Pierogi Like Family

Keep your friends close and your dumplings closer.

For most of the week, Dom Polski is a clubhouse, the spacious Capitol Hill headquarters of Seattle’s Polish Home Association. On Friday nights, however, the city’s Polish populace opens its doors to the public. Even if you’re a total stranger, dinner at Dom Polski feels like a family reunion.

Friendly Poles serve tall imported beers and chilled vodka from behind a huge, wooden bar. Children play between tables, middle-aged men and women exchange hugs and loud conversation affords both an intimate and communal feeling. When the tables on the auditorium floor fill up, organizers seat people on the stage. All is warm and cozy and delicious.

A one-dollar temporary membership gives you access to every Polish dish imaginable, from pickle soup to giant pork hocks to cabbage rolls covered in a sweet creamy sauce. But really you’re at Dom Polski because it’s the best place in Seattle to eat pierogi.

In Polish, pierogi is the plural form of pierog, a word that’s rarely used because no one in their right mind eats just one pierog. You may have seen the dish spelled perogi, pyrohy, or pyrogy, but each spelling means the same thing.

Pierogi have a soft semicircle exterior of unleavened dough that breaks through to an even softer filling of meat, fruit or the venerable potato-cheese. They are essentially a Polish brand of steamed dumpling. Whichever filling you like and wherever you eat them, proper pierogi have the reassuring simplicity of rustic comfort food. Skip the cutlery and pick them up. It’s like holding an edible stress ball.

Pierogi have a vague history. Because various countries figured out how to stuff things into dough, there is no specific point or place of origin. The Italians have ravioli, the Russians pelmeni, Americans stuffed-crust pizza. (They’re all likely predated by jiaozi, a Chinese dumpling.) The Polish incarnation originated in the 13th century as a peasant food that gained popularity among the nobles.

Keep in mind that we’re not talking about piroshky. Piroshky are typically fried or baked turnovers with meat, vegetables or fruit; pierogi are smaller and steamed. The simplest way to remember the difference is this: Piroshky are kept in a display case and pierogi in the freezer. So you won’t get pierogi at Piroshky Piroshky at Pike Place Market, nor at Pel’Meni Dumpling Tzar in Fremont. (Pelmeni have thinner dough and a spiced minced-meat filling.)

Confusingly, they do serve actual, homemade pierogi at Piroshki on Madison, which is not the same company as Piroshky Piroshky. These come in meat, potato, potato-mushroom and cheese, and are served with a light sprinkling of dill and a side of sour cream. The potato has a subtle spice and the cheese a pleasing gooey texture. I found myself combining the two in one bite to recreate a potato-cheese pierogi. You gotta show initiative in life.

Also on Madison is George’s Sausage and Delicatessen, and though it’s adorably small, the retail store and eatery is bursting with meats and jams and chocolates. Like the Louvre, you just can’t see it all in one day. Food products teeter on shelves like hesitant skydivers and occasionally fall when you grab for them. Surveying the plenitude, a woman in line remarked, “The more you look, the more you see.” Indeed, one might easily neglect the pierogi amongst the plethora of Polish delicacies. Which would be a shame, because George’s orders their pierogi from Kasia’s, the renowned Polish deli in Chicago.

The pierogi can be purchased frozen for later eating or heated for eating right then and there. They offer potato-cheese, blueberry, sauerkraut, plum, spinach, strawberry, and sweet cheese, but only one type may be chosen per plate. Choosing is incredibly stressful.

I went with potato-cheese, and because there’s nowhere to sit inside George’s, I ate them in my car like a narc. The filling had a delicious, thick texture, as if the cheese and potatoes were actually combined and not rendered from a mix like lower quality versions. Though I sat in a cheap Honda with steamed-up windows, I felt transported to a warm cottage in a small Eastern European village. Great pierogi will do that to you.

I worry about this city’s pierogi population. Café Yarmarka closed and remaining options are few and far between. Perhaps it’s because pierogi are still seen as a peasant food, something common to be avoided.

But pierogi are only common in the way that family is common. Look at the dish itself: The pierogi that stay close to the middle remain warm and loved, while those that wander away from the pack end up cold and alone. Every culture around the world has discovered this comforting fact. After all, dough is thicker than water, which you’ll understand after eating too many pierogi.

Photo by Nate Watters

See more in Food & Style
See more in the December 2012 issue   →