'In Ukraine, food and hospitality are a way to express love and caring' (Olena Braichenko)

·6-min read
An image of varenyky from 'Ukraine. Food & History'

This is the dish that best represents the diversity of Ukrainian cuisine. It is prepared by any family and you will also find it on the menu in restaurants. It is prepared for everyday meals as well as for special events such as weddings and funerals. Back in March, we wrote about a book entirely dedicated to Ukraine's culinary specialties and customs. Now we have finally been able to get in touch with its author, Olena Braichenko, now back in Kyiv. Traditional dishes, key exports, the culture of food, transmission of recipes... We discussed several topics related to the preservation of Ukraine's culinary heritage.

ETX STUDIO: First of all, how are you and where are you now?

Olena Braichenko : I have just returned to a suburb of Kyiv, which has been partially destroyed. Russian troops are not occupying the area. I have some ongoing projects in the Czech Republic and in Great Britain, so I would like to travel again. However, at the moment it's difficult to make long-term plans...I have a large library at my home. I would like to take the time to digitize all of it. I don't want to lose any of it...

How did the project of writing a book introducing the world to Ukrainian cuisine come about?

I have been working in the food industry for ten years. This particular project started with a request from the institution responsible for promoting the image of Ukraine abroad; I put together a team of researchers and chefs in order to demonstrate the rich and unique subject that is Ukrainian food. Many people think that it is a version of Soviet gastronomy, or simply that Ukrainian gastronomy didn't exist. The project started out in digital form.

What is the difference between Ukrainian and Russian cuisine?

I must say that I prefer to not answer this question, at least when it is formulated like this. It would be absurd, for example, to compare the cuisine of northern France with that of the south. My blood pressure rises more when I hear this question than when a siren goes off... It's the idea of comparison that is sensitive.

What are the foundations of Ukrainian cooking?

Seasonality has a key place in the DNA of Ukrainian food. When watermelons are ready to harvest, we know that autumn is on its way. Winter becomes concrete when we start seeing the vegetables that will be used for fermented recipes at the markets. For instance, cabbage. In my village, which was recently liberated, inhabitants have returned in a hurry so as not to miss the moment when the potatoes must be planted. In a few weeks, the new potatoes that we cook with butter and dill will be ready. This dish is accompanied by the first cucumber salads. It is a harbinger of summer. Furthermore, the Ukrainian population has a very strong attachment to animals. When my village was occupied due to the invasion, Russian soldiers questioned a neighbor who had stayed. They wondered why she hadn't left the village. She answered, "I have two cows. I can't leave and abandon them!" There is a lot of respect for all that is living. One of the other things unique about Ukrainian cuisine is its ability to ration consumption. We know how to store foods to make them last and to make reserves.

Which is why the fermentation process is essential in the culinary culture of your country...

Absolutely, in addition to drying and smoking. These processes are used on apples, pears, cherries...

Is the idea of sharing meals and food important in Ukrainian culture?

Hospitality, taken to an extreme, is indeed a part of our culinary culture. You can never take your depart from a Ukrainian family's home without being given a good meal. You will be offered a cake, like a kind of pound cake with cream, or small canapés, for example. In order to do this interview, I had to go to a village that had an internet connection. I stayed with my sister for the occasion. This morning, I had breakfast of course, but she also did not miss the opportunity to make some cakes for me! It's part of her duty as hostess and lady of the house. In fact anytime someone is a guest, they must leave with a piece of what was prepared. It can be a dish to devour right away or to eat later. Food is a language of caring and love. It's a way of showing your attachment to that person.

How does the transfer of culinary knowledge take place in your culture?

Ukrainian families habitually write down their own recipes in notebooks. These notebooks are then passed from one woman to another. There aren't many cookbooks dedicated to Ukrainian gastronomy. The transfer of culinary knowledge rather takes place on a practical level. First, you observe how the cook operates. Then, you're invited to get involved.

Is cooking the domain of women, or do men also spend significant time in the kitchen?

Cooking is seen as more the business of women. It is one of the key qualities of a good housewife in Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is men who run professional kitchens.

Before the Russian invasion, many readers may have been unaware just to what extent Ukraine is rich in resources; now they have learned about its considerable wheat and rapeseed crops. What are other emblematic examples of the country's produce that we should know about?

Rapeseed, wheat and sunflowers are indeed the main agricultural exports of Ukraine. Some other examples are honey and berries such as raspberries and blueberries, as well as cherries and watermelons. And, in the last five years, the country has developed an industry of snail production. Eighty percent is intended for foreign markets. Ukraine also exports poultry, mainly chicken, to Europe, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

Several million refugees who have fled in the last few months since the beginning of the invasion are now living throughout Europe, which should give Europeans an opportunity to learn more about their culture. When it comes to food, what are specialties and dishes they will likely share with us to start with?

They will almost certainly teach you how to prepare borshch. They will also likely prepare varenyky -- potato dumplings, as well as stuffed cabbage and Ukrainian-style cutlets that are breaded like the Milanese version.

The first thing you mentioned was borshch. Is it the most iconic recipe of your country's culinary culture?

This is the dish that best represents the diversity of Ukrainian cuisine. It is prepared by just about every family, and you will also find it on the menu in restaurants. It is prepared for everyday meals as well as for special events such as weddings and funerals.

The current invasion aims to destabilize Ukrainian identity. Do you think that food can play a role in the representation and preservation of Ukrainian identity?

Ukrainian identity is based on values. It's not just a matter of cooking. We are attached to freedom! We want to keep our country free and independent.

French-language cookbook "Ukraine, Cuisine et Histoire - Olena Braichenko, Maryna Hrymych, Ihor Lylo & Vitaly Reznichenko - Chefs cuisiniers : Yaroslav Artyukh, Vitaliy Guralevych, Denys Komarenko, V'Yacheslav Popkov, Oksana Zadorozhna & Olena Zhabotynska" is published by éditions de La Martinière.

"Ukraine. Food and History" - Olena Braichenko, Maryna Grymych, Ihor Lylo and Vitaly Reznichenko, with chefs Yaroslav Artyukh, Vitaliy Guralevych, Denys Komarenko, V'Yacheslav Popkov, Oksana Zadorozhna & Olena Zhabotynska, is available in English and Ukrainian through the Ukrainian Institute and Їzhakultura project.

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