Exploring Kyiv and taking in the culture has been as much a linguistic adventure as a gastronomic one. One of the cornerstones of cultural immersion is to fully experience the local cuisine, and through my homestay family, I believe I have become acquainted with the classics of Ukrainian cooking. Every day at the kitchen table, I get to live vicariously as a Ukrainian through food.
My host mother and grandmother have two very different takes on food. While my host mother prepares more international dishes like pizza, pasta, and molochni koktejli (milkshakes), my grandmother is strictly traditional, with the occasional new-fangled sweet or ice cream. On most mornings my grandmother serves me a three-course breakfast comprised of a tomato, cucumber, and lettuce salad doused in sunflower oil, borsch or rassolnik (soup made with pickles, potatoes, and chicken, in this case), and then either a bowl of varenyky or a plate of grechka with toppings that vary between eggs, chicken, and grilled vegetables. Finishing these ample breakfasts has been the greatest challenge I’ve yet faced here in Kyiv. My grandmother likes to prepare filling foods so that I will not die from hunger during the time between meals. Indeed, I do not start to feel any trace of hunger again until 4 or 5 hours later, and occasionally I can go until late evening.
Now grechka (buckwheat) appears to be a very popular staple of Ukrainian cuisine, and Russian as well, and was in fact the first dish I was introduced to upon arrival. My host mom explained to me that it is a healing dish as it cleanses the blood, making it very useful in the wake of the Chernobyl accident. Varenyky are dumplings, and they come in sweet and savory varieties. My favorite so far are varenyky with tvorog (farmer’s cheese or cottage cheese) served with smetana, but right behind them are varenyky with smorodyny (currants). The exact nature of smetana has always eluded me whether encountering it in Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, or Ukraine. Undoubtedly, this is because it’s hard to find its equivalent in any other cuisine I am familiar with. I end up placing it somewhere between cream and sour cream. It goes in every soup my grandmother serves me and without fail garnishes the varenyky. I’ve also had it mixed with sugar and added to a bowl of berries my host mom picked at her friend’s dacha outside Kyiv. One morning I helped my grandmother prepare varenyky with meat and potato filling, but the technique proved difficult for me to master. I attempted to pinch and twist the dough simultaneously in the same manner that my grandmother did, but my doughy envelopes never reached the same aesthetic. Reminded me of the many times my sister and I have folded napkins into collared shirts for family Thanksgivings only to see my creations flop out of place and completely disassemble.
Kholodets and salo are, by far, the most surprising dishes I have tried here in Ukraine. The concepts are not so bizarre in and of themselves and are actually familiar, but the prevalence here strikes me as unique. Kholodets is essentially meat jelly, or what may be called aspic. I believe it is made from freezing broth poured over meat, hence the name kholodets from the word kholod, meaning ‘cold.’ Kholodets delivers the nutritional value of chicken soup without the possibility of overheating from eating hot soup in 90-degree weather. Salo is also a beloved dish. My grandmother presented it to me unexpectedly after telling me about how the Cossacks survived the winter on what she calls Cossack cabbage (pickled cabbage, I believe) and salo. She brought out a plate of frozen white cubes at the end of breakfast. I began to nibble tentatively and could tell that I was eating some kind of meat product, but the frozen quality made it difficult for me to determine the taste. However, I had a foreboding feeling. I tried a couple cubes on bread upon my grandmother’s direction, and the feeling grew stronger. A later inquiry on Google Translate confirmed my suspicions. It was, in fact, animal fat. I could tell it was a favorite of my grandmother’s as she often sang its praises and told me how people survived on it during harsh periods of war and revolution. I have since seen it featured on a restaurant menu as an assorted plate and translated as “lard dishes.” Something to try once, if you’re brave enough.
The dishes I’ve tried here in Kyiv all have a story behind them or something that distinctively says Ukraine to me. As I am one to remember events most distinctly in connection with food, I know that these culinary experiences will always stay fresh in my mind and keep me from forgetting what I’ve learned this summer about Ukraine, its people, and culture.
By: Jordan Hussey-Andersen
Term: Summer 2016