s I tried to navigate how to exist in a global pandemic, I became determined to find simple joys—and in doing so, grew deeply nostalgic. I thought a lot about my childhood, and about the dishes that tied me to my heritage. It ignited my renewed love of pierogi.
Tiny pillows of starchy joy, pierogi (the word used for both the singular and the plural—confusing, I know) were a mainstay of the Polish diet I grew up on. Doughy in texture, oh-so soft on the inside, and pinched to perfection to keep that delicate filling in, these humble dumplings reappeared to me in moments when it felt like only carbs could fill the void.
Each Sunday between November and April, I headed to my local farmer’s market in Port Moody and scooped up fresh, handmade pierogi from a local vendor. It was an odd feeling, but these stodgy delights made me feel closer to home in a time when family felt so far away.
It’s a sentiment that Yvonne Paczek is familiar with, too. “Pierogi bring back memories for a lot of people,” she says over the phone after a day in the kitchen, where her family business, Nina’s Pierogi, can often produce up to 10,000 pillowy dumplings a week. “People want simple things that taste like home.”
Home for Paczek is a town near the Baltic Sea in Poland: a country that considers pierogi its national dish. Although its origins are a little murky, it is widely believed that the first written trace of pierogi appeared in Poland’s first cookbook, published in 1682 (that particular recipe was filled with veal kidneys). Another legend points to the year 1238, when Poland’s Saint Hyacinth was thanked for ending a famine with a celebratory plate of golden half-moons of stuffed dough (naturally, he was later anointed the patron saint of pierogi). But for many Poles, traditional pierogi are what are referred to as pierogi ruskie: gloriously plump blends of potatoes and cottage cheese, boiled and served with fried onions. Unpretentious in nature, the dish was often made by all walks of life thanks to its attainable of-the-land ingredients. Standing tall through invasions, fallen empires, and radical change, this delightful delicacy has persisted as a constant throughout Eastern Europe.
Outside the motherland, pierogi remain a symbol of pride, deeply loved in even the most unexpected places. In 1993, a village in Alberta took their love of this dish so far as to construct a 27-foot, 6,000-pound steel and fibreglass sculpture of a pierogi. Complete with fork.
Here in British Columbia, the love for pierogi is felt deep within its makers. “It’s definitely a comfort food,” Michelle Musey of Mamma Musey’s Pierogi says from her home on the Sunshine Coast, where she crafts Ukrainian-inspired pierogi daily. “It’s a very wholesome, family-friendly dish.” And while we lovers of these dumplings often eat them up in a few quick bites, the actual making of pierogi is slow, detailed, and arthritis-inducing. “The pierogi kitchen just doesn’t sleep,” Musey confesses. “It keeps going. If we’re not making dough, we’re making the filling.”
The hours-long process begins with a bouncy dough, which is made by mixing flour and warm water (and sometimes an egg). After being kneaded and passed through a roller to stretch it out, the dough is cut into rounds; there are certain tools to achieve this shape, but a drinking glass, like my babcia used to use, will also do. Then comes the filling. Whether sweet or savoury, the delicious creation is placed in the middle of the dough, which is then folded over to form a semicircle. Much like Japanese gyoza or Italian ravioli, the pierogi filling is then sealed in. While using a machine is a more time-saving option, many still practice the tradition of hand-pinching, creating a dimple-like seam with the press of the fingers.
“It’s a labour of love,” says Musey, who, if she had to guess, has probably executed over one million pinches. “But let me tell you: if we’re going to be honest, it’s also a labour of blood, sweat, and tears.”
While the assembling of pierogi is nowhere near glamorous, the preparation of filling and the development of flavour are true creative processes. Many makers are putting their own twists on traditional pierogi (to the horror of traditionalists, and to the delight of new-age thinkers). As Musey puts it, “basically anything that compliments a potato can go into a pierogi.”
Dill pickle and cashew cheese, macaroni and cheese, pizza, and ghost pepper are just a few of the adventurous flavours that Mamma Musey’s whips up. Ladner Pierogies has a hit taco pierogi with ground beef, Tex-Mex seasoning, jalapeno, and salsa, as well as a Buffalo chicken pierogi, stuffed with cream cheese and tangy sauce. For something a little more classic, Kozak—a Ukrainian restaurant with locations in Vancouver and New Westminster—serves up fresh pierogi with fillings such as cottage cheese and sauerkraut.
“I love experimenting, playing, feeling the flavours,” says Paczek, whose Nina’s Pierogi fillings range from butternut squash and sage to beet and artichoke. “They were born out of play and from ideas people give me at the farmer’s market.” While the aim is to preserve old traditions, it’s also to bring pierogi up to date and to make them accessible for all generations and cultures to enjoy. Musey even encourages her customers to think outside the box when cooking them—consider a pan fry, grill, or even air fry.
As for me, I’ll continue to eat my pierogi the way I remember my babcia making them: soft, warm, bathed in browned butter and nestled in a bed of caramelized onions and mushrooms. It’s comfort food at its finest, whenever I need it.