Poland's Hearty żurek Soup Is Made With An Unexpected Ingredient

Soups have been around for a long time — so long in fact, that their existence could actually pre-date ours as homo sapiens, if archaeologists like the University of Michigan's John Speth, who studies hunter-gatherers, as well as the evolution of the human diet are to be believed. Per Unilever Food Solutions, Speth posits that soup might have been invented by Neanderthals as a way of using up the bit of the catch they couldn't otherwise use or consume — so they are believed to have found a container, filled that with water, popped that over fire, and then proceeded to boil animal bones until everything was extracted.

And while many most of us are still happy to boil bones to break down animal fat, soup making today has become a slightly more sophisticated affair, with many western cultures beginning their soup journeys with a combination of sauteed aromatics that include carrot, celery, garlic, and onion to create what is known as a mirepoix in France. But the traditional Polish żurek soup doesn't go from stove to the table in the same way. Instead, it begins the way some breads do, with a sourdough starter.

Folk tales have been spun around żurek's origins

Like many traditional foods, the origin of this traditional Polish soup depends on who you ask. One story tracks the soup back to an establishment owned by an innkeeper who served dishes made with the cheapest ingredients. The villagers decided to punish the innkeeper by asking him to prepare the worst soup he could make – and if he could disgust them, he would win a fortune in gold. That soup, made from old bread, sausage, mushroom, and vegetable, turned out to be the best thing he ever made, and instead of winning the gold, he lost everything and left the town in disgrace, according to Your Roots in Poland.

Another story involves a poor old woman who decided to make soup out of leaven, to which she added potatoes and mushrooms, which (also) turned out to be the best thing she and her husband had tasted. Anna in the Kitchen credits food historian Maria Dembinska with a third story, involving peasants who didn't wash out a pot before making a fresh pot of soup; the omission triggered fermentation and the eventual result was the starter for żurek that the Polish people use today.

żurek's starter needs five days to ferment

The most important ingredient of any pot of żurek is its starter, also known as zakwas, and made with wholemeal rye flour, water, and garlic, per Polonist. And while the starter is easily found in countries across Eastern Europe, including Slovakia, Belarus, and the Czech Republic, per Folkways, it might be more of a stretch to find it here. Still it is possible to enjoy żurek here by giving yourself up to five days to make a rye starter (Folkways provides a starter recipe made with rye flour and wholewheat bread, garlic, bay leaves, and allspice berries), and then making your soup from there. Anna in the Kitchen has a more simple starter involving nothing but rye flour and water, set in a jar and left to ferment. The slurry should smell sharp and sour but not reminiscent of vinegar, per Polonist.

Żurek is traditionally made with white Polish sausage, potatoes, and hardboiled eggs, although Anna in the Kitchen says a vegan version can be made with mushrooms and mushroom stock. During special occasions like Easter, the soup is served in a bread bowl, but it can be consumed anytime during the year, per Folkways.