my visit 🙂

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