Reports of Polish Bialy’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

A fascinating comment came in late yesterday from reader Ilona in Poland. Seeing the image in the below “Bialysfail” post she suddenly had an inkling of what I’m attempting to make here: cebularze, or Polish onion buns. I performed a quick image search and sure enough, in no time I had dozens of images of the type of thing I’m shooting for.

These buns hail from eastern Poland, which by no coincidence is where the city of Bialystok is located. In my cursory research I discovered that there are competing theories in Poland as to where in the east cebularze come from. Some say the city of Lublin, which is well to the south of Bialystok, however that’s not the really interesting detail. Both sources I came across claim that cebularze were primarily produced by Jewish bakers in large eastern cities in the decades before World War II.

Which would indicate that the things we call “bialys”, which were known in Bialystok by the generic name Bialystoker kuchen weren’t actually unique to that city. Indeed they seem to have been well known outside Bialystok, albeit by a different generic name. And while they may have disappeared from Bialystok after the World War II — perhaps even from all of Eastern Poland — they soon came back, and in a very large way. Just do a Google image search. Judging by the sheer number of results they’re as common as doughnuts in Eastern Poland (though based on the recipes I’ve seen so far the dough is now greatly enriched with butter and eggs).

So it seems the conventional (American) wisdom concerning the post-war history of bialys is actually incorrect. That’s good news on a lot of levels, because these are great little breads no matter what you call them.

On a side note, I find it interesting that the Polish word for “onion” is cebula. That’s almost identical to the Spanish word, cebolla. But Spanish is a Romance language and Polish is a Slavic language. I wonder how they both came to use the same term. Anyone care to enlighten me?

Thanks very much for your terrific insight, Ilona!

14 thoughts on “Reports of Polish Bialy’s Death Greatly Exaggerated”

    1. Hey Susan!

      I get that for sure: all European languages are related. Forgive me for hoping that there’s another answer as to why just about every Germanic/Slavic culture near to Poland uses a word like “luk” or “lök” or “zweibel”, but Poland’s word sounds almost exactly like Italian and Spanish. I can’t help but feel there’s a story there!

      – Joe

  1. While it’s true that Polish is Slavic and Spanish is Romance, they are both Indo-European, so there would be some links between the two, especially in relatively basic words.

    1. No question, James. Stlll I wonder how two languages that are on very different branches of the Indo-Euorpean language tree happen to use a word that isn’t just similar, but basically identical.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  2. Hi Joe,

    Our (meaning Polish) etymological dictionaries explain that “cebula” actually entered Polish language in 14-15th century from Germany where it was then “Zibolle” or “Zebulle” before evolving into “Zwiebel”. The middle age German word was derived from Latin “caepula”.
    Our neighbours’ words for the veggie came from the same source and so the Czechs have “cibule”, the Slovaks – “cibula”. Apparently Polish “cebula” was the root of Ukrainian “cybulia”.

    Greetings from another of your Polish readers,
    – Joanna

    1. Excellent! And exactly what I was looking for. Very interesting. Thank you very much Joanna!

      – Joe

  3. Hi Joe,

    One thing I’d just point out is that we tend unconsciously to conflate spelling and pronunciation. The “c” in Polish is pronounced like English “ts” – making it the unvoiced counterpart to German “z”. So the distance between Zwiebel and cebula is a little shorter than it may seem. Based on Joanna’s comment, the spelling similarity between the Polish and Spanish is simply a coincidence, since the Polish was a rendering of the German pronunciation.

    – Jen

      1. Jen is absolutely right about the spelling. However, considering the Latin roots of the German “Zwiebel” I think that the similarity between Polish and Spanish words is not quite coincidental after all. I suppose that Latin “caepula” took a detour to Poland through Germany, while taking the straight route to Spain.
        – Joanna

        1. It’s times like this that I thank my lucky stars for the caliber of my readership. Thanks so much, Joanna. This is fascinating.


          – Joe

  4. Mike, have you seen this show on PBS Create channel? I thought of this when I saw your Bialy thread- pretty cool that there are others that are concerned about keeping this little piece of history alive! And- you can watch these programs online, I am pretty sure.

    #1306: Poland / The Bialy

    Since moving to his new Lower East Side coop at the corner of Bialystoker Way and Broome Street near Kossars Bialy’s on Grand Mike has been fascinated with the history of the Bialy. After a few years planning he get’s his wish. This is part one of a three part series this season highlighting the cuisine of Poland. In this first episode on a rainy night in September 2013 he visits the town of Bialystok and the last restaurant serving this specialty.

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