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

(ETX Daily Up) – At the beginning of March, we presented the release of a book entirely devoted to the specialties and culinary customs of Ukraine, published by La Martinière editions. We finally got in touch with its author, Olena Braichenko, now back in kyiv. Specialties, export products, sharing, culinary transmission… We have covered several topics so that the culinary culture of Ukraine never disappears…

ETX STUDIO: 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 plans in the Czech Republic and Great Britain, so I would like to travel again. However, it is currently difficult to see long-term projects at the moment… At home, I have built up a vast 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 Ukraine’s image abroad, I formed a team of researchers and chefs to demonstrate the richness and uniqueness of 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… It’s the notion of comparison that is sensitive.

What are the basics of Ukrainian cuisine?

Seasonality is paramount in the DNA of Ukrainian cuisine. When the watermelons arrive, we know that it announces the imminent arrival of autumn. Winter becomes concrete when on the markets we find the vegetables that will be used for fermented recipes. This concerns 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 that we cook with butter and dill. It is served with the first cucumber salads. It’s a harbinger of summer. In addition, the Ukrainian population has a very strong attachment to animals. When my village was occupied by the conflict, the Russian soldiers interrogated her neighbor who had remained. They wondered why she hadn’t left the village. She replied “I have two cows. I can’t go away 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 how to store them to make them last and to stock up.

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

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

Is the notion of sharing important?

Extreme hospitality is also part of our culinary culture. You will never be able to 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! This is part of her duty as hostess. Moreover, when someone is invited, the latter must leave with a piece of what has been 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 their own recipes in notebooks. These notebooks then pass from one woman to another. There are not many cookbooks dedicated to Ukrainian gastronomy. The transmission actually takes place through 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 believed that cooking is more of 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 full of resources, especially wheat and rapeseed. What are the other emblematic culinary productions that we absolutely must know?

Rapeseed, wheat and sunflower are indeed the leading products exported by Ukraine. But there is also honey and berries such as raspberries and blueberries or cherries and watermelons. And then, over the past five years, the country has developed a production of snails. 80% are destined for foreign markets. Finally, Ukraine exports poultry, especially 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 borscht. They will also cook vareniki, potato ravioli, but also stuffed cabbage, Ukrainian-style cutlets that 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 on the menu in the restaurant. It is prepared both for everyday meals and for significant events such as 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 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 La Martinière – publication on April 8, 2022.

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