Sunday, February 21, 2010


With all the students around, Boston's Allston Village is chock-full of reasonably-priced restaurants: Burmese (with a separate vegetarian menu), vegan Vietnamese, vegan pizza, Egyptian falafel, Indian Chinese; plus old standbys like Tex-Mex, Korean-Japanese and checked-tablecloth Chianti-in-a-basket red-sauce Italian.

One of last year's new additions was Zaps, Polish street food. A zapiekanka is a baguette sliced in half lengthwise, topped with shredded cheddar and mushrooms, melted / toasted, and finished off with ketchup. It's more interesting tasting than that might sound.

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The name seems straightforward. zapiekać is the imperfective of zapiec 'to bake'. zapiekany is the passive participle; add the fairly productive -k(a) for resultative nouns and it's 'something baked'. There are, of course, various other forms of zapiekać in the only Polish cookbook I have. The za- prefix is a Slavic preposition with base meaning something like 'beyond'. piec is cognate with Russian печь 'oven' and so with PIE *pekʷ 'cook', whence also Greek πέσσω 'ripen; cook' and so peptic.

After we went there this weekend, I had another look around online and only then noticed that zapiekanka also means 'casserole'. There is a fairly clean split in English language sources between the two senses:

Street foodCasserole
  • Phrase books
  • Guide books
  • Dictionaries
  • Cookbooks

An Online Polish-English dictionary has both senses. An eponymous recipe collection seems to mostly be casseroles. But there are images and YouTube cooking videos of both sorts.

Not that this is all that surprising; both fit the base meaning perfectly. But now I am wondering whether there is a continuous semantic space (and what else is in it) and just how old this particular street food is. Hence this very short post. I would welcome informed comments.


agnus said...

According to Polish wikipedia and my own memories (both of which are not very reliable), zapiekanka in the street food meaning came to existence during the communist times, when we craved for some fast food, but the constant shortages of supplies in shops made the choice of possible dishes somewhat limited. As you have noticed, it's simply a bread with some anonymous cheese and mushrooms. I guess even this could be an accomplishment in the times, where shops were supplied only with vinegar.

It's still widely eaten here in Poland, although it's not "promoted" by any notable fast food chain. You can buy it mainly in some greasy spoons or directly from a van.

agnus said...

BTW this would be everything that could be named "zapiekanka". There is nothing between the casserole and baguette.

I queried the available corpora about "zapiekanka", but to no avail - almost all hits were about the casserole.

MMcM said...

Thank you very much.

Do you think the existing term was consciously reused, perhaps ironically, in those hard times? Or that it was probably an independent reinvention, since the etymology is transparent?

agnus said...

I don't really know. My guess would be that since zapiekanka (casserole) is also a I popular dish in Poland, independent reinvention would seem rather unlikely to me.

I have never thought that there is some irony in this term. I'd say that no, since casserole can also be a simple dish, made from basically anything you can find in your fridge - the way I eat it is usually potatoes baked with eggs and cheese. Nothing fancy.

bulbul said...

I think there two meanings of the prefix za- at play here:
1. to do something in an enclosed space, to wrap, to enclose.
2."to do something for a short while or with low intensity." To me, when used in a recipe, "zapiec" (and its Slovak and Czech equivalents) means something along the lines "let it bake for a while so that it gets a nice crust."

So perhaps it's meaning no. 2 that is used in zapiekanka, a dish that requires only a fraction of the time/heat normally reserved for baking/roasting.

John Cowan said...

You are quite right to speak of "red-sauce Italian", for marinara sauce is the most subtle and complex of Italian sauces and the easiest to get horribly wrong. I have to have acquired considerable confidence in an Italian restaurant before I will eat anything there alla marinara.