(ETX Daily Up) – At the beginning of last March, we presented to you the release of a book entirely devoted to the specialties and culinary customs of Ukraine, published by La Martinière. We finally got in touch with its author, Olena Braichenko, who is now back in Kyiv. Specialties, export products, sharing, culinary transmission … We have covered several topics so that the culinary culture of Ukraine will never disappear …
ETX STUDIO: First of all, how are you doing and where are you now?
Olena Braichenko : I have just returned to a suburb of Kyiv, which has been partially destroyed. Russian troops do not occupy the area. I have plans in the Czech Republic and Britain, so I would like to go on a trip again. However, it is difficult to see long-term projects right now … At home, I have built up a large library. I would like to take the time to scan them. I especially don’t want to lose them …
How did you come up with the idea of writing a book with all the specifics of Ukrainian cuisine?
At the request of the institution promoting the image of Ukraine abroad, I set up a team of researchers and chefs to demonstrate the richness and uniqueness of Ukrainian cuisine. Many people think that this is a version of Soviet gastronomy, or that there is simply no Ukrainian cuisine. 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 admit that I do not appreciate answering this question, when it is formulated in this way at least. It would be absurd, for example, to compare 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 foundations of Ukrainian cuisine?
Seasonality is paramount in the DNA of Ukrainian cuisine. When watermelons arrive, it is known to herald the coming of autumn. Winter becomes concrete when the markets find vegetables that will be used for fermented recipes. This is true of cabbage, for example. In my recently liberated village, the locals came back in a hurry so as not to miss the time to plant the potatoes. In a few weeks you will get the new potato that you cook with butter and dill. It is accompanied by the first cucumber salads. This is a harbinger of the summer. On the other hand, the Ukrainian people have a very strong attachment to animals. When my village was occupied by the conflict, Russian soldiers questioned her neighbor who had remained. They wondered why she had not left the village. She replied, “I have two cows. I can’t leave and give them up!” 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 make reservations.
That is why the fermentation process is essential in the culinary culture of your country …
Absolutely, and there is drying and smoking. This applies to apples, pears, cherries …
Is the notion of sharing important?
Extreme hospitality is also part of our culinary culture. You can never leave a Ukrainian family without being fed well. You will be offered a cake, like a kind of four-quarters topped with cream, if not small sofas for example. To exchange with you, I had to go to a village that had an internet connection. I moved in with my sister for the occasion. I had breakfast this morning of course, but she didn’t fail to make me some cakes! It is part of her duty as a housewife. Besides, when someone is invited, they have to leave with a piece of what has been prepared. This can be a dish to eat right away or to eat later. Food is a language of solicitude and love. It’s a way to show your commitment to that person.
How does culinary transmission work within your culture?
Ukrainian families are used to writing down their own recipes in notebooks. These notebooks are then passed from one woman to another. There are not many cookbooks dedicated to Ukrainian gastronomy. The transmission is actually done through practice. First, we observe how the cook operates. Then you are asked to get your hands on the dough.
Is cooking the prerogative of women, or do men also go behind the stove?
It is believed that cooking is more of a women’s affair. This is one of the qualities of a good housewife in Ukraine. Nevertheless, many men run professional kitchens.
With this conflict, many readers have discovered that Ukraine is full of resources, including wheat and rapeseed. What other iconic culinary productions do we absolutely need to know?
Rapeseed, wheat and sunflower are indeed the main products exported by Ukraine. But there are 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% are destined for foreign markets. Ukraine is finally exporting poultry, including chicken, to Europe, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
Millions of refugees have been welcomed across Europe since the beginning of the conflict. In this way we will learn more about their culture. In the kitchen, in your opinion, what specialties and recipes will they teach us in the first place?
Surely they will teach you how to make a borscht. They will also cook vareniki, potato ravioli, but also stuffed cabbage, Ukrainian-style escalopes that are breaded as for the Milanese version.
You mentioned the borscht right away. Is this the most iconic recipe of your country’s culinary culture?
This is the dish with which one can best represent the diversity of Ukrainian cuisine. It is prepared by any family and can also be found à la carte in the restaurant. It is prepared for everyday meals as well as for significant events such as a wedding or after a funeral.
This conflict is trying to destabilize the Ukrainian identity. Do you think that the kitchen plays a role in the representation and maintenance of the Ukrainian identity?
Ukrainian identity is based primarily on values. It’s not just a matter of cooking. We are committed to 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 – editions of – published on April 8, 2022.