Żur (żurek) Sour Rye Soup - its history and legends
I recently found myself asking questions about Easter and the food that is traditionally server for this holiday in Poland.
Here is a Żur (żurek) Sour Rye Soup history and legends that describe it's invention.
What is Żur?
Let’s start with the basics. What is Sour Rye Soup? Żur (Polish: żur, diminutive: żurek; in phonetic spelling: Z uu - r eh k), is the oldest described soup in Polish cuisine and used to be the national dish of Poland. The first mentions of this soup can be found in the 13th century (Szymanderska, 2015), under the name "sūr" ("sauer'' in modern German language), meaning sour. It seems that the Polish term “żur” appeared in literature around the 15th century.
Initially, the dish was considered the basic food of the poor people living in the countryside, but with time it became a favorite also among courtiers ("polski-zurek").
Today, this soup is different from those centuries ago. In the early, traditional Slavic cuisine the soup was made from a plant called hogweed (in Polish: barszcz zwyczajny)("polski-zurek", "przepis na barszcz"). Consumed not only for Easter but everyday for almost any meal- giving how fulfilling it was. Famous not only in Poland, but also in Ukraine, Belarus, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Nowadays, it is based on the sour rye soup starter prepared several days earlier, from flour, water, garlic, sometimes even rye bread. Beside the sour soup starter it requires some kind of stock (vegetable or based on white sausage), it is spices with garlic, marjoram and horseradish. It is often served with sausage and/or bacon and topped with hard boiled egg. However, depending on the region and sometimes local traditions there are slight differences in the way it is served. It can vary in toppings like broad bean, split peas, groats, kluski - a form of dumpling, potatoes or even herring (Szymanderska, 2015, "zurek-historia-narodowej-zupy"). In some parts of Poland it is also served with smoked pork and dry mushrooms. It has a thick consistency and a sour slight milky flavor. Served with a slice of bread or in a loaf of bread is a perfect one- pot meal.
The two legends of żurek
So how was it created? Well, Poland has such a rich history- going back to the year 966 and even further, but some parts of it are known from storytelling. Never written down with time, became legends spread by storytellers. You probably heard some of them, like the legend of the Dragon living in the Wawel Castle in Kraków, or the legend of the Mermaid of Warsaw. Not surprisingly, the national dish should have its legend too. In fact it has two. One tells a story about the mean Innkeeper, and the second one tells a story about a poor, old Lady.
The Legend of mean Innkeeper
One of the legends of Wielkopolska (one of the Polish regions) explains the origin of sour rye soup with the bet of a stingy Innkeeper-baker with a mysterious Stranger.
In a small village, it is not really known where exactly, lived a lazy and stingy Innkeeper. His laziness and meanness did not bring any good publicity to him nor to his village. He skimmed on almost everything, including his guests. Added water to the beer, served terrible food made from old and rotten ingredients and on top of that overcharged everything. Soon, his bad reputation spread to the surrounding villages, and people began to avoid not only the Inn, but the entire village.
Compatriots fed up with his behavior decided to give him a lesson. They hired a Stranger who could eat almost anything. Dressed up in expensive clothes and a bag full of gold, Stranger offered the innkeeper a bet. A bag full of gold in exchange for the worst soup that the innkeeper could make which supposedly wouldn't give him indigestion. If the Stranger ate it, he would take over the Inn.
The innkeeper took up the challenge, and began to prepare his “soup”. He poured boiling water over the leftover sourdough from wholemeal bread, added some old smoked sausage, dried mushrooms and smoked bacon from breakfast. To make the soup look more like a soup he threw in some vegetables and a few cloves of garlic - to get rid of the sour smell.
Confident of his victory, he served the soup to his guest. The final result surprised everyone. The stranger ate the whole bowl and even asked for seconds. He won the bet and the Innkeeper lost his Inn ("Żurek-historia-narodowej-zupy").
The Legend of poor old Lady
According to this story, the inventor of the sour rye soup was a poor old Lady.
Living as a farmer in the Middle Ages in Poland was not easy. The farmer often worked on grounds that did not belong to them. They worked often for absolute minimum and had to serfdom - in Polish: pańszczyzna (/paɲʂt͡ʂɨzna/ - a form of payment that the farmers had to pay for being able to live and make crops on the land).
Not surprisingly the people living in the countryside were poor. But, back to the story.
Once upon time, there was a poor old Lady, she and her family had almost nothing to eat. Since bread and water were easy to make and find at home, she found in her pantry a little bit of sourdough. She poured water over it and set it aside on a warm stove (back then the kitchen stoves were crucial to keep the house warm).
She left the house to find some food on the farm. After hours of searching she came back home with only two potatoes. To her great surprise, she noticed a very pleasant smell coming from her kitchen. The source of the smell was a pot of slowly simmering leftover sourdough and water. With no hesitation she added the potatoes, and looked around the kitchen and found some smoked bacon and old mushrooms. She added them too. This is how the second legend describes the invention of this tasty and nutritious soup.
Regardless of which legend is true and who actually invented it, Żur is still one of the most popular soups in Poland, and it is considered to be the Polish traditional Easter soup.
"Polski- żurek jedna z najstarszych zup przepis" - blog: technologzywnosciradzi.pl
"Prawdziwy barszcz z barszczu zwyczajnego..." - blog: beszamel.se.pl
"Żurek-historia-narodowej-zupy"- blog: yourrootsinpoland.com
"Żurek Wilkanocny" - Gazeta lubuska
Szymanderska H., “Kuchnia Polska- potrawy regionalne”, 2015
"Serfdome in Poland": wikipedia.org