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Culture

How to Say 'Fast Food' in Polish

Though they've become less prosperous since the fall of the Iron Curtain, many in Poland would rather have a cheap healthy meal at a local milk bar than a Big Mac.

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They may not have Polska Kielbasa, but milk bars offer good eating

Today when Polish got out to eat they can be overwhelmed by a blitz of possibilities ranging from Michelin-starred restaurants to Chinese take-aways to Western fast food chains. But this culinary diversity is something that only emerged after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.

Before that, when Poles didn't feel like slaving behind the stove, they didn't hop in the car and head for the nearest golden arches -- instead they hopped on over to their local government-subsidized milk bars ( Bar Mleczny) for a quick repast and a night on the town.

McState subsidized

Subsidized by the government, the milk bars served as an important social outlet under Poland's communist government. The socialist idea behind the bars was to provide each worker and citizen with the possibility of an affordable warm meal. People from all walks of life frequented the milk bars -- and many still do.

And though the name may evoke images of bovine creations, the milk bars didn't just sell milk or ice cream. You could also get a balanced, square meal. But the meals did tend to rely heavily on dairy products for their inspiration.

During the peak of Communism, self-service restaurants like milk bars could be found throughout the Eastern Bloc. In the former East Germany, for example, they could be found in most cities. But today they have vanished from most countries except Poland.

Competition for the burger industry

With the onslaught of Western fast food and diminishing government subsidies, Poland's tradition of milk bars has struggled in recent years, with many going out of business. But in the country's metropolises, like Warsaw or Gdansk, milk bars are still trendy hangouts. And though they now have to compete with fast food and kebab stands, the Polish government wants to keep them in business and backs them to the tune of several million euros in subsidies each year.

With their low prices, the milk bars are attracting a growing number of students and pensioners. With meals costing as little as €1 to €4, the prices are attractive.

Still, the hunt for a bargain isn't the only thing that draws people to the milk bars. Patrick Szymanski, a 23-year-old student, eats in a milk bar every day and he loves Warsaw's milk bars, because he doesn't have to do any cooking or clean-up.

"In former times there were as many milk bars as there are coffee shops now. But now there are almost only kebab shops and Asian takeaways," recalled a guy named Janusz, a 66-year-old Warsaw native who was eating lunch with his friend Bogdan at Bar Studencki, a traditional milk bar at the University of Warsaw. Janusz said he'd rather dig into a milk bar's traditional fare of soup and potato-filled piroshkis than go to a fast food chain.

"It tastes almost as good as my wife's cooking," asserts the 59-year-old Bodgan.

"I like the Polish kitchen. Unlike fast food, it's actually healthy," said a friend of Bodgan's.

A cult following

For many Polish youngsters, who have long forgotten the days of long queing lines and food rations under Communism, milk bars have gained cult status. For some old enough to remember Communism, it's one of the friendlier reminders of Poland's socialist past.

But others, like Janusz and Bogdan have a simpler reason for hanging out at the milk bars.

"Where can you eat so well and be finished in 15 minutes?" they asked.

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