Ukrainian Soul Food

People tend to think of Ukrainian food as being fatty and starchy, with dishes based on meat, potatoes, cabbage and beetroot. OK, that may not be so far from the truth – but is that necessarily a bad thing?

The cuisine stems from peasant dishes based on grains and staple vegetables grown on some of the most fertile soil in the world known as “black earth” or chorno zemlya found on the steppes of Ukraine. The earliest known farmers in Ukraine go back more than 6,000 years and grew barley, rye, wheat and millet and herded sheep, pigs and cattle. Life depended on agricultural activities to the point that seasonal holidays and festivals celebrated transition times from one agricultural activity to another, many of which were later incorporated into the Christian calendar. The traditional Christmas dish of kutya (cooked wheat, honey, poppy seeds, nuts and fruit) was around long before Christianity.

Extensive trade routes and foreign invaders have meant that Ukraine’s cuisine has also borrowed from other countries: for example, sauerkraut (kapusta) has Polish origins, dumplings (varenyky) and cabbage rolls (holubsti) were imported from Turkey, while strudels and many other desserts were carried over from the Austro-Hungarian empire times.

For Ukrainians, a meaningful life is focused on hospitality (along with a few other incidentals such as family, faith and poetry). Food ranks up there with drink in terms of compulsory hosting practices. When visitors arrive food is immediately placed on the table. It is so integral to showing good hospitality that major offence will be taken if a guest does not eat, preferably in copious amounts. No matter how many meals you have had that day, a good host will not take no for an answer. I ought to know – I stayed with my farming family in a village in west Ukraine for a week so they were intimately aware of every meal I had with every friend and relative in the vicinity; yet, when invited inside for “a cup of tea” in between meals, my husband and I were presented with a food-laden table. We were constantly being derided for being “scary skinny” and not having an appetite for life.

So what will you find on a Ukrainian dinner table (or menu)?

Probably the national food, we love our borshch with all our Ukrainian hearts. I have second generation nephews and nieces in Australia who beg their grandmother to make borshch when they are visiting, proving that our love of borshch is passed down through the genes. The best borshch is always made by someone’s mother or grandmother. It is said that no Ukrainian girl will be able to get married unless she knows how to make borshch. (Gender equality in the kitchen has a bit of catching up to do). Made with a meat stock it contains beets, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onion, beans and dill and is accompanied by good bread. A dollop of sour cream (smetana) in the soup completes the meal. There are as many variations as there are mothers and grandmothers and arguing over what should or shouldn’t be in a borshch is a national pastime.

You will never have potato salad like you will have in Ukraine. The kartoplya comes complete with onion, peas, dill gherkin and hard-boiled egg, coated in mayonnaise (using smetana).

Kapusta is basically shredded cabbage cooked to within an inch of its life, possibly with some shredded carrot and bacon added. Throwing in a handful of poppy seeds makes for a great visual, particularly as the dinner guests smile at each other all evening.

Varenyky are sometimes called pyrohy. These boiled dumplings can be savoury - stuffed with a variety of fillings such as potatoes and meat, kapusta, cottage cheese or mushrooms and served with fried onions and a dollop of smetana – or they can be sweet – stuffed with whatever fruit is in season.

Holubtsi are cabbage leaves rolled with rice filling and may contain meat, baked in a tomato sauce, topped with caramelised onions and/or roasted bacon strips and – you guessed it – smetana. I have seen my very talented cousin make these rolls into tiny cone shapes.

There are so many more dishes that could be included: cutlets and meatballs, sausages, chicken Kyiv, goulash, various ways of cooking fish, blini, honey cakes, poppy seed cakes – the list is endless.

You will have noted the preponderance of smetana as an accompaniment. The best smetana comes from a subsistence farmer who owns a cow or two and escapes government inspection where they make it from unpasteurised milk. It is so fresh and so creamy, if you have to, milk the cow yourself, sing to her and offer the farmer your first born. For all you people worried about the risk of disease from unpasteurised milk, my mother and all of her siblings are in their 90s. The milk hasn’t killed them yet!