Local Knowledge is a new monthly series shining a light on the unassuming, authentic restaurants of Melbourne, which are worthy of appreciation beyond the neighbourhoods they serve. The series began on Broadsheet Sydney in 2015.
Barbara Szwed worked as an accountant and bookkeeper in Poland before moving to the Dandenong area 27 years ago. An avid cook, she began catering for Polish people all over Melbourne, cooking traditional food for those who were missing it. Seven years ago, having built a following, she decided to open Kluska – one of Melbourne’s only Polish restaurants. Kluska is Polish for “dumpling”.
Located in an unassuming Federation building on Foster Street, around the corner from Dandenong Plaza, you could mistake Kluska for a house if it weren’t for its blue and yellow sign. You’ll hear diners speaking Polish at a low hum. The bar is lined with a formidable selection of vodkas and beers from the Eastern European country.
Behind the kitchen doors, Szwed is bustling away.
“It’s very authentic home-cooked food,” she says, proudly. Large bowls of stewed beef, ready to be minced for various dumpling and crepe dishes, are cooling down, creating tantalising smells. She invites us further and further into the kitchen, until we are basically cooking with her.
“You see I’m cooking the pierogi – these dumplings can be very tough, but I have the touch,” she says. “That’s not my ego talking, that’s just the truth!” Her voice has a friendly boom to it and her enthusiasm is infectious. Her second chef, Jola, smiles.
As one of the few restaurants of its kind in Melbourne, Kluska has a developed a loyal following in the Polish community, and it’s become a popular spot for weddings and religious ceremonies.
“We’ve been here for more than seven years now, so in some cases we’ve done the christening and then the first communion,” Szwed explains, “I used to advertise a lot [in the Polish community], now I don’t anymore because everybody knows: they’re coming from all over Melbourne.”
The extensive menu is full of hearty, rich food including bigos, or hunter's stew, which is one of Poland’s national dishes, made from stewed meats (any mixture of duck, boiled beef, mutton, ham, pickled pork or venison) and sauerkraut. Traditionally it was taken hunting in stoneware or wooden casks and reheated many times to deepen the flavour. Szwed uses beef, pork sausage, prunes and mushrooms in her version. It has a delicate sweetness and the flavours are expertly balanced – the kind of control that comes from years of practise.
“I was always inspired by my mother and my grandmother’s cooking, these are their recipes,” Szwed says.
True to its namesake, Kluska offers an abundance of dumplings. You might be familiar with pierogi (there are eight kinds on the menu), but you may not have heard of pyzy, or Silesian dumpling: a flourless potato ball filled with either mushroom or beef and steamed like a Chinese pork bun – it has a pillowy, marshmallow-like texture. "You must eat it hot! It will change once it cools," Szwed insists. "But what I like to do is slice it up and fry it the next day."
Sitting in rows on the bar, pączki – Polish doughnuts – will immediately catch your eye. They’re made from a yeasty dough similar to brioche, filled with a sour jam, then glazed and sprinkled with orange zest. A 70-year-old Polish friend of Szwed’s makes them at home especially for Kluska.
“Let me tell you, I went to Poland recently,” Szwed says, laughing. “These are the best ones.”
161 Foster Street, Dandenong
Tue to Thu 11am–3pm, 5.30pm–9.30pm
Fri to Sun 11am–3pm, 5.30pm–12am
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