Traditional foods. Ukrainian cuisine is varied and rich in taste and nutritional value. Its development was influenced by the same factors as the development of material culture: geography and climatic conditions, plant cultivation and animal domestication, technological change, cultural influences, and economic relations with other countries.
Since ancient times Ukrainians have practiced a settled form of life based on farming. Archeological evidence shows that wheat, barley, and millet were grown in Ukraine 3,000 years ago. Rye was introduced about 2,000 years ago, and then buckwheat was imported from Asia in the 11th century AD. Already at that time cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry were raised. Beekeeping, hunting, and fishing were practiced. The exceptional fertility of Ukraine's soil and its climate were favorable to the development of agriculture, which had a marked influence on the type of food eaten by Ukrainians.
It is evident from the chronicles and other sources that even in Kyivan Rus’ food was choice, varied, and plentiful. There were professional cooks at princely courts and monasteries, and in the homes of wealthy families. Also, in the Cossack period, the officers (see Cossack starshyna), settled Cossacks, and well-to-do peasants enjoyed various delicacies. In the 19th and early 20th century the culinary arts reached a high level of development, particularly in the homesteads and in the households of parish priests and the urban intelligentsia. Choice dishes were served primarily during the entertainment of guests. In time the new culinary art spread even to the villages. In general, Ukrainian cuisine does not differ from that of Western Europe, yet it has some distinctive features of its own.
As a result of Ukraine's trade relations with other countries, the cultivation of new plants, particularly from eastern and central Asia (eg, melons and eggplants), was introduced into Ukraine. The potato reached Ukraine from America through Europe in the 17th century, followed by corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, cayenne peppers, cocoa, and other plants. The introduction of these new products greatly enriched the variety of Ukrainian foods.
Since ancient times bread has held a special, primary position in the cuisine of the Ukrainian people. Long ago the grain for flour was ground manually between two rounded grindstones; such querns were still in use in some places even in recent times. Then, beginning in the 13th century, water mills and windmills appeared. Today flour milling is highly developed.
A single grinding produces whole-wheat flour, which retains all the constituents of wheat and is used in baking whole-wheat bread. As milling technology was improved, white flour was produced by repeated grinding and sifting. This type of flour is used in baking white-bread or light-rye bread. In preparing rye bread the leavening agent used is not yeast but a sourdough starter, which gives the product a more sour taste than that of wheat bread. In general sour rye bread is the common type of bread produced in Ukraine, except in the southern and southeastern regions, where white-wheat bread is more common. Besides ordinary bread Ukrainians bake various ritual breads from special doughs: the braided bread (kalach), Easter bread (paska), bread with a filling (knysh), wedding bread (korovai), sweet bread (babka), and egg bread (bulka). Many kinds of pastries are popular: turnovers, doughnuts, strudel, poppy-seed rolls, sweet buns, tortes, layered coffee cakes, honey cake, rolls, and cookies. Ukrainian bread with its many variations has become quite famous.
For the common people bread was an object of reverence; it was considered holy and a gift of God. This is attested by the word for grain—zbizhzhia—meaning the totality of divinity. As a sacred object bread plays an important role in all Ukrainian folk customs. No significant family event can take place without it. Bread is used to bring divine blessings to the commencement of every farm task, the marriage ceremony, the birth of a child, and the move to a new home. Bread is also used at funerals and wakes to part with the dead (see Burial rites). As a sign of hospitality, guests of honor at celebrations and public functions are greeted with a ceremonial offering of bread and salt. In the past even the preparation of the dough and the baking of the bread had their own ritual practices and were performed as mysterious, almost magical, acts. Today these rituals have lost their meaning but have been preserved in the folk tradition.
The ritual breads for Christmas, Easter, weddings, and funerals have their special names, shapes, recipes, symbolic meaning, and use. The Easter bread, which is brought to church to be blessed, is in Western Ukraine of low cylindrical shape and is decorated with dough ornaments, as is the sweet bread (babka), while in eastern Ukraine paska has a tall cylindrical form. A special dough is used for the babka, which is made with milk, butter, eggs, sugar, raisins, and, for flavoring, traces of saffron, vanilla, and lemon peel. Cheesecake, layered coffee cake, dainties (khrusty), tortes, and cookies are also prepared for the Easter festivities. The main ritual wedding bread (korovai) is made of a special, rich dough like that used for the babka. The korovai has a circular form and is intricately decorated with dough. There are also other kinds of wedding breads—dyven, lezhen, shyshky. There are various symbols, beliefs, and rituals, at one time strictly adhered to, connected with the korovai. For Christmas and for funerals Ukrainians bake the kalach, symbolizing eternity. For Sundays, feast days, or family celebrations they bake pyrohy (pies) made of leavened dough, or the smaller pyrizhky, a Ukrainian specialty filled with cheese, meat, cabbage, peas, buckwheat, mushroom, plum, or poppy seed. In the past beggars at church doors were given pyrohy or knyshi to pray for the souls of the dead. For Maccabees' Feast (14 August) and Transfiguration (19 August) special biscuits (korzhi) called shulyky were prepared and were served with honey and poppy seed. On the Eve of Epiphany (Shchedryi Vechir) the carolers (see Carols) were rewarded with pastries (balabushky) or pancakes (oladky). Other fancy baked goods include poppy-seed rolls, doughnuts, crescents, tortes, honey cakes, strudels (adopted from Austria), dainties, and cookies.
Cooked or baked cereal—whether wheat, barley, buckwheat, millet, oat, or corn grits—is an ancient Ukrainian food. The most commonly eaten cereals are buckwheat (kasha), millet, and, in the Hutsul region and Transcarpathia, cornmeal (mamalyga or kulesha). The same grits boiled in water or milk to produce a thin gruel is called iushka; a thicker gruel of millet is called kulish or lemishka. In recent times rice has been added to the list of cooked cereals.
There are also dishes made of dough: zatyrka (pieces of dough dropped into boiling water or milk) and dumplings (halushky) made of wheat, buckwheat, or corn flour with or without the addition of potatoes or cheese. The favorite dish made of flour is filled dumplings (varenyky) with various types of filling: cheese, potato and cheese, cabbage, meat, fish, buckwheat, plum. A quick dish, varenytsi, made of rolled out dough cut into triangles, is also quite popular. Such dishes as halushky, varenyky, and varenytsi are served with fried bacon, fried onions, or sour cream. Noodles, made of egg dough, are also frequently used, served either with soup or separately with cheese. Some very old foods made of flour are kvasha (a sweet dish made of fermented buckwheat or rye flour), lemishka (a thick buckwheat gruel), and salamakha (a thin gruel of buckwheat or rye flour boiled in water). Salamakha and millet grits were the main dishes of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.
The potato is the most widely used vegetable in Ukrainian cooking. It is a necessary ingredient in all soups, particularly borsch and cabbage soup. Boiled or baked potatoes are served alone or with meat, fish, cheese, cabbage, mushrooms, and so on. Potato pancakes are served with cheese or sour cream. Certain dumplings and various types of filling for varenyky and pyrizhky are made with potatoes. Another important vegetable in Ukrainian cooking is cabbage, particularly sauerkraut, which is used to make cabbage soup (kapusniak) or is served with meat, pea puree, or potatoes. Cabbage filling for varenyky and pyrizhky is also very popular. Fresh cabbage leaves or sauerkraut is used in making cabbage rolls (holubtsi), which are filled with buckwheat or millet grits, rice, or meat. In the Hutsul region and Bukovyna, holubtsi are made of raised yeast dough and are baked in sour cream. Other vegetables such as onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, radishes, and cucumbers are frequently eaten raw. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are usually roasted. Cucumbers, cabbage (whole or sliced), tomatoes, and beet kvas (for borsch) are preserved for the winter.
Quite popular are dishes of pea or bean purees, seasoned with garlic or fried bacon. A similar dish made with oil instead of bacon is served during the Christmas Eve supper. Orach or spinach is also seasoned this way. Tomatoes are used as cold appetizers in sauces and as an ingredient in borsch. In recent times the eggplant has been cultivated in Ukraine. It is used in the preparation of ikra, a cold appetizer, or is served hot, fried, or stuffed. Mushrooms—boletus, meadow mushrooms, honey mushrooms, chanterelles, milk fungi—are an essential ingredient in many dishes. Certain varieties of the mushroom (boleti, meadow mushrooms) are dried for winter; others (milk fungi and honey mushrooms) are marinated or pickled.
In the Ukrainian tradition a soup or borsch must be served with dinner. Various soups—made with meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, or milk—are popular, but borsch remains the favorite. It is made of vegetables, among which beets and cabbage are predominant, and meat or fish stock. There is also a meatless (Christmas) borsch consisting of various vegetables cooked in water and soured with beet kvas or some other acidulent. Borsch is served with sour cream and pyrizhky or rye bread. There are many varieties of borsch depending on the locality, the ingredients used, and the season; these include sorrel borsch, spring borsch, cold borsch, and clear borsch (bouillon).
Meat is usually eaten on feast days, Sundays, or at family celebrations. The most popular meat is pork and its products, such as ham, sausage (kovbasa), blood sausage (kyshka), headcheese (saltseson), smoked bacon, and salt pork. Meat is often ground to make patties (sichenyky), or is boiled or fried and served with potatoes, cabbage, buckwheat grits, or mushrooms. Sometimes it is stuffed. Veal is rarely served. In southern Ukraine lamb is popular. Neither raw meat nor horse meat is consumed. A lot of poultry is used, particularly chicken, baked in sour cream, stuffed, roasted, fried, or cooked for soup. Fish is fried, poached, or baked with stuffing. Jellied fish is popular, and fish stock is used in making borsch or soup. Cold appetizers are made from salted herring. Fish is one of the basic dishes of the Christmas supper.
Foods prepared with milk, dairy products, and eggs have long been a part of Ukrainian cooking. Gruels, noodles, little dumplings (shchypantsi), and zatyrka are boiled in milk. Soured milk is a favorite drink throughout Ukraine; a variant of this is huslianka or riazhanka, made by souring boiled milk with sour cream. Cottage cheese is eaten mixed with sour cream, as a filling in varenyky and pyrizhky, or with noodles, dumplings, potatoes, and kasha. It is also used in baking cheesecake. A salty cheese from sheep's milk known as budz or bryndzia is make in the Hutsul region and Bukovyna.
Fruits and berries, when in season, are eaten fresh or made into thickened purees (kysil, kholodets) and compotes. Some fruits are prepared for winter by drying or preserving. The most popular dishes made from either fresh or dried fruit are uzvar, a compote, and kysil, a purée. Plum butter is made from plums; apples are preserved.
Salt pork, sunflower, flax, and hemp oils, and butter are the common cooking fats. Local herbs such as chives, thyme, celery leaves, garlic, dill, caraway seeds, and parsley, and imported spices such as pepper, cinnamon, bayleaves, and cloves, are used for seasoning.
Bread kvas (or syrivets), fruit or dill-pickle brine, and birch sap (in the spring) are popular folk beverages in Ukraine. Tea is the most widely consumed hot beverage, followed by coffee and cocoa. Alcoholic beverages such as mead, wine, fruit liqueurs (nalyvka), herb-flavored alcohol (zapikanka), alcohol with pepper (horilka z pertsem), and beer have been popular for many centuries.
Special dishes that are prepared for such feasts as Christmas Eve supper, Christmas, Easter, church holidays, and wakes differ from everyday foods. The Christmas Eve supper is rich in meatless dishes. On Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Epiphany, however, roasts, fried sausages, cabbage rolls, jellied meats (studenets), and borsch are served. On Easter morning, after the liturgy and the blessing of the paska and other staples, everyone returns home to feast on the eggs, cold meats, and other foods that were blessed at church. On church holidays and at weddings relatives and guests are treated to an abundance of local delicacies. The kalach is prominent at burials and wakes. Kolyvo, a dish dating from pagan times and consisting of boiled wheat or barley with honey, is inseparable from the burial rites. It symbolizes the resurrection of the dead: just as the kernels of wheat must be buried to produce new plants, so the corpse of the dead person must be interred to be resurrected.
There are significant regional variations in Ukrainian cuisine that resulted from the availability of different agricultural products, foreign influences, or even the conservatism of the common people in regard to change. Not only is there a distinctive Poltava, Galician, or Kyiv borsch, but there are whole regional cuisines in Bukovyna, Transcarpathia, Volhynia, Dnieper region, and Slobidska Ukraine. Relatively little change in the nature of the local diet took place among the mountain peoples and in Polisia. The diet there is also poorer than in other regions. Today regional differences in the diet are disappearing under the influence of popular culinary literature; courses in cooking that, since the turn of the century, have been a port of public education in the countryside, particularly in Western Ukraine; and, most important, of semiprepared and prepared foods produced by the food industry. The food consumed by different socioeconomic classes differs in nutritional value and caloric content. The foods described above were characteristic of the middle classes and to some extent of the well-to-do peasants. The diet of the majority of Ukrainian peasants and workers, however, was of a lower standard. In Ukraine today most clerical workers, students, and factory workers lunch in cafeterias and restaurants, where the food is now standardized.
Ukrainian cooking has been influenced by Turkish and Tatar, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian-Moldavian cooking. At the same time Ukrainian foods, particularly borsch, varenyky, and holubtsi, have become popular among Ukraine's neighbors.
Ukrainians in the diaspora have preserved Ukrainian cooking as part of their cultural heritage. This is particularly true of their festive or ritual foods.
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Encyclopedia of Ukraine