Ukrainian meals

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Above: One of the finest meals presented to us, prepared by my mother’s godfather’s granddaughter, who visited us in the US in the early 1990′s.  Her grandfather was very close with my grandfather, as they emigrated to the United States together through Germany, during and after WWII.  

Between Amsterdam and Lviv, Lael and I dined and drank almost exclusively on the ground.  We purchased food in markets and in small town shops, and ate in parks and high atop hills.  We pointed at cheeses and meats and pronounced new words to taste the local flavors, ranging from fresh cheeses to the popular packaged snacks of the country.  In each place, we discover favorite in-season produce, packaged cookies, or alcoholic libations.  Cheeses and sausages change subtly between places, but they change.  Wine gets better or worse, depending upon your proximity to France, Italy, and Spain; while vodka gets better depending upon your proximity to Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.  Belgian and German beers are the best, while the Czech brands are also among the best, perfect for an afternoon in the shade.

In Ukraine, our patterns changed.  We left our bikes for a period of ten days to travel by rail, bus, and foot.  We visited family, dined in restaurants, and picnicked on overnight trains.  Most all of this time, we ate in chairs at tables.  Most impotently, we often dined with the guard of a local cook, ensuring a uniquely Ukrainian experience.  In Ukraine, we were served horilka (vodka) at breakfast, although we declined.  We experienced the season in which trucks loaded with watermelons from the coastal plains of the Black Sea flood the countryside with produce.  We tasted caviar from the Caspian and homemade wines from grapes grown overhead.  We ate familiar and unfamiliar things, discovering that many of the things we prepare for ourselves as Ukrainian-Americans is outdated, regional, or most likely reserved for special occasions.  As anywhere, we discovered a food culture which is far greater than the summary of a few popular dishes.

From my time at the Ukrainian table, both at home with my grandparents and in Ukraine, I know that simple handmade food is best.  In Ukraine, family-style dining is the only style.  Potatoes, cheese, tomatoes, bread, kovbasa, and maslo (butter), are good for you.

While in Ukraine, I stood on chairs at every dining table I visited.  I photographed markets, picnics, parties, and farms.  We dined in homes with family, and prepared simple meals while traveling by rail.  These photos are the result.  This began as a simple project to reveal several memorable and picturesque table settings.  It has become a broad catalogue of our time in Ukraine, and the relation of people and food and family.  It is an exciting reminder of where we are headed in a few weeks.

We begin by visiting my grandfather’s family in Bershad, near Vinnytsia.  There is a great market in Vinnytsia, adjacent to the train station.

Breakfast.

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Lunch, times three. As guests on my birthday, we received overflowing hospitality.

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Two.

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Three.

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Dinner

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When visiting, sometimes you need a snack between meals.

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And a snack between snacks.  When you want to be the best host that you can be, food is essential.  In a country that has experienced shortages and hunger, food is one of the most important things you can give.

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Traveling to Kyiv, thanks to my cousin Yaroslav.  A meal appears out of the trunk of the car.

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Visiting Olya, my mother’s godfathers granddaughter in the suburbs of Kyiv.  Another birthday cake, this one is the popular Kyivski Torte, most notably manufactured by the Roshen chocolate and confections company owned by recently elected President PoROSHENko.

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At the B&B in downtown Kyiv, probiotic yogurt, coffee, rolls, and fruit make a nice breakfast.  Kyiv is a world away from life in the village.  They might as well be separated by 80 years.

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Dining out is the only time we received individual plates of food, although we applied family-style dining rules.

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Great handmade varenyky and bliny at the Pecherska Lavra monastery.

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Picnic on the train, more Euro than Ukrainian.

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Chai, almost always plain black tea, is common.  How many scoops of sugar do you want?  They will look at you strange if you say none.  Some use enough sugar so that the spoon will stand up.

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In Stakhanov, in the far east, we visit my grandmother’s family.  We arrive to a refreshing lunch outdoors in the garden.

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They don’t buy the wine and horilka, but make it at home and reuse old bottles.  The woman in the green dress is like a great-aunt to me, and is reported to have a small business selling homemade horilka.  She’s got to be sure to test her product for quality, even at lunch.

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We enjoy a late dinner outdoors after taking Zhenya to see his first movie at the theater in town.  It is watermelon season, for sure.  Trucks line the roadsides selling melons from down south.

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The next day is structured around a meal at another house down the street.  The table sits beneath a trellis of grapes, next to the root cellar, amidst drying sunflowers.  These people are hardly farmers, but they grow most of their food.

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And make their own drinks to enjoy.

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Three generations.

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Back to Kyiv, via Kharkiv, on the train.  A quick snack in the train station.  Trains operate at maximum occupancy.  While many facilities and trains are old, the stations are gorgeous thanks to Soviet spending.

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Take-out in Kyiv, including traditional Ukrinian dishes and a French baguette.  Incidentally, it is harder to find tradtiionaf food in Kyiv than is it to find some more modern international offerings.  Sushi is immensely popular in the city right now.

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Leaving my parents and my family behind, Lael and I train back to Lviv, to ride our bicycles into the Carpathian Mountains.  We stop in Striij to rejoin Przemek.  He’s already made friends in town.  In fact, he’s made a lot of friends.

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Darts, once the meal has subsided.

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And a little homemade juice for the road.  Thanks Djorka!

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Into the moutnains, we stop at a small farm which serves simple meals.

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Down the road while filling water at a mineralic spring, we are invited to stay with Pavlo and his wife at their summer dacha, about 25 miles up the road.  We arrive to a hot meal of stuffed peppers.  They live full-time in Ivano-Frankivsk, and are lucky enough to have a small summer home in the mountains.

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The most typical Ukrainian breakfast includes buckwheat, prepared with a fried egg and a pickle in this case.  Black tea starts the day.

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While cycling in the mountains, we encounter a couple of young Ukrainian bikepackers.  We share a picnic outside a small shop including pickled fish, cheese, bread, vegetables, and chocolate.

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Returning to Striij, we enjoy one more meal with our friends.  We peel potatoes, cut watermelon and salo (pork fat), and sit under a starry sky.  Nights like this are validating and encouraging, despite occasional challenges on the road.

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Food in Ukraine largely comes from close to home.

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Just out the door.

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Out back.

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In the garden.

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Or out in the fields.

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Drying for later use.

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Underground for much later.

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Brought to the table bit by bit, until hopefully, the next harvest has arrived to replenish the supply.

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From local markets.

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Selling goods from distant regions.

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Or from local producers, selling goods which may be transported around the country, such as these wines from Crimea.

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Chardonnay.

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And horilka, this one made with buffalo grass to produce a lightly sweet flavor.

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In shops it is not uncommon to see an abacus in use, although it appears there is a calculator in case the abacus fails.

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On the trail, it is hard to ignore this bounty of apples.

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Or these honeys and nuts being sold on the roadside.

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Fresh almonds.

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In Crimea, samsa serves as fast food, sold from this wood-fired drum by the roadside.

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It is less than three weeks before our discovery of food continues in Eastern Europe. Oh, and there should be some good riding along the way.

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15 thoughts on “Ukrainian meals

    • Thanks Daniel. I began compiling these images as a record of several memorable meals. I finished with a strong urge to get the hell out of town. Less than three weeks…

      • Even if it’s in regards to actual porn?

        So, what word should I use instead for “lots of pictures of food set up in a way that it makes you really hungry and/or jealous of the meal(s) being had?”

        • I dislike the word even when it refers to a “gratuitous display” of something, or anything. The word origin seems necessarily tied to the the Greek word “porne” which refers to a prostitute. So, I fail to understand why the word is so lazily used to describe any flourish of imagery, as in bike porn or food porn. However, when the display is purposefully commercial, for personal gain, there may be some sense in its use. But even then, it is still a tainted word in my mind. All of the images here are real events with friends and family. I’ve shared them here as a celebration of culture, and for the benefit of my memory.

          Aside, I’m glad you enjoyed them. Thanks Shawn.

  1. Great post. I work at a food coop and one of the things I constantly see is how narrow a view of food that most americans have. Many people I talk to tend to eat heavy seasoned foods that are not in season and come from far distances. What I see in a lot of these pics are simple foods but I notice how ripe the tomatoes look and how colorful all of the plates are. It looks like a lot of really good stuff.

    • It’s true, and something we notice all across Europe. There are some places where local foods are preserved knowingly, such as in first-world places like France with a strong food culture and an awareness of rural and agricultural history. Then, there are places like Ukraine where local food is preserved out of necessity. Interestingly, some people in rural areas of Ukraine are aware of the concept of industrial food, even as they are mostly exposed to local goods and homegrown produce. Will this guard them from the march of expensive, manufactured foods? All packaged foods in Ukraine are required to be labeled “Bez-GMO” (which means, without GMO), if applicable. This little logo is extremely common. Ukraine is one of the largest exporters of non-GMO soy, grain, and produce in Europe.

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