Pierogis are an iconic food most usually associated with Polish culture, but actually, they’ve historically been made in different variations all throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Lots of families pass their pierogi recipes on to future generations, which means that there’s a lot to learn from this food. Depending on the variant, you may even be able to learn a little something about your family’s roots.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the correct pronunciation, it normally goes like so: puh-row-gee. This is as opposed to per-oh-gee or other pronunciations we sometimes hear in the States! Another interesting tidbit before we get started—“pierogi” is actually the plural version of the word in Polish. The singular, which is seldom used, is “perog.”
What are Pierogi?
Pierogi come in many forms, served either as appetizers, main courses, or a dessert. At their core, they’re a dumpling that are first boiled, then fried to give them a bit of browning. When frying them, one common way to make them is with butter and onions, which adds a lovely delicate flavoring to the dough.
Historically, these were considered a peasant food, but once the pierogi tradition was born in Europe, people’s taste for them grew. People of all classes, including nobility, quickly adopted them—and with that rise in popularity, the number of variations started to grow.
The Origin of Pierogi
One of the most interesting things about this food is its history. Pierogi history is the subject of much debate. We know that pierogi dates to at least the 13th century, but how they actually arrived in Europe—that’s the part no one is quite sure about.
One legend says that pierogi first arrived in Italy when Marco Polo brought back the recipe from China.
Another legend says that it was Saint Hyacinth of Poland who discovered the recipe in Kiev, Ukraine, and brought it to Poland. According to this tradition, Saint Hyacinth paid a visit to Koscielec on July 13, 1238, and on that day, a storm destroyed all crops. Saint Hyacinth instructed everyone to pray, and the crops regrew the next day. In gratitude, people made pierogi from the crops for Saint Hyacinth.
Different versions of that legend say that Saint Hyacinth was the one who made pierogi, using them to feed people during the famine that followed the Tartar invasion in 1241.
And speaking of the Tartars, they feature in another pierogi legend, which says that the Tartars were the ones who brought them to Poland from the Russian Empire.
So the truth is, no one really knows where pierogi came from—but they’ve been a staple throughout Eastern and Central Europe for centuries!
Variations on the Pierogi
Pierogi all have a few things in common. First, there is the dough, which is made with flour, warm water, and sometimes an egg. This is then rolled out, cut into circles, and filled, forming half-moon shapes with the free edges of the dough pinched together to seal the filling inside.
The fillings are where pierogi really differ. Mashed potatoes are the most common and perhaps the most traditional of the fillings. But they can also be filled with sauerkraut, fried onions, farmer cheese, cottage cheese, cabbage, mushrooms, meat, spinach, or whatever else you can think to put inside the dough.
To make dessert-style pierogi, most people use fresh fruit filling of various types—apple, plum, raspberry, strawberry, cherry, and so on. Though, it is possible to use jam instead of fresh fruit filling, too.
Lots of different countries also have their own unique variations on the pierogi. Even though the true origins are murky, they’re traditionally considered a Polish food, and in Poland, they’re considered a national dish, one so popular that they feature at lots of festivals and other events. One variation was made quite often for weddings, the pierogi kurniki, which was filled with chicken. One of the most popular Polish fillings is a mixture of quark, which is similar to cottage cheese, along with potatoes and fried onions. Meat, mushroom, and cabbage pierogi recipes are also common, as are berry pierogi.
In Ukraine, pierogi are called “varenyky,” and they’re also a national dish that features prominently on holidays, particularly Christmas Eve. In some Ukrainian regions, they may also be called “pyrohy,” particularly in Western Ukraine. Traditional Ukrainian recipes often feature fermented milk in the dough, and Ukrainian fillings include meat, fish, cabbage, potato and cheese, buckwheat, boiled beans, mashed potatoes, cottage cheese, peas, sauerkraut, and for dessert, plums, or other fruits.
Other national variants include:
- The Russian vareniki, which most commonly come from western Russia, and are filled with fruits, potatoes, cabbage, beef, or quark.
- Slovakian pirohy, which usually contain bryndza cheese and mashed potatoes.
- Slovenian ajdovi krapi, which translates to “buckwheat carps.” These have buckwheat in the dough rather than wheat flour, and they are often filled with millet, fried onions, and cottage cheese.
- Hungarian derelye is a pasta pocket typically filled with jam and cottage cheese or sometimes meat.
- Romania and Moldova have the coltunasi, which is usually filled with cherries and cottage cheese, or dill seasoned cheese, mashed potatoes, or meat.
- Germany and German-speaking regions have pirogge (or piroggen, which is the plural version), which can be either boiled or baked, with the most popular filling being a quark and spinach mixture.
And what about the United States? Here, there are all kinds of different pierogi variants to try—everything listed above and then some. Most of these recipes came to the U.S. via Eastern and Central European immigrants. They’re most popular in the New England states as well as the upper Midwest, and they’re found throughout Canadian provinces, too.
If there’s a pierogi recipe among your family recipes, doubtless, there’s a long history behind it! Depending on the fillings or on its name, you may be able to trace it back to its country of origin. For instance, if your grandmother called them “pirohy” instead of “pierogi,” then perhaps the recipe came from Ukraine. But wherever pierogi are from, we can all agree on one thing: They are delicious!