I have survived another year of Christmas/New Year holiday feasting, and it pains me to admit that the experience has left me with more than a few extra pounds added to my bodily reserves of fat that the process of human evolution has bestowed upon me as a contingency against any possible future famine. The month and a half of constant gustatory excess typical of both the standard as well as additional Ukrainian year-end holidays, has left me faced with the challenge of getting my weight back down to a more reasonable and healthy level.
The problem is that Ukrainian cuisine is just too good, and my power of self-restraint when it comes to eating is too weak, for me to dine responsibly. A steady stream of varenyky, sour cream, szkvarky, cabbage rolls, kasha, patychky, kobassa, salo and other such delights, may be a delight to my taste buds, but such foods are more suited to a physically labor-intensive peasant lifestyle than the more sedentary one І have become accustomed to.
Let’s face it, any ethnic cuisine has deep roots tied to the geography, agricultural practices and the physical dietary requirements of its population throughout the course of its history. Ukraine has always had a primarily agriculturally based society which required a lot of heavy manual labour. This resulted in a high calorie, high carbohydrate and high fat diet that could sustain the corresponding physical demands of day to day life of that time. And so Ukrainian cuisine developed, built on staples such as local grains, dairy products, eggs, pork, cabbage and other vegetables. In more recent centuries it broadened as items such as rice, potatoes and corn migrated to Ukraine from other areas of the world, and more expensive foods such as beef became more affordable to the masses.
When our immigrant forebears came to Canada, they brought their traditional cuisine with them, and it is safe to say that this is one of the more long-lasting aspects of our culture that survives to this day. Varenyky and cabbage rolls have become iconic Ukrainian foods, the appreciation of which have spread far and wide in Canada beyond just the Ukrainian community, to the point of almost being cliché. Regrettably, there is also a widely held impression that Ukrainian cuisine is simple and fairly limited in its diversity.
Unlike many Ukrainian Canadians, I have had the opportunity to live in Ukraine and have travelled to almost every corner of its vast territory. In the process, I discovered a wide variety of Ukrainian dishes that I had never encountered growing up in Canada. There are many unique regional cuisines as well as interesting variations to the things that our mothers and grandmothers used to prepare.
One such example, is a Hutsul dish called “banosh” that I discovered while travelling in the Carpathian mountain area of Ukraine. Basically, one simmers corn meal in cream, and when it has reached the consistency of a thick porridge, one serves it topped with “brindza” a crumbled local cheese similar to feta, as well as “szkvarky” (crumbled, fried fatty bacon). It is rich, filling and quite tasty.
In Eastern Ukraine, I discovered a dish called Kulish made by and popular with Kozak warriors in centuries past. It is basically a one pot hearty soup made with millet, salo (pork fat), potatoes, onions, parsley and salt.
In much of Central Ukraine, I found that many restaurants do not serve butter with the bread they bring to your table, but instead, something called “Zelene Maslo”, or green butter. It is made with ground salo (pork fat), mixed with garlic and various green herbs, typically dill or parsley. Spread on some good dark rye bread, it beats butter anytime.
While visiting Crimea, I discovered an incredible variety of Tatar dishes many of which I will respectfully submit have also become being part of contemporary Ukrainian cuisine as well. One of my favourites was “Chebureky” which are a half-moon shaped deep fried turnovers filled with a spicy minced meat and onion filling. Also on my favourites list was “Plov”, the Tatar version of a rice pilaf made with lamb, onions carrots, various other vegetables and spices that vary widely from cook to cook, but which typically include saffron, coriander, cumin and paprika.
Ukrainian cuisine is far richer and more varied than most people think, and I have been fortunate to sample much more of it than the average Ukrainian Canadian. The problem with writing about it like this, is that it is making me hungry, and that is not good for my current diet!