Kwas and the race to save culinary history

Kwas is the Polish word for ‘acid’ and the name of a Christmas Eve soup made from sauerkraut & juice, dried mushrooms, and noodles or dumplings. My dad used to make the soup when I was a kid but I did not really like it then.  At the time I did not like any cooked mushrooms, as did my aunt, my dad’s sister.  Lately I’ve been wanting to re-try the soup but I have not been able to find a recipe, neither in my parents’ cookbooks nor doing searches online.  At the time I had no idea what was in the soup other than mushrooms.  I was a bit surprised that my dad had not written it down, even on a the back of an unused punch card.  He used to write down everything.

When I was out in Krakow for work 2 years ago, I asked one of my co-workers there about Kwas.  He had no clue what I was talking about.

This year I was able to get together with my dad’s extended family at Christmas time.  I poked them for the recipe.  No one else had written it down either and there was a discussion on even how to spell it.  At least several family members were able to give me this list of ingredients:

  • Sauerkraut & juice
  • Dried mushrooms (think my dad used canned 30 years ago)
  • Dumplings (or noodles)
  • Barley (optional, my dad hated barley)
  • Water

It is a Polish tradition on Christmas Eve to have a meatless (or Lenten) meal.  Kwas works well for this along with (sauerkraut) perogi.  I mean you have to do something with the sauerkraut you bought to get the juice 🙂

I asked a different Krakovian co-worker this year about Kwas.  His family still lives in the same region in Poland that my dad’s family emigrated from.  He gave me this history of the dish:

[Kwas is] a very traditional Christmas eve soup in the southern region of Polish Kresy (South-Eastern Borderlands, nowadays mostly within the borders of Ukraine, but a small part of Kresy, Przemysl, Sanok and Bieszczady mountains included, remain within borders of Poland). The tradition of making kwas has faded away a bit by now, as customs have changed a bit after 2nd World War; kwas being mostly replaced with borscht (beetroot soup).

He also shared with me his maternal grandmother’s recipe (circa 1953):

  • half a liter (approx. one pint) of sauerkraut juice
  • two handfuls of dried forest mushrooms
  • handful of sauerkraut
  • a bit of thinly shredded, fried onion mixed with one teaspoon of flour
  • water – to fill up to required amount of soup

Clean the mushrooms thoroughly with a brush to remove any sand or dust deposited on them. Soak the mushrooms in cold water for about an hour, then drain them, pour that water away.  Take small amount of fresh water (one glass at most) and boil the mushrooms in that water until they are soft, keeping the pot covered. Once the mushrooms are ready, drain them again but do not pour that water away. Slice the boiled mushrooms into thin strips.

In another pot (large one) mix the sauerkraut juice with water and start boiling it. Amount of water needed depends on personal taste, i.e. how sour you want your kwas to be. Probably it takes some experimenting to figure it out… but as far as my Mom can recall, this recipe should be for 1,5 – 2 liters of soup. It’s a kwas (= “acid” in Polish 🙂 ) so it should taste strong rather than thin, I guess.  Once it starts boiling, throw the sauerkraut into the pot, then add the thinly sliced mushrooms you boiled earlier. Keep boiling the soup for quite a time, it should acquire the taste & smell from the mushrooms. Add the water you boiled the mushrooms in small portions – as much as your taste tells you to.

Basically, the longer you boil the soup, the more sour and ‘mushroomy’ it gets. If it gets too sour, it’s OK to add a bit of fresh water or a pinch of sugar, but my Grandma made a note on the recipe to avoid adding sugar as much as possible.

On my mom’s side of the family I have another aunt who is from Polish decent, though since she married into the family I am not blood related to her.  While she does not know exactly where in Poland her family is from (but suspects it is from the Russian partition), her family used to have Kwas at Christmas time too.  She did not have any written down copy of the recipe either, though that may have to do that she did not like the soup much.Now anyone can make the soup for next Christmas Eve as I finally have written down the recipe.