How Poland Made a Meal Out of a Sandwich

A slide of white bread topped with a white spread, salmon, tomatoes, cucumber, corn, red onion and dill on a white table

Sandwiches are popular in many cultures, but in Poland, open-faced varieties called “kanapki” are one of the country’s most beloved foods.

Though their name comes from the French word “canape” — a bite-size appetizer — these sandwiches are considered a full meal and are commonly eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

A breakfast “kanapka” (the word for a single sandwich) includes toppings like hard boiled eggs, cucumber, ham, sausage, and cheese. Lunch or dinner kanapki are often made with smoked meats or smoked salmon, and vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes. The base — either pumpernickel, wheat or rye bread — is slathered with herb butter or “gzik,” a spread similar to cottage cheese.

This Polish culinary institution has a long history. In the late 1800s, kanapki were known as “tartinki,” mini-sandwiches served as hors d’oeuvres at high-society cocktail parties.

After World War II, however, the kanapka grew in both size and popularity. People from all socioeconomic backgrounds started eating them, and they became a main dish instead of just an appetizer.

Food shortages inspired creativity, and Poles made their open-faced sandwiches with whatever ingredients were available: hard-boiled eggs, tomato, mayonnaise and pickled cucumber.

Regional varieties also emerged. In the Northern and Western parts of Poland, kanapki topped with “paprykarz” — a fish and rice mixture prepared with tomatoes, carrots, onions and spices — became a staple.

You can find kanapki at restaurants and bakeries throughout Poland. And if you’re invited to someone’s home, you’ll probably be offered their favorite version of the tasty sandwich.

In the ‘70s, a new type of open-faced sandwich made its entry into Polish cuisine — the “zapiekanka.” Though it originated as an inexpensive lunch for workers, the warm baguette topped with butter, mushrooms, cheese and ketchup is now a popular street food.