ukraine tales: 4 posts

Ukrainian Borscht Poltava Style : My Family Borshch Recipe

You can spell it borscht, borshch, or borsch, but by any name, it’s the dish that embodies the essence of Ukrainian food culture–colorful, rich and vibrant. To call it soup wouldn’t be correct, because Ukrainian borscht is a dish more like minestrone, pot-au-feu or cocido in its heartiness. Every region of Ukraine has different varieties of borscht. There is no one authentic recipe, although there are classical versions. Borscht in Lviv in the west of Ukraine is ruby-red and includes small mushroom-filled dumplings; it’s an essential Christmas Eve dish. In the south of Ukraine, borscht is made with fish. The Central Ukrainian-style borscht–the most popular variation–is famous for its sweet-sour flavors. Borscht can be made with beef, pork, chicken, duck, beans, and even fish. It can be vegetarian. It can be soured with tomatoes, beet kvas, vinegar, sour cherries, rhubarb or red currants. It can be flavored with mushrooms or dried plums. It can include white beets and be pale in color. It can be spicy with paprika or suave with sour cream.

Outside of Eastern Europe, borscht tends to be associated with Russian cooking, since people tend to label everything from the former Soviet Union as Russian. Borscht in different variations is also enjoyed in Poland (barszcz), Lithuania (barščiai) and Romania (borş). Nevertheless, if you think of borscht as soup with beets, cabbage and tinted red with tomatoes, then it’s the Ukrainian version that you have in mind. According to the Russian food historian, Olga Syutkina, that version became popular in Russia at the end of the 18th century, when this dish was introduced on the tsarist army’s menu. Originally, borscht was the food of the peasants, because it was easy to cook in advance and was nutritious enough to be served as a one-dish meal. With the immigration of the Ashkenazi Jewish community to North America, borscht–the English spelling gives away its Yiddish roots–became popular in the New World.

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Roses and Honey

Poltava, in central Ukraine, is famous for its honey. Every year the city and its environs host fairs celebrating honey in all its forms, and whenever I visit my grandmother, who is a Poltava native, I enjoy this sweet treat in gingerbreads, cakes, drinks and even savory dishes. One of the most beloved local pairings is first-of-the-season honey drizzled over cucumbers.

On a recent visit, I discovered yet another way to eat honey – infused with roses. It was heaven. So, for my recent FT column, The Fragrance of Honey and Roses, I’ve decided to recreate this combination and to find fragrances that are build around the rose-honey accord.

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Lilac Chronicles

When Asya, my great-grandmother, traveled, she always came back with a sapling wrapped in damp newspapers. Asya’s doctor prescribed for her mineral water treatments for her chronic kidney ailment, and she often went away to take cure. But I rather think that she was on a mission to collect as many flowering plants as possible. Once back, her suitcases thrown on the bench in the yard, she went into the garden–still in her heels and hat–and planted the drooping seedlings. Some wilted, but many took root, filling the air with their fragrance–roses, carnations, lilies, jasmine.

Asya’s favorite plant was lilac. She brought them from every trip, from every visit to a greenhouse or a flower market. When I can’t fall asleep at night, I often imagine the path into Asya’s garden flanked by two tall lilac trees that bend towards each other. I count the lilac varieties and try to remember their scent, but usually slumber overtakes me before I get past the tenth bush.

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Pysanka Easter Egg Museum in Kolomyia, Ukraine

Decorating eggs is an ancient tradition, still alive in many countries, from Iran to Greece, but in Ukraine it becomes an art form–and a national obsession. Pysanka, as the decorated egg is called, from the word “pysaty”, “to write,” is  one of the most important traditional arts in Ukraine. Today pysanka (plural is pysanky) is prepared around Easter, although decorated eggs were also used to be given as birthday gifts and wedding presents. Each region has its own set of symbols, colors and patterns, while each master adds their own signature touch.

It’s not surprising then that Ukraine should have a museum dedicated to the pysanky. The Pysanka Museum in the western Ukrainian city of Kolomyia is one of the most fascinating museums I’ve visited. The museum was a labor of love of the local community that collected the best examples of its pysanka masters and preserved them in the Kolomyia church of the Annunciation. In 2000, the museum was formally opened, allowing for preservation of the fragile masterpieces, as well as for hosting workshops and lectures. Walking through its halls filled with more than 1000 pysanky is a mind-blowing experience. It’s hard to believe that such intricate designs are made by human hands.

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