(ETX Daily Up) – At the beginning of March, we presented the release of a book entirely devoted to the specialties and culinary customs of Ukraine, published by La Martinière editions. We finally got in touch with the author, Olena Braichenko, now back in Kiev. Specialties, export products, sharing, culinary transfer… We have covered various topics so that the culinary culture of Ukraine never disappears…
ETX STUDIO: First of all, how are you and where are you currently?
Olena Braichenko : I just returned to a suburb of Kiev, which has been partially destroyed. Russian troops do not occupy the area. I have plans in the Czech Republic and Great Britain, so I would like to travel again. However, it’s hard to see long-term projects right now… At home, I’ve built up a huge library. I like to take the time to digitize them. I really don’t want to lose them…
How did the project to write a book presenting all the peculiarities of Ukrainian cuisine come about?
At the request of the institution promoting the image of Ukraine abroad, I formed a team of researchers and chefs to demonstrate the richness and uniqueness of Ukrainian cuisine. Many people think that it is a version of Soviet gastronomy, or that Ukrainian cuisine simply did not exist. The project first took on a digital form. I have been working in the food industry for ten years.
What is the difference between Ukrainian and Russian cuisine?
I must confess that I don’t like answering this question, at least when it’s phrased this way. It would be absurd to compare, for example, the cuisine of northern France with that of the south. My tension rises more when I hear this question than when a siren sounds… It is the notion of comparison that is sensitive.
What are the basics of Ukrainian cuisine?
Seasonality is at the heart of the DNA of Ukrainian cuisine. When the watermelons arrive, we know it heralds the approaching arrival of fall. Winter becomes concrete when we find in the markets the vegetables that will be used for fermented recipes. This concerns, for example, cabbage. In my village, which was recently liberated, the inhabitants returned hastily so as not to miss the moment when it was time to plant the potatoes. In a few weeks we will get the new potato that we cook with butter and dill. It is served with the first cucumber salads. It is a harbinger of summer. In addition, the Ukrainian population has a very strong bond with animals. When my village was occupied by the conflict, the Russian soldiers interrogated her neighbor who had stayed behind. They wondered why she hadn’t left the village. She replied, “I have two cows. I cannot go away and abandon them!” There is a lot of respect for the living. One of the other peculiarities of Ukrainian cuisine is its ability to rationalize consumption. We know how to store them to make them last and to stock up.
That is why the fermentation process is essential in the culinary culture of your country…
Absolutely, and there is drying and smoking. It’s about apples, pears, cherries…
Is the concept of sharing important?
Extreme hospitality is also part of our culinary culture. You will never be able to leave a Ukrainian family without being well fed. You will be offered a cake, such as a kind of pound cake with whipped cream, or small canapés for example. To trade with you I had to go to a village with an internet connection. For the occasion I moved in with my sister. I had breakfast this morning, of course, but she didn’t fail to bake me some cakes! This is part of her job as a hostess. In addition, when someone is invited, they must leave with a piece of what has been prepared. It can be a dish to eat right away or to devour later. Food is a language of care and love. It is a way of showing your attachment to this person.
How does culinary transfer take place within your culture?
Ukrainian families are used to writing down their own recipes in notebooks. These notebooks then pass from one woman to another. There are not many cookbooks devoted to Ukrainian gastronomy. The transfer actually takes place through practice. First we observe how the cook works. Then you are invited to get your hands dirty.
Is the kitchen the prerogative of women, or do men go behind the stoves too?
It is believed that cooking is more of a women’s affair. This is one of the qualities of a good housewife in Ukraine. Yet it is many men who run the professional kitchens.
With this conflict, many readers have found that Ukraine is full of resources, especially wheat and rapeseed. What are the other emblematic culinary productions that we absolutely must know?
Rapeseed, wheat and sunflower are indeed the main products exported by Ukraine. But there is also honey and berries such as raspberries and blueberries or cherries and watermelons. And then, in the last five years, the country has developed a production of snails. 80% is destined for foreign markets. Finally, Ukraine exports poultry, especially chicken, to Europe, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
Since the beginning of the conflict, several million refugees have been received throughout Europe. We will learn about their culture. Which specialties and recipes do you think they will teach us first in the kitchen?
They will definitely teach you how to prepare borscht. They will also cook vareniki, potato ravioli, but also stuffed cabbage, Ukrainian cutlets breaded just like the Milanese version.
You mentioned borscht from the beginning. Is this the most emblematic recipe of your country’s culinary culture?
This is the dish that best represents the diversity of Ukrainian cuisine. It is prepared by every family and you will also find it on the menu in the restaurant. It is prepared for everyday meals as well as for important events such as a wedding or after a funeral.
This conflict seeks to destabilize Ukrainian identity. Do you believe that the cuisine plays a role in representing and preserving Ukrainian identity?
Ukrainian identity is mainly based on values. It’s not just about cooking. We stand for freedom! We want to keep our country free and independent.
“Ukraine, cuisine and history” – Olena Braichenko, Maryna Hrymych, Ihor Lylo and Vitaly Reznichenko – Chefs: Yaroslav Artyukh, Vitaliy Guralevych, Denys Komarenko, V’Yacheslav Popkov, Oksana Zadorozhna and Olena Zhabotynska – 45 euros – publications of La Martinière on Apr 8, 2022.