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Let’s talk about Ukraine, a food lover’s paradise

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Liubov Abravitova is the Ambassador of Ukraine to South Africa.

Today, I’ve decided not to talk to you about war, but rather to show you yet another side of our culture that is our passion, our pride and our love — the magic that is traditional Ukrainian cuisine.

Dear anti-terrorist club 2023, I’m happy to welcome you to our weekly meeting! I’m so grateful you are here with me every single week. 

I do feel like you’re holding my hand through all this horror and I just want you to know I’m extremely grateful to the unbelievable people of South Africa! My last column was really hard to write — there’s nothing quite as paralysing and frightening as the torture, rape or death of innocent children. If there is one thing I’m sure of, it is that Russia will pay for all the hardship and suffering they’ve bestowed upon our kids.

Still, I cannot tell you how great it feels knowing that millions are standing with us, on the right side of history. I’m so grateful for your support, your heartfelt comments here, and the messages on Facebook and Twitter. I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude for this opportunity to speak with you every week.

I love my country with all my heart, and it pains me to see so many of our people hurting, and going through hell; but seeing so much of your empathy, watching you, the people of South Africa, taking a strong stance on the condemnation of evil, makes me believe we are going to get through this. Just like we did in World War 2, standing together against the genocidal Nazi horde. Thus, from the bottom of my blue and yellow Ukrainian heart: THANK YOU!

Traditional cuisine

So today, I’ve decided not to talk to you about war, but rather to show you yet another side of our culture that is our passion, our pride and our love — the magic that is traditional Ukrainian cuisine. Let me start by introducing you to a few of my personal favourites.

None of our best food is simplistic, plain or easy to make. None of it. We can cook dishes for days, or, when it comes to cured meats of our fermented dishes — for weeks, or months even. Our dishes are usually complicated, with heaps of different ingredients. We have many specific techniques for preparing our porridges, fermented and cured foods, baked goods and, of course, our sweets.

Our traditional food is based on what we can catch and grow locally. We are a huge country with lakes, mountains, forests, seas and unbelievably fertile soil that’s able to grow almost anything, so the food is very versatile. 

Based on the region you’re in, it varies extremely. For example, in Odesa on the Black Sea in the south, and Ivano-Frankivsk in the western part of Ukraine in the Carpathian region, with lots of gorgeous valleys and mountains, apart from the staples, the dishes are very different. 

Pancakes with tiny fish

Ukrainians even find themselves surprised by the traditional home food of other regions. I grew up in Odesa, so pancakes with tiny fish were something absolutely beloved and very ordinary in every household in our city. I was surprised to find out that people in other cities have never even heard of these! And for me, food made from boletus mushrooms, which can be found throughout Ukraine, but grow especially fragrant and gorgeous in the mountains, was something new and magical.

A lot of our food is heavy — we love our fatty foods and cook a lot with rendered pork fat. One of our main national dishes, the most famous, is actually lard which is frozen and then thinly sliced and served with garlic, bread and an assortment of pickled vegetables.

A few fun facts: before the pandemic, our cuisine was ranked among the most delicious cuisines in the world by the Yonderbound travel blog — we were in the top 10, and in the top three in Europe. Some sources say that the roots of our traditional cooking go as far back as 7,000 years and point to the people of Trypil.

Ukrainian food is well known and praised worldwide, and I can proudly say that there is a lot to talk about. There are half a thousand examples of Ukrainian ritual bread brought to the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv from 100 villages situated in 18 of Ukraine’s regions.

In 1848, while in Ukraine, the French writer Honore de Balzac wrote in a letter “… when you come to Ukraine, this earthly paradise, where I have noticed 77 ways of making bread..” I’m including a few photos of our traditional wedding bread — caraway, just so you can see how incredibly fairytale-like it is. I just love it.

Now, on to the food. At the very top of my list is, of course, our main praised possession — Ukrainian borscht. If you visit the Unesco website, you can find a cultural heritage section that reads: 

“Culture of Ukrainian borscht cooking was inscribed on Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, composed of representatives of the States Parties to the Unesco Convention. 

“The culture of borscht cooking has long been practised and celebrated in all regions of Ukraine, with communities, families and restaurants developing their own versions of this traditional and popular dish, which is based on beetroot. It reflects local characteristics and products depending on the region. Variations of borscht can include mushrooms, fish or sweet peppers. Whether as part of a wedding meal, the focus of food-related competitions or as a driver of tourism, borscht is considered part of the fabric of Ukrainian society, cultural heritage, identity and tradition.”

It does not matter where you try it — I’ve had borscht in many regions, restaurants and households, in Ukraine as well as abroad, and it was a pleasure every single time. 

It is sweet, salty, fatty, peppery goodness in a bowl. Traditionally served with thinly sliced lard, green or yellow onions and gorgeous baked buns — pampushky, smothered with melted butter and garlic — it’s all pure perfection. Since it is such a popular dish in Ukraine, many restaurants are competing in presentation.

Nowadays, in Kyiv, you can order it in a soup dish made out of bread or even a full head of lettuce. There’s a lot of creativity and love that goes into every bowl of borscht and I urge you to try it if the chance presents itself. 

Another of my absolute favourites is varenyky. This dish is like bread or potato pancakes — almost every country in the world has its version and yet, they are all nothing alike. So you will understand what varenyky are — they are our version of dumplings, tortellini, empanadas, pierogies, khinkali, and so on, essentially a dough stuffed with filling. Though when it comes to Ukrainian cuisine — we have all of them! There are hundreds of things you can stuff them with and a hundred ways to prepare them. 

The most popular on the savoury side are varenyky with different kinds of minced meats, potatoes and mushrooms, potatoes with meat and fried onions, the ones with cabbage are gorgeous, potatoes and fish, cheese and pumpkin, potatoes with liver are so tasty, mashed beans and mushrooms or even fermented cabbage. We have a lot. 

As for the sweet side — traditional ones are made with sweetened cottage cheese, wild cherries or raspberries. Varenykys are almost always boiled and then served with fried bacon with onions, melted butter or sour cream, and the sweet ones usually also get a dollop of sour cream and butter and always a generous portion of aromatic Ukrainian honey. Some regions also steam or fry their varenyky and some bake them in traditional Ukrainian clay pots in wooden ovens, with lots of fat and onions.

Bograch is traditionally cooked over an open fire, and it is cooked until all of the flavours combine and melt into each other.

Next, one of my personal favourites and the last one for today’s column is bograch — a gorgeous dish with heaps of flavour. This dish is highly influenced by neighbouring Hungary and is one of the most common ones in the west of Ukraine.

The main ingredients of bograch are meats of various types, lard, potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, and lots of spices, with the star of the show — paprika or smoked paprika. Bograch is traditionally cooked over an open fire, and it is cooked until all of the flavours combine and melt into each other. The name of the dish means “cauldron” and refers to the method of cooking — in a cauldron over flames. 

Oh… I forgot, there is also our creamy banush, a fantastic savoury fatty cornmeal porridge made with a variety of meat toppings — we have developed thousands of different ways to prepare meats, and our kielbasa sausages are legendary.

Then there are minced meat and vegetable cabbage rolls — holubtsi, that are cooked in tomato and sour cream sauce, which are unforgettable! Halushky, kulish, Chicken Kyiv cutlets, deruny, kholodets, gambovtsy, syrnyky, mlyntsy… there are tons of scrumptious soups, fantastic cured meats and an unbelievable amount of baked goods, either sweet or savoury. And I’m going to find the time to tell you about them. If you would like some recipes — just write and I’ll gladly post them on our Embassy Facebook page.

Our cuisine is indeed magical, and so is Ukraine. DM

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  • Rob Wilson says:

    What an amazing contribution by a country Ambassador! I together with several of my colleagues did a lot of work in Ukraine 2005 through 2010 and we spent many months as guests in company guest houses and hotels from Kyiv eastwards as far as Donetsk, north to Kharkiv and south to Odesa. As South Africans we were always welcomed and were overfed by a hospitable nation working hard to escape the previous yolk of the USSR, remnants of which are now once again raining havoc on its people. It grieves me and creates great shame to be associated with my country cuddling up to Putin’s Russia. May the Ukrainian culture continue to shine brightly through its food Ambassador Abravitova.

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