Our screens are awash with footage of Ukrainians made suddenly homeless, and we’re mourning this senseless disruption and destruction of human life. I’m in awe of the Ukrainians’ resilience and determination to defend their country. And I’m inspired by food writer Olia Hercules, not only the project she’s launched to raise funds for her besieged homeland, but also her 2020 book Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from every Corner of Ukraine. It reminds us that to live is to plant and harvest and cook and eat, that history lives in kitchens and markets and on bakery shelves, even as Putin’s artillery would reduce them to rubble.
Ukrainian food is more than borscht. More than chicken Kiev, a dish strongly associated with Ukraine but which is, I think, an early twentieth-century creation. In any case, whatever its origin story, let’s now call it chicken Kyiv. Sometime after 2018 Kiev became Kyiv. Reclaiming the city’s original name was a desire by Ukraine to disentangle itself from its Soviet past and assert an independent identity away from the shadow of Russian dominance.
Ukrainian cuisine is rustic, is home-cooking, is sour and honey-sweet, is dumplings and mushrooms, is cabbage stuffed, is hearty and earthy and profoundly grainy. Buckwheat, rye, potatoes, beetroot and berries. There’s an obvious overlap with Polish cooking, but at the Ukrainian table you’ll also find echoes of Jewish culinary practices. As well as tastes from Turkey, Hungary and other Slavic and Central European countries.
In solidarity with the people of Ukraine, last night’s dinner featured—amongst other things—potatoes, pickled cucumber and a beetroot salad with rocket, dill and a mustardy olive oil dressing.
I’m going to end this post with a few lines from Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka by Nikolai Gogol, published in 1831 – 32. Gogol grew up in Ukraine and the stories in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka draw on his childhood memories.
‘ … the same table on which they had left vodka when they went out to dinner was now, as though by some magical transformation, covered with little saucers of jam of various sorts and dishes of cherries and different kinds of melons … the old lady became more disposed to talk and, of her own accord, without being asked, revealed a great many secrets in regard to the making of apple cheese, and the drying of pears …
But Ivan Ivanovich was more talkative and active than anyone else. Feeling secure that no one would snub or contradict him, he talked of cucumbers and of planting potatoes and of how much more sensible people were in old days.’
From ‘The Dinner’, in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow. Translator uncredited.
PS. After receiving an official request for assistance from the Government of Ukraine, the World Food Programme has launched an emergency operation to provide food assistance for people fleeing the conflict. To donate click here.