There’s nothing better after a night out than a zapiekanka from a street stall. By many, it is regarded as a Polish national fast food. Let’s discover how it came to be and how to make it.
What is a zapiekanka?
A zapiekanka (plural: zapiekanki) is a crispy open-face that consists of a baguette or any other long type of baker’s good with various toppings, the most common and basic of them being sauteed mushrooms and onions hidden under generous amounts of melted cheese. It is usually served hot with a squiggle of ketchup, roasted onion chunks, and/or some greenery (chives, parsley) to add a pop of color.
The name comes from the Polish verb zapiekać, or to bake a dish until its top layer becomes brown and crispy. Usually, you may spot this word in recipes for casseroles and other similar foods. After all, the basic meaning of “zapiekanka” has French roots and refers to exactly that: a one-pot meal enjoyed by a larger group of people. However, the newer invention became so iconic among the Polish people, that probably most will first think about a crispy baguette before a casserole.
The Eastern-European pizza
Some people jokingly refer to it as Polish pizza. Technically, there is some resemblance, but I would rather say that it is more like its budget-friendly and easier-to-prepare cousin. Of course, you can find more gourmet and fancy versions of it, but we are talking basics here.
Compared to pizza, zapiekanki are also a newer culinary invention as they emerged in the 1970s. During that time, the communist regime was still present in Poland. The shelves in stores were more often empty than not. Forget about consuming imported goods on a daily basis! Because of the food shortages, the government permitted people to create their own eateries (food trucks, trailers, kiosks) to provide cost-effective sustenance to the masses. And provide they did. Their menus included cheap American-style fast food like burgers (but made of pork rather than beef), fries, and hot dogs as well as more traditional Polish treats like kiełbasa (sausage) or flaki (beef tripe stew).
This coincided with the acquisition of the right to bake baguettes in Poland by Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the then-ruling Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). Again, as Poles are great at improvising and creating something new by merging things that already exist, someone took French bread, Italian pizza, and Spanish tostadas, and boom, Polish zapiekanka was born. Its popularity grew quickly and at the end of PRL and during the transformation period, it became an iconic Polish street food.
Nobody said it was easy
However, it was not always as crispy and tasty as it is now. Back then, the baguettes topped with the ingredients were not grilled but placed in a microwave for as long as it was necessary to melt the cheese instead. You can probably imagine how soggy and flaccid the bread was after it was taken out from the machine.
Luckily, zapiekanki evolved together with the country (although maybe even more successfully to be honest) and now you can hear a satisfying crunch with every bite.
Due to the fact that American food chains flooded the Polish culinary market, zapiekanka lost some of its popularity. However, you can still encounter food trucks selling it in many tourist places, especially in the summer.
The most iconic (and fully customizable) zapiekanki are still sold in a small window of Okrąglak in Cracow. You will recognize this place right away by the large queue standing in front of it. The offered toppings vary from the classics to more interesting ones, such as kebap meat, smoked prunes, or oscypek. However, do be careful with them as the taste and freshness are rumored to be disputable at best.
Of course, you can also buy zapiekanka in the frozen foods section in a supermarket. Nevertheless, the best option would be to make one yourself from the scratch. They are so easy and fast to prepare!
Below, you will find a sample recipe for the most basic option to give you an idea of how to do this.
- 1 long baguette
- 400g of mushrooms, shredded or finely chopped
- 1grated onion
- 2-3 tbsp of butter
- Salt and pepper
- 200g of grated cheese (mozzarella type will be best)
- finely chopped chives and/or parsley (garnish)
- Sauté the onion with a tablespoon of butter in a frying pan. When it becomes slightly translucent, add the mushrooms. Fry it all for about 4-5 minutes and season with salt and pepper.
- In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Cut the baguette into halves or quarters, whatever suits you. Next, spread butter over them.
- Load the mushroom mixture on the baguettes and top them generously with grated cheese.
- Place the bread pieces on a baking sheet lined with baking paper.
- Cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the cheese melts and browns a bit on the top.
- Serve with a squiggle of ketchup and a sprinkle of finely chopped herbs.