The term entered English simultaneously from different sources, which accounts for the different spellings. In the United States, the form kielbasa (usually pronounced /kiːlˈbɑːsə/ or /kɪlˈbɑːsə/) is more often used and comes from the Polish kiełbasa (IPA: [kʲewˈbasa] ) "sausage", in turn from Turkic külbastı "grilled cutlet"). In New Jersey and most areas of Greater New York City, the Czech pronunciation, or possibly a derivative of the Polish word is used, and is usually pronounced "ke-bah-see" (kiełbasi: incorrect form of the plural in Polish) or "keu-bah-sah." In addition to kielbasa, Canadians also use the word kubasa (/kuːbɒˈsɒ, ˈkuːbəsɒ/), an alteration of the Ukrainian kovbasa (ковбаса), and Albertans even abbreviate it as kubie to refer to the sausage eaten on a hot dog bun.
Sausage is a staple of Polish cuisine and comes in dozens of varieties, smoked or fresh, but almost always based on pork (although in many areas, it is available in beef, and sometimes in turkey, horse, lamb, even bison), every region having its own specialty. Popular varieties include:
- kabanosy, a thin, air-dried sausage flavored with caraway seed, originally made of horsemeat (but today usually pork or turkey)
- krakowska, a thick, straight sausage hot-smoked with pepper and garlic; its name originated from Kraków
- wiejska (pronounced in Polish /ˈvʲejska/), a large U-shaped pork and veal sausage with marjoram and garlic; its name means "a rural one".
In the U.S., "kielbasa" almost always means some form of wiejska (although often not U-shaped and seldom containing veal), which may be unsmoked ("fresh") or fully or partly smoked. Similar sausages are found in other Slavic nations as well, notably the Czech Republic (spelled "klobás") and Slovakia (spelled "klobása"). In Ukraine "kovbasa" is properly pronounced /kovbɑsɑ/, but in English is usually pronounced /ˈkʌbɑsɑ/.
Original kielbasa is also called "Polska kiełbasa" for "Polish Sausage" or "Kielbasa Starowiejska" known as "Old Country Style Sausage". This one comes closest to what is generally known in America as "kielbasa" (Polish sausage, Polska Kiełbasa). Nowadays, many major meat packers across America offer a product called "kielbasa," but it differs from the original meaning of the same term.
Real kielbasa uses only the choicest cuts of tender pork, and often a little beef or veal is added to improve its body and character. The sausage is seasoned with fresh herbs and spices and then gently smoked, just long enough to achieve the right color, flavor and aroma. It is often eaten for breakfast or supper as a cold cut with horseradish or mustard.
In Poland, kielbasa is traditionally served with fried onions, red horseradish (which is blended with beets), and - in form of small pieces, fried together with onions - as an addition to pierogi, which are crescent-shaped dumplings filled with potato, cheese or mushrooms. Kielbasa can be served hot — boiled, baked or grilled. It can be cooked in soups (such as biały barszcz, kapuśniak, or grochówka), baked with sauerkraut, or added to bean dishes, stews (notably bigos, the Polish national dish), and casseroles.
A less widely available variety of kielbasa is the White Fresh (biała), which is sold uncooked and unsmoked, then usually boiled or cooked in a soup in place of a typical meat. This variety of kielbasa taste similar to mild Italian Sausage.