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Reviving Ukrainian cuisine. It’s all about decommunization, identity & rethinking Ukraine’s past, say culinary experts

Soviet poster. ‘We serve each and every guest in a civilized manner!’
Reviving Ukrainian cuisine. It’s all about decommunization, identity & rethinking Ukraine’s past, say culinary experts
Article by: Christine Chraibi
Food and culture are interwoven. The processes involved in preparing, serving and sharing certain foods and drinks might appear simple, but they often carry important social and cultural significance. In most countries, recipes and dietary practices are used to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next. Traditional recipes are carefully passed down and can also be an expression of cultural identity. Sharing those recipes can be a source of pride and a simple way to celebrate one’s cultural heritage with others.

Ukraine has many regions and each one has its own food products, recipes and culinary habits. Ukrainian cuisine consists of age-old cooking traditions and practices closely associated with Ukrainian culture. Most food products are fried or boiled, stewed or baked. This is the most distinctive feature of Ukrainian cuisine.

Ukrainian dishes are known for their variety, aroma, and specific taste. Especially tasty and healthy are meat and vegetable dishes – cabbage rolls, Volyn-style kruchenyky, etc. Ukrainian cuisine includes hundreds of interesting recipes: borshch and pampushky, flat cakes and dumplings, mushroom sauces, banosh, different types of varenyky and sausages, fruit and honey beverages, etc. Some dishes are centuries old, such as Ukrainian borshch.

Soviet poster touting mayo. Mayonnaise was introduced to imperialist Russia at the turn of the 20th century and it remained a staple throughout Soviet times. Mass-produced and durable, it was everywhere — from workers canteens to ordinary households. Large gobs of mayo helped disguise the quality of some ingredients.

“Should Ukrainian cuisine be decommunized?” this question was recently raised by PostEat, an online gastronomic journal, which informs readers about the latest eateries, restaurants and recipes on the Ukrainian cuisine market.

The answers ranged from passionate statements:  “Definitely needed!” – to sharp criticism: “What a bunch of crap!”. To get closer to the truth, several Ukrainian chefs and gastronomic experts evaluated the idea of “decommunizing Ukrainian cuisine”.

So, will such staples as shuba and olivier salads disappear from festive Ukrainian tables?

Ievgen Klopotenko, culinary expert, co-founder and brand chef at 100 rokiv tomu vpered restaurant, author of the CultFood project

What do I mean when I say that it’s high time to decommunize Ukrainian cuisine? First of all, all dishes that were invented in the Soviet Union must be just that – Soviet dishes! And this must not stop us from understanding what real Ukrainian cuisine is.

90% of the dishes we consider Ukrainian were actually created during the Soviet era – all those Kyiv-style cutlets, olivier salads, shubas, etc. It’s a historical fact, and they definitely have the right to exist.

But, unless we remove the Soviet Union from our tables, we’ll never be able to re-discover our authentic Ukrainian cuisine. If we continue serving olivier salad at New Year’s, we’ll miss out on such ancient Ukrainian delicacies as shpundra and vereshchaka (these two delicacies are mentioned in Ivan Kotliarevsky’s Aeneid).

What decommunization means is that authentic Ukrainian cuisine, which was erased from our collective memory 100 years ago, can now develop in a favourable environment.

Of course, we mustn’t ‘ban’ Soviet dishes, so to speak, but let’s put them on hold for a while as we continue reviving and rethinking authentic Ukrainian cuisine. At this stage, if we don’t decommunize Ukrainian cuisine at the national level, we’ll never break the vicious circle of Soviet heritage that surrounds us.

This is the main significance of decommunization. Let’s develop and promote real Ukrainian cuisine in a favourable environment!

Marianna Dushar (Pani Stefa), writer, researcher of Galician cuisine (Halychyna)

Galician cuisine (Halychyna) is an integral part of Ukrainian cuisine, just like the culinary traditions of Poltava, Bukovyna, Podillia, Slobozhanshchyna or other regional cuisines. Ukrainian cuisine is especially interesting thanks to its diversity in the regions.

Decommunization is an important process, but we shouldn’t place Ukrainian Heroes and the dismantling of Soviet monuments on the same level as overall rejection of olivier or shuba salads. I wouldn’t use the term in this context.

I understand what Ievgen Klopotenko wants to say, but in my opinion, he doesn’t say it the right way.

Ukraine is a post-colonial state, and Ukrainian cuisine is in the process of being re-discovered. Ukrainian cuisine doesn’t need to be ‘decommunized’, but it does need to be carefully studied and developed.

Each region of Ukraine has produced its own foods, products and dishes; chefs, historians and anthropologists are greatly interested in exploring our culinary traditions from the ethnographic point of view. Everyday cuisine, which has remained largely Soviet in tradition, is also changing. As for the standard salads dressed with dollops of rich mayonnaise, this is a matter of gastronomic and aesthetic taste, but the sense of taste can be nurtured and trained.

However, there is one area that nobody has touched on, and should come under decommunization in the literal sense – the sovok-style naming of products and retro-design of packaging in the field of food. Why do we still have Vologda butter, Borodino bread, Zhiguli beer, Russian cheese, Moskovskaya and Doktorskaya sausages, etc.? These products cater to Soviet nostalgia, and are associated with ‘Soviet means excellent’ times, defining an outdated system of consumer values ​​and priorities, and symbolizing a proletarian-style prosperity.

I think it’s time to get rid of such names, because it encloses Ukrainian consumers in a common informational and aesthetic space with Russia.

Ihor Lylo, Associate Professor of Medieval and Byzantine History, Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, Head of the Institute of Galician Cuisine NGO

I was born and raised in a region that wasn’t under Soviet influence as long as other Ukrainian regions. The main problem is that modern-day Russia sees Soviet cuisine as ‘Russian cuisine’. Scholarly dissertations and studies also say that Soviet cuisine absorbed the best traditional dishes of each nation. But, unfortunately, as the Soviet Union was taken over by the Russian Federation, everything now is Russian cuisine, including Georgian kebabs, Uzbek pilaf and Ukrainian borshch.

Decommunizing Ukrainian cuisine makes sense if we refer to reviving our own ancient dishes, rethinking them and creating a new cuisine. But, before going up that path, we need to address two issues:

  • What is Ukrainian cuisine?
  • How will the new Ukrainian cuisine become part of a new Ukrainian identity?

But, let’s be careful! If decommunizing our cuisine means destroying specific dishes, then I’d call that something akin to gastronomic neo-Bolshevism!

It seems to me that we spend too much time and energy debating decommunization, talking about useless things. If someone likes shuba and olivier salads doused with three litres of mayonnaise, let’s allow them to enjoy their food! But, let me just say that these salads are clearly not very good for your health.

For the majority of Ukrainians, it’s very difficult to rethink Ukrainian cuisine, because Soviet-style cuisine is so deeply ingrained in their memories.

If we suddenly deprive people of such memories, they will be faced with an existential question – “Who am I?” This then becomes a question about self-identify or the identity of the true self when everything external has been stripped away.

Olena Braichenko, founder of ЇzhaKultura  (Food Culture), researcher and expert at the Сentre for Applied Anthropology

The hot discussions around this issue testify to the need for understanding Ukrainian cuisine, both in the past and present.

However, the question shouldn’t be formulated in this way. Decommunization is not an abstract notion, but a process regulated by the Law of Ukraine “On condemnation of communist and national-socialist (nazi) totalitarian regimes in Ukraine and prohibition of their symbols” and a number of normative legal acts. Accordingly, we should understand and identify what exactly should fall under this process: the name, ingredients, usage, cooking culture? Do specific dishes contain communist symbols?

I’d rather talk about Ukraine’s gastronomy in the past, find forgotten treasures and rethink how our gastronomic culture developed through the ages.

Such information was not available in the media or in academic circles, so my husband and I decided to create a project –  ЇzhaKultura, which develops and promotes modern gastronomic research. On our website different experts and scholars provide a lot of important information about Ukrainian cuisine. My colleagues and I work towards rethinking the past, identifying and filling in the blanks. I believe that our united efforts will help build a new vision of Ukrainian cuisine.

Finally, I’d like to underline that the past must be understood within its historical context. When we talk about olivier or shuba salads, we should try to learn more about these dishes and why they became so popular in Soviet times. Yes, these dishes present a “collective image of our Soviet past”, but isn’t it more important to understand why this is so, and whether eliminating them from our menu will contribute to launching a new gastronomic tradition? Otherwise, how is this approach better than the methods used by the Soviet government, which consisted in erasing all past experiences, banning traditions, and changing ideas and goals?

Fedir Shandor, President of the Transcarpathian Tourist Organization, Professor at Uzhhorod National University

Decommunizing Ukrainian cuisine is a good idea! Man needs both spiritual and physical food. As Ukrainians have already begun to change their ‘spiritual diet’, other physical changes need to made more comprehensive, and should be extended to the field of gastronomy.

I firmly support Ievgen Klopotenko’s international action to call borshch a Ukrainian dish. But, there’s also buckwheat… Ukrainians used to be called ‘buckwheat growers’ (гречкосії), but if we look at literature, for some reason buckwheat is often referred to as a Russian product!

It’s not just about the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, but also about the fact that the USSR was built on lies. The Soviet Union collapsed, but the disinformation and distortions generated by years of lies and populism have remained and are regularly disseminated through the media and literature. Ievgen Klopotenko has drawn public attention to this fact.

I’d rather talk about Ukraine’s gastronomy in the past, find forgotten treasures and rethink how our gastronomic culture developed through the ages.
Today, we’re working hard in Transcarpathia; we aren’t rewriting history, but we are reclaiming our own history.

For example, Soviets often referred to Transcarpathians as savage, unruly mountaineers. The Soviet regime spread the myth that thanks to Soviet progress Transcarpathia began to change and become ‘more civilized’, so to speak. This included our local dishes, which were greatly influenced by Hungarian cuisine, Slovak cuisine, etc. before Soviet times. In just two decades, the Soviet regime managed to destroy many healthy eating habits, which had been nurtured for centuries by our ancestors.

For example, local Carpathian animal breeds were replaced by other species that weren’t adapted to mountain conditions. Certain dishes disappeared with them.

I see the ​​decommunization of Ukrainian cuisine as a return to genuine techniques and recipes.

Shovdar (шовдарь) – raw smoked pork meat – should be prepared from the mangalitsa pig, and not from an ordinary farm pig. Only sheep, not cow milk, should used to make bryndza cheese. And what about our famous banosh? Cornmeal, not groats, should be used.

I understand people who don’t accept the idea of ​​decommunization. After all, we’re creatures of habit. I don’t think that these people want to protect some sort of Soviet heritage; they just want to remember their youth and everything tied to those distant memories.

The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory

Attitudes to dishes and recipes rooted in Ukrainian cuisine, but associated with Soviet cultural heritage should be studied by cultural anthropologists. If Ukrainian society decides to reject some of these dishes, it will be the result of a gradual cultural transformation, but it will not and should not be regulated by law or the government. The term ‘decommunization’ is often used in a much broader context than provided by the relevant law condemning communist and nazi totalitarian regimes and banning their symbols.

On the one hand, this discussion shows us that decommunization has taken root and become a certain cultural phenomenon. On the other hand, it sometimes blurs the understanding of the essence of decommunization reform, as defined by the Law.

This Law lists communist symbols that are prohibited in public. This list does not include recipes for Ukrainian or other cuisines. Thus, in the narrow sense, proletarian variations of olivier or vinegret salads are not subject to decommunization.

In a broader context, if at some point in time, these dishes become unpopular because they are largely associated with communist times, culturologists might conclude that this happened as a result of the ‘decommunization of our national identity’. But, if it happens, it will be stimulated by some internal processes within Ukrainian society, and not by regulations imposed by the government.

Update on the new Ukrainian cuisine

Ukrainian chef Ievgen Klopotenko was cited in #50next, a list of young people shaping the future of gastronomy. He was selected in the Empowering Educators for his creative work in redrafting Ukraine’s culinary tastes and habits.

The Ukrainian chef redrafting Ukraine’s cookbook

Ievgen Klopotenko has two main goals: to improve the food culture of Ukraine and to show it to the world. He has made major inroads through his work revolutionizing school catering and educating people on local cuisine through articles, videos and books, but he won’t stop until the world recognizes his country’s culinary power.

Ievgen’s love of gastronomy began with his travels to the UK and Italy, which changed his understanding of food and led to a career working as a server in restaurants in Germany, Ukraine and the US, before the transition to cooking. In 2015, he won MasterChef Ukraine, a victory that gave him the platform for his current projects and the confidence to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

He started a cooking website and a YouTube channel demonstrating Ukrainian recipes and in 2016 launched Cult Food, an initiative to provide better school meals. With the support of the national government, he also wrote a manual with more than 100 recipes for use in schools, and is currently campaigning to get Ukrainian cultural heritage status for the beetroot soup dish, borscht, whose provenance is hotly disputed with Russia.

Ievgen’s work continues with a restaurant he co-founded in 2019, where he researches how his nation’s people used to eat a century ago and provides modern takes on those historic recipes. Having written two cookbooks, he is currently writing a third while launching online courses for amateur cooks and continuing his quest to put Ukrainian cuisine on the global gastronomic map.

“My goal for the future is to show Ukraine to the world through our food and tastes.” – Ievgen Klopotenko

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