Olena Braichenko: “Ukrainian cuisine is not a version of Soviet gastronomy”

In early March, a book was released entirely devoted to the specialties and culinary customs of Ukraine, published by La Martinière editions.

Its author, Olena Braichenko, now back in kyiv, talks about her book. Specialties, export products, sharing, culinary transmission…

First of all, how are you and where are you currently?

Olena Braichenko : I have just returned to a suburb of Kyiv which was partially destroyed. Russian troops do not occupy the surroundings. I have projects in Czech republic and in Britain, so I would like to travel again. However, it is difficult to see long-term projects at the moment… At home, I have set up a extensive library. I would like to take the time to digitize them. I really don’t want to lose them…

How was born the project to write a book presenting all the specificities of Ukrainian cuisine?

At the request of the institution promoting the image of Ukraine abroad, I formed a team of researchers and leaders in order to demonstrate the richness and uniqueness 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 cuisines?

I confess to not enjoying 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… This is the notion of comparison which is sensitive.

What are the basics of Ukrainian cuisine?

The seasonality is essential in the DNA of Ukrainian cuisine. When the watermelons arrive, we know that this announces the imminent arrival of autumn. Winter becomes concrete when on the markets we find the vegetables which will be used for fermented recipes. This concerns the cabbage for example. 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, which we cook with butter and dill. It is served with the first salads of cucumbers. It’s a harbinger of summer.

Furthermore, the Ukrainian population has a very strong attachment to the animals. When my village was occupied by the conflict, the Russian soldiers interrogated my neighbor, who had stayed behind. They did not understand why she had not left the village. She answered : “I have two cows. I can’t leave 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 the store to make them last and stock up.

This is why the fermentation process is essential in the culinary culture of your country…

Absolutely, and there is the drying and the smoking. This concerns apples, pears, cherries…

Is the notion of sharing important?

extreme hospitality is also part of our culinary culture. You can’t leave a Ukrainian family without being fed well. You will be offered a cake, like a kind of pound cake topped with cream, or small canapes 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 bake me some cakes! It’s part of his homemaker duty.

Moreover, when someone is invited, the latter must leave with a piece of what was prepared. It can be a dish to eat right away or to devour later. Food is a language of caring and love. It is a way of showing your attachment to this person.

How does culinary transmission take place within your culture?

Ukrainian families are used to writing down in notebooks their own recipes. These notebooks then pass from one woman to another. There are not many cookbooks dedicated to Ukrainian gastronomy. The transmission actually takes place by practice. First, we observe how the cook operates. Then, you are invited to get your hands dirty.

Is the kitchen the prerogative of women or do men also pass behind the stoves?

It is estimated that the kitchen is rather a women’s affair. This is one of the qualities of a good housewife in Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is many men who run the professional kitchens.

With this conflict, many readers have discovered that Ukraine is rich in resources, especially wheat and rapeseed. What are the other emblematic culinary productions that we absolutely must know?

the rapeseedthe corn and the sunflower are indeed the flagship products exported by Ukraine. But there is also the Honey and berries such as raspberries and the blueberries or even the cherries and the watermelons. And then, over the past five years, the country has developed a production ofsnails. 80% are destined for foreign markets. Ukraine finally exports poultryin particular from chicken to Europe, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

Several million refugees have been welcomed across Europe since the beginning of the conflict. We will learn more about their culture. In the kitchen, in your opinion, what specialties and recipes will they teach us first?

For sure, they will teach you how to prepare a Borscht. They will also cook varenikipotato ravioli, but also stuffed cabbagefrom Ukrainian cutletswhich are breaded as for the Milanese version.

From the outset, you mentioned borscht. Is this the most emblematic 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 you will also find it à la carte at restaurant. It is also prepared for daily meal only for importants events like a wedding or after a funeral.

This conflict attempts to destabilize Ukrainian identity. Do you believe that cuisine plays a role in representing and maintaining Ukrainian identity?

Ukrainian identity is based above all on values. It’s not just about cooking. We are committed to freedom! We want to maintain our free and independent country.

(“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 – Editions de La Martinière)

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