The Food and Culture of Ukraine

Ukrainians are proud of their land and its rich history. But the nation has also been beset by war and economic decline. Since gaining independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has swung between seeking closer integration with Western Europe and being drawn into Russia’s orbit.

The eastern regions of the country are covered in black, extremely fertile chernozem soils that support huge agrarian economies. In contrast, the northwest and central parts are dominated by sandy podzolized soils, which cannot be farmed easily. The western lands of the former Soviet republic have closer historical ties with Poland and more openness to nationalist sentiment than the east, which has remained close to Russia and still struggles with latent communist legacies and patronage politics.

In the 1st millennium bce, different parts of the region that is today Ukraine were invaded and occupied by Cimmerians, Scythians and Sarmatians, while from the 14th to the 18th century, the land was ruled by Poland, Lithuania and a semi-autonomous state known as the Hetmanate. In the 18th century, Russian rule consolidated its hold over most of the country.

Throughout much of the modern period, the capital, Kiev, was a major center of Orthodox Christianity. The city is still home to numerous impressive monasteries, including the 10th-century Caves on the Berestov Mount.

A typical meal in Ukraine begins with borshch, a thick soup based on beets and other vegetables including carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage and parsley. It’s often served with pieces of meat and garnished with dill. Another popular soup is zelenyj borshch, which has a similar composition but uses a mixture of red and green beets.

Salads are a staple of the Ukrainian diet, and many are made from locally available ingredients. The most simple is a salad of fresh or salty cucumbers and sauerkraut with onions and oil; the peasants tend to prefer a more varied combination. One of the most famous is Olivier potato salad, the king of any feast in the country (as well as school and government canteens).

The savory side of Ukrainian cuisine is represented by such dishes as chicken kiev, a breaded, deep-fried, stuffed breast of chicken filled with cold herbed butter. Early versions of the dish were stuffed with a more complex filling, similar to that used in a quenelle, and were made with the bone still attached.

A typical sweet Ukrainian dessert is syrniky, pancakes made of cottage cheese. In the west of the country, walnut-stuffed prunes are a favorite; they’re usually soaked in water for a few hours before being stuffed with toasted, crushed walnuts and served with sour cream on the side. For something a little stronger, most Ukrainians will turn to horilka, a strong, clear vodka. The drink is a national pride and is produced in abundance in the country’s north. There are several varieties of the beverage, including plum and herbal flavored ones, but the most popular is the plain, unfiltered variety.