Food in Ukraine: National Cuisine and Modern Eating Habits
Written April 2014
Ukraine's geography and climate are optimal for the production of many kinds of foods, making it a historical "breadbasket of Europe." Ukraine is a major producer of grains, meat and dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and vegetable oils. Many kinds of fresh and salt-water fish (from the Black Sea and Azov Sea) are also harvested on Ukrainian territory.
This article will look at the eating and drinking habits of modern Ukrainians as well as traditional Ukrainian cuisine, which includes well-known dishes like borsch and chicken Kiev.
What do people eat in Ukraine?
With the advent of globalization the eating habits of different nations are gradually becoming more and more similar. If you go to any supermarket you will find a large range of processed foods identical or similar to those you would find in any other country. Many people eat lots of sweets and/or fast food. Obesity rates are quite high and rising, especially among youth.
The average Ukrainian's diet consists of relatively inexpensive and bland staple foods, traditional Ukrainian dishes, fast/junk food, and a few personal idiosyncracies. Low-budget staple foods include: bread, oatmeal, rice, buckwheat, porridge, noodles, sunflower oil, vegetables in season, sausages, eggs, sauces, etc. We'll get to traditional dishes later.
Ukrainian fast food
American-style fast food — burgers, fried chicken, fries, soft drinks, shakes, etc. — has become quite popular. There are both American brands (McDonald's and the like) and local knock-offs. There are also local varieties of fast food: inexpensive baked or fried pastries or pies, shaurma (lavash with vegetables, sauce and meat broiled on a vertical spit), etc. Many people like to nibble sunflower seeds or eat watermelon and other fruit in season as a kind of "fast food" (you can't exactly call watermelon "fast," though...).
Ukrainian-style cafeterias have become very popular in the past 10 years (e.g. Puzata Khata, Zdorovenki Buly, Drova and others). Here you take a tray and ask for servings of food that includes salads, soups, garnishes (side dishes), meat, vegetables, bread, and a variety of desserts. Prices are very reasonable and the food is generally quite good. Middle and high-end Ukrainian restaurants are also available, though higher-end restaurants tend more to offer international cuisine (sushi, Italian, mixed European, etc.).
Drinking plain water has become more common in the past decade but used to be rare. Ukrainians drink a lot of tea and, increasingly, coffee. Sweetened drinks such as lemonade (inexpensive) and juice drinks are popular, while kvass has become less popular than in Soviet times. Beer and wine consumption has gone up since the fall of the USSR, while harder drinks like vodka and cognac are a bit less popular (sorry, I don't have statistics). People still drink "Sovetskoe shampanskoe" champagne during holidays.
Vegetarianism is somewhat popular in large cities, and veganism is gaining popularity as well. Raw food diets have been around for decades but have relatively few adherents. Abstinence from alcohol is surprisingly common given common stereotypes about Ukrainians' affinity for vodka. Low-carb diets are just beginning to make ground.
Ukrainian chocolate (Roshen and Korona brands and others) is excellent and is exported to many countries in the region. Various creamy layered cakes such as "Napoleon" and "Kievskiy Tort" are popular and often consumed with champagne (a terrible combination, in my opinion!). Many different kinds of wrapped candies are available, as well as a wide range of inexpensive cookies. Ice cream is not as popular as in the U.S. and is mostly eaten as a dessert when eating out (or at McDonald's) and not so much in the home.
Traditional Ukrainian cuisine
Many traditional Ukrainian dishes have counterparts in neighboring countries (particularly Poland, Belarussia, and Russia). Here is a pretty full list:
Bliny, or pancakes or crepes —
Borsch — a thick vegetable soup made with beets and usually served with sour cream; meat optional
Buzhenyna — a lump of cold baked pork
"Chicken Kiev" — a cutlet of boneless chicken breast that is then pounded and rolled around cold garlic butter with herbs, then breaded and either fried or baked
Deruny or "Potato pancakes" — fried cakes of grated or ground potato with flour and egg
"Green borsch" or sorrel soup — a soup based on sorrel leaves and broth, often with eggs and vegetables
Halushky — thick, soft dumplings made with wheat or corn flour
Holubtsi or Cabbage rolls — cooked cabbage leaves wrapped around a filling of meat, rice, and spices
Homemade sausage — (self-explanatory)
Kapustniak — vegetable soup made of sauerkraut and/or white cabbage
Kartoplianyky — fried potato cakes with added flour and eggs, served with sour cream
Kholodets or "Aspic" — jellied meat
Kholodnyk or "Cold borsch" — a beetroot soup that is served cold with sour cream
Krovyanka or "Blood sausage" — a sausage made with cooked blood, usually with a buckwheat filler
Kruchenyky — meat rolls with a vegetable filling
Kulesh — a rich millet soup
Kutia — a rich, sweet grain pudding
Nalysnyky — thin crepes wrapped around a filling of curds, mushrooms, meat, jam, berries, etc.
Oladky — a thicker pancake with yeast or soda, served with sour cream
Pampushky — deep-fried pieces of dough; may be sweat or salty
Pechenya — ("zharkoe" in Russian) fried and steamed meat served in a clay pot
Salo — cured slabs of pig fat
Shkvarky or pork rinds — friend pork rinds (skin)
Sychenyky — fried cutlets of minced meat with bread crumbs
Syrniki — fried pancakes with quark (curds) served with sour cream, jam, or honey
Tsybulnyky — fried onion patties with flour and egg
Varenyky — dumplings containing curds, potatoes, cabbage, meat, or fruit
Vatrushka — ring-shaped pastry formed with curds in the middle, often with raisins or bits of fruit for sweetening
Verhuny or "Angel wings" — sweet strips of dough fried in lard or oil
Vushka — small dumplings usually filled with mushrooms and/or minced meatYushka or Ukha — a clear fish soup usually continuing sliced vegetables
Zrazy — meat pies stuffed with rice, buckwheat, mashed potatoes, etc.
Borscht with garlic fritters
Ukrainian dishes often use a number of ingredients. Borscht is a direct proof of this. Initially, this dish was made of 30 ingredients but, of course, over time that number has decreased. However, the technique remains unchanged. Beef is placed in cold water to make a meat broth. Then the meat is taken out and other ingredients are added and cooked in a closed saucepan. Garlic fritters are given instead of bread and called pampushki by locals. Traditionally, every Ukrainian girl learns how to cook borscht before getting married.
Chicken Kiev is the dish that has brought fame to Ukraine. The simple combination of fresh chicken filet with a piece of butter is considered to be quite exquisite all over the world. To ensure that butter does not flow during the frying, you’ll need a lot of practice and true professionalism. Nowadays, chicken Kiev is served in fashionable restaurants across London and New York. It is always the first dish ordered by foodies visiting the Ukrainian capital.
Deruny, or potato pancakes, are a perfect course for breakfast or dinner. They are usually freshly fried or baked. If you want to make a good batch of deruny, first off, you should make sure the potatoes are finely grated. Then, to diversify the flavor, add meat, slices of chopped onions, mushrooms, fresh herbs or a variety of spices. Alternatively, you could just keep it simple: potatoes and a pinch of salt.
It has already become a source of humor: Ukrainians love salo. This well-established symbol of hospitality and wealth is usually served as an appetizer—but sometimes a fully fledged dish. Pork fat is reportedly a source of vitamin D and A, both of which foster brain activity, digestion and detoxification. Put it on rye bread with spices or greens and have yourself a surprisingly healthy snack.
Vareniki is a kind of dumpling. It is made of dough, but the filling depends on the imagination and taste preferences of the chef and their guests. Cabbages, meat, mushrooms, cottage cheese, cherries, currant or potatoes are the most typical fillings. Savory or sweet, vareniki turns out to be succulent. Ukrainians put sour cream almost in every dish, and these dumplings often get the same treatment. Begin your meal with one of these—you won’t regret it.
Stuffed cabbage rolls
Traditional stuffed cabbage rolls, golubtsi, take many hours to prepare properly. There are two ways to make them: bake them in the oven or stew them in a pan. Minced meat with rice wrapped in cabbage leaf requires fine culinary skills and passion. Otherwise, the form and the taste of the rolls will suffer. Golubtsi is a good choice for dinner—top with some sour cream to give it ever more gusto.
Okroshka is a refreshing soup that is mostly cooked during the summer period. The ingredients vary: it may be prepared with kvass or kefir, both of which are sour in taste. The accompanying sausages, cucumbers, greens, carrots and radishes should be chopped in relatively large pieces to give it texture. Once you tried okroshka it’ll soon become your savior from sultry weather.
Western Ukraine has a number of unique recipes that are not as common in the central or eastern parts of the country. One of them is a legendary dish called banush. Decades ago, banush was a dish associated with poverty, but now this staple food is served in the best restaurants across the Carpathians. It is made of corn grits, fried pork fat and cheese, and is traditionally cooked over a fire in order to get it well smoked. Mushrooms are also often added to the porridge, to make the taste even richer.
This strange dish shocks tourists. But, for Ukrainians, it is the central dish served at all celebrations. Holodets is made of meat broth, frozen to a jelly-like state, with pieces of meat inside. One of the main components for this kind of aspic is pork leg. To be more specific, the lowest part, the one that ends with hoofs. During the process of cooking, the smell spreads all over the apartment. But the result is so satisfying that it is worth it.
Fans of sweet flavors for breakfast will fall in love with syrniki. Made of cottage cheese, flour, eggs and sugar, the dish is nourishing and airy. After being gently fried in a pan, syrniki is topped with jam and sour cream. It literally melts in the mouth and will fast become your favorite dish. Despite the simplicity of ingredients, making syrniki is a very exacting process. The most important thing to consider is proportions—make sure you stick to the recipe.
Homemade sausages consist of meat, fat, and spices, in a natural shell. The dish exceeds any store-bought sausage, in composition and quality. Most of the Ukrainian housewives know their own secret recipe and find it easy to cook. Mince pork or beef meat, add some garlic, wrap and bake. Then, the sausages can be frozen and later fried, baked, grilled or simply boiled as a side to vareniki or banush.
Another nourishing recipe, the filling for which can be chosen randomly. Anything that can be wrapped in a pancake can be put inside nalisniki—but the traditional filling is cottage cheese and raisins. The secret to perfecting this dish is cooking it slowly on a low fire. Nalisniki could be mistaken for pancakes, but the difference is that Ukrainian versions are thinner, meaning your filling will dominate the taste. Tourists with a sweet tooth can add jam and sugar.