The history and background of a Polish favourite: “Pierogi Ruskie”

Many people think they're Russian. They actually come from present day Ukraine.

Like in many other Eastern European countries, Pierogi are one of Poland’s national dishes. Loved by all, and eaten by millions, their delicious taste and virtually endless filling options have made them a very popular dish not only on Polish soil, but also wherever people of Polish descent live.

If you don’t know what pierogi, are, they are made by wrapping unleavened dough around a savory or sweet filling, and then they are cooked in boiling water. The Polish word pierogi is plural. Its singular equivalent, pieróg is rarely used. Traditional pierogi fillings include potato, sauerkraut, ground meat, cheese, and various fruit. They can be served with a topping such as sour cream, fried onion, bacon bits, melted butter, or combinations of those ingredients.

Pierogi are not only popular in Poland, but also in many neighbouring nations where they are known by different names, for example being called varenyky or pyrohy in Ukraine.

Pierogi Ruskie with fried onions (Image: Fanfo/Shutterstock.com)
Pierogi Ruskie with fried onions (Image: Fanfo/Shutterstock.com)

Farmer’s cheese and potatoes make a great filling

We’ll talk about the history of pierogi in another article, but we will delve into the history of some of the most popular and widely known types of Polish pierogi called “Pierogi Ruskie”. In this variant of pierogi, the filling is usually composed of farmer’s cheese called twaróg, and potatoes. Sometimes the filling also includes onions.

Ruskie does not mean Russian

Contrary to what most people think, these pierogies aren’t Russian and most Russians wouldn’t have a clue how to make them. Many people in Poland make the same mistake of confusing the word Ruskie with Russia, and some people especially in the USA and Canada, confuse the word “Ruskie”, with the word Russki, which colloquially does mean Russian.

The word Ruskie, is actually derived from the word Rus, and the Kyivan Rus at one point over a millennium ago, was one of Europe’s largest and mightiest kingdoms. The counties of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine all claim the Kyivan Rus to be a part of their history.

So when we say, Pierogi Ruskie, we mean that the pierogies come the lands of the Rus, specifically, the westernmost portion. These lands were originally part of the Kyivan Rus, and were conquered by Poland for a brief time in the 11th century. Later the lands belonged to the Rus Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia and in the mid 14th-century, the area fell into the firm control of the Kingdom of Poland and then eventually the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Influence of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had great economic, social, religious and cultural influence over the former lands of the Rus and the majority of its people who belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Rus regions were divided into voivodeships, one of them being the Ruthenian Voivodeship (Polish: Województwo Ruskie, Ukrainian: Руське воєводство) which was established in 1434. Ruthenia was the Latin name for Rus, and this region was at one point the westernmost extreme of the Kyivan Rus. It was also called Red Ruthenia (Polish: Ruś Czerwona, Ukrainian: Червона Русь), a term that was first mentioned in a 1321 Polish chronicle. It would be in this region, several hundred years later, that Pierogi Ruskie would come into existence.

"Russie Rouge" or Red Ruthenia on the 1705 map of "Sweden, Denmark, Poland" Cartographer: Nicolas Fer
“Russie Rouge” or Red Ruthenia on the 1705 map of “Sweden, Denmark, Poland” Cartographer: Nicolas Fer

The potato invasion of Europe

A millennium ago, the potato was an unknown in European cusine. Potatoes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century, along with many other new world fruits and vegetables in the Columbian Exchange. It is said that John III Sobieski brought the first bag of potatoes to Poland from Vienna after leading his armies to a victory over the Ottoman empire in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. How the potato spread within Poland, is a matter of much debate, however it is known that Polish merchants saw how successful potato cultivation had become in Western Europe, and adopted these techniques on Polish soil. The potato slowly spread eastward.

Galicia, king of Austro-Hungarian potato production

Now, we know that because of the potato filling used, Pierogi Ruskie, probably came into existence somewhere in the late 18th or 19th century, during a volatile time for Poland when it ceased to become an independent state and was divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia. The Ruthenian Voivodeship ceased to exist in 1772 and the region of Red Ruthenia was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Potato cultivation entered this region first as a garden crop, and by the middle of the 19th century had slowly made its way into Galician peasantry fields, where now the majority of the Ruthenian population were being called Ukrainians. By 1840, Galicia was producing more potatoes than any other Austro-Hungarian province, and with the abolition of serfdom and the granting of land ownership to peasants, the potato really took off.

Pierogi made exclusively with a twaróg filling were already popular on Polish soil, and were mentioned often in Polish literature. Pierogi with a cheese and sweet cabbage filling were popular among Ukrainians, so it was only natural that with Galicia being the king of Austro-Hungarian potato production and the confluence of Poles and Ukrainians, that people would start experimenting with the potato as a pierogi ingredient.

To Ukrainians Pierogi Ruskie, are Polish Pierogies

In Polish cookbooks, the term “Pierogi Ruskie” only started to appear after the Second World War, and most western Ukrainians refer to pierogies filled with farmer’s cheese and potatoes as “Polish Pierogi”.  Because potato cultivation spread from the west to the east, it’s almost certain that Galician Poles (landed gentry or even peasants) were the first to experiment with putting potatoes into pierogi. This is backed up by the fact that Ukrainians call potato and farmer’s cheese pierogi – Polish. Sometimes Poles from these former Kresy regions, also gave Pierogi Ruskie alternate names, such as “Pierogi Lwowskie” (Lwów Pierogi) or “Pierogi Galicyjskie” (Galician Pierogi). Whatever you want to call them, now you know a bit more about the history of Pierogi Ruskie. They’re delicious, so check out our Pierogi Ruskie recipe.

Interesting Reads & Views

If you’re interested in learning more about how the potato entered Europe and Poland, read the PDF articles in the links below. We’ve also included a link to the full map referenced in the article.

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