It was freezing outside — a typical New York City winter. The winds were brutal, the snow so ugly it was like Frosty the Snowman had had a mental meltdown. I viciously pulled at the door to the Polish restaurant and stumbled in, my wet wool scarf trailing behind me.
As my eyes scanned the large menu through my fogged glasses, looking for chocolate egg cream, it was right there: “kompot.” The name surprised me — I thought compote was a poached fruit dessert. Why was this listed under “drinks”?
The terse waitress — who’d kept her Polish accent strong for moments just like this — straightened me out quickly, when I asked, though she seemed surprised I was interested at all. “It’s our drink,” she explained. “It’s sweet, with whole fruit in it. Usually we make it at home.”
“Is it hot or cold?” I asked her, acting chastened, so she’d continue my education.
“Either way.” She grabbed the menu from my hands and turned to walk off, frowning down at me as she left. “You’ll have it hot, today.”
It was perfect, served hot on that bitterly cold day. Since then kompot’s become my go-to holiday drink, great for get-togethers or parties. Served chilled in a clear punchbowl or hot in a round silver chafing dish, it’s gorgeous either way. Ladled out into flared glass mugs, it’s delicious as is — and can also blend well with an added shot of vodka or dram of cognac.
Peach kompot photo by Biso CC BY
Kompot is claimed by a number of cultures across Central, Eastern, Southern Europe and Central Asia. It’s called a “folk recipe” — a traditional way of preserving the bounty of the summer fruit harvest in a time when refrigeration was not commonly available. The drink is made by cooking fruit slowly in a thick sugar syrup, being careful to leaving some of the fruit whole, which gives kompot its distinctive look. Served in a clear glass, the beautiful fruit suspended in the sugary base (thinned to the drinkers’ taste) gifts the warmth of a summer’s day in each delicious sip.
Kompot can be individualized, made with different variations of fruit and spice. Strawberries, sour cherries, blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb, gooseberries, peaches and apricots, prunes and plums are some of the fruits used in kompot along with sugar, raisins, vanilla and cinnamon. It can be served as a drink alongside a meal, or in a thicker syrup as dessert.
Russiapedia calls kompot “a traditional Russian dessert beverage”, adding that during the Soviet period “Russians grew so accustomed to the sight of the usual kompot at the end of the meal they were ready to put up with the fact the world might collapse but they would simply not understand what was going on if one day they were not served the customary glass of kompot. Today, the phrase “And where’s my kompot?” signifies that a person is sincerely puzzled as to why he has not been given something he should have clearly been given no matter what.”
If you’d like to make kompot at home, here’s a recipe that can be made year-round. If you’re like me, always looking for a place with warming drinks to scare away winter, kompot can be found in New York at the Polish restaurant Little Poland, in Brooklyn at the Russian restaurant Skovorodka, and in Philadelphia and Brooklyn at the Moldavian restaurants Moldova.
Karen Resta is a writer, a food culturalist, and a sometimes-fashionista who mostly loves ice cream and Brooklyn.
Header photo by Varcher N CC BY-SA. Preview photo by Biso CC BY