While Warsaw offers many good and affordable restaurants, I prefer to cook for two reasons. The first is to save money, which I prefer to spend on trips around Poland. The second reason is that most of my Polish friends cannot afford to go out to eat often. We usually meet up, buy groceries together, and then cook at one of our apartments (and sometimes we go out after to a pub or an event). Cooking has thus become a regular activity that I do with my Polish friends. Cooking with Poles will teach you more about Polish cuisine, history, culture, and, of course, help you practice your Polish.
There are a number different places to shop at. I will detail a few of them here to introduce you to shopping in Warsaw.
Ryneks – Hala Mirowska
One of my favorite are the massvie ryneks that, at least once, were quite common in Eastern Europe, and that sold just about anything and everything in open-air, small-stall locations. Warsaw now has just one such location: Hala Mirowska, located near the center and which always offers a better deal than grocery stores in terms of cost and quality. I purchase most of my produce, grains and beans, spices, eggs, meat, and cheese from there, and it is one of the only places in Warsaw where I have been able to find cilantro, which is something I usually eat every day in the U.S. They have a ton of various leafy greens and you can find meat that is freshly butchered and well-cut.
The Hala Mirowska has quite a history as well. The baroque-style building, originally built between 1899-1901, was a huge trade center before WWII. It was one of the only buildings in Warsaw to have not been completely demolished during that war. It suffered damage only during the Warsaw Uprising, when it became a site of mass civilian executions. There are still bullet holes in the facade of the building, which makes it a surreal place to shop; without knowing its history, it would just be another fresh market.
There is also an organic pharmacy inside (in addition to many other standard pharmacies), and small shops inside and many stands outside that sell household goods. One can purchase or repair shoes. You can find clothing, jewelry, candles, incense, electronics, books, fabrics, yarn, and magazines at Hala Mirowska. If you’re feeling really adventurous and like seafood, I recommend trying some of the dried, salted fish they sell at one of the stands. It’s a true staple of any East European cuisine and are excellently prepared (and priced) by the vendors at Hala Mirowska.
Hyperstores and Supermarkets
Nearly anything sold in the U.S. can be found in Poland — you just have to look around. For example, I like coconut milk, but could not find it anywhere for maybe two months after arriving to Poland. One day when wandering around Złote Tarasy, I found a huge Carrefour hyperstore on the ground floor and found an entire aisle dedicated to non-dairy types of milk. The Carrefour also has many different types of tofu and some other specialty vegetarian items. Another place I like to go for vegetarian and vegan items is SuperSam, located in the Wilanowska district. It’s a bit further away, but I actually recommend them over the Carrefour.
If you are in a pinch and just want to grab something fast on your way home, there is always Biedronka (it means “ladybug” in Polish). I personally have found their produce to be lacking in flavor, overpriced, and their selection to be very limited, but if you need an onion or some garlic, it’s useful in this sense. It’s definitely the most popular grocery chain in Warsaw, similar to WalMart in the U.S. (which is generally why I try to avoid going there), and can be found anywhere.
I also like to shop at Damas, Piotr i Paweł, and Piccola Italia. Damas, is both a Mediterranean restaurant and shop; I buy their homemade, pre-packaged hummus. Piotr i Paweł has locations nationwide, but because they carry specialty, import, and upscale items, they are a bit more on the expensive side (I go there for olive oil). Their meats are also very fresh and well-cut, but I like engaging in conversation with the vendors at the market because they can engage in conversation longer (meaning someone will correct your Polish at the market, but they will not in the store — in the store, they will just keep pointing until it is figured out.) Piccola Italia is also a specialty shop — obviously Italian specialties — and they also are a little more expensive, but their products are worth the money.
As for convenience stores, the most common and popular is a chain called Żabka, which can be spotted easily when walking down a street due to its use of a frog as its mascot. Some of the Żabkas have cafes in them where you can order a latte or coffee to go (but this is rare and has only been developing lately. Also, the newer Żabkas do not use a frog mascot, just the name of the store, on their signs). These convenience stores are everywhere in Warsaw; where I live, there is a Żabka on either end of the street. The second most common and popular convenience store is Carrefour Express, a smaller format of the same chain that runs the Carrefour hyperstore on the ground floor of Złote Tarasy. It’s a convenience store just like Żabka, but I have found that they often have a better assortment of roliks and other breads. One last convenience store to mention is 1 Minute. These convenience stores are located in the passenger tunnels of the Metro, and are similar to 7/11 in the U.S., selling hotdogs, sausages, and other grill items.
Finally, I want to stress that in Poland, convenience stores always have some fresh produce, often times have a meat deli inside, and are not limited to packaged junk foods as most are in the U.S. In fact, there are more whole and freshly prepared foods in convenience stores here than junk food. And this is something I am really going to miss when I return to the U.S.: the convenience of healthy food in Poland.
So take advantage of Polish food and spend as much time with your Polish friends as possible while you are abroad! There is no better way to learn and have a lot of fun then cooking with locals!