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27 April 2022

Ukraine’s culinary riches offer hope, and ensure that the war is not forgotten

The chef Olia Hercules has shared advice for refugee hosts wanting to cook familiar foods for their Ukrainian guests.

By Felicity Cloake

“As we enter the sixth week of the atrocious war in Ukraine,” the Russia-born, London-based chef Alissa Timoshkina wrote on her Instagram account in early April, “I am getting occasional panic attacks: ‘What if no one cares any more?’ ‘What if the war will be soon forgotten?’” From the very beginning of the conflict, Timoshkina and her Ukrainian friend and fellow cook Olia Hercules have done their best to ensure that doesn’t happen. 

The pair launched Cook for Ukraine, inspired by a similar initiative for Syria, the day after Vladimir Putin’s invasion and have, at the time of writing, raised £538,416 for Unicef UK’s Ukraine Appeal. As well as the many chicken Kyivs for Kyiv that have popped up on menus around Britain (my local pub alone raised £1,200) there have been cake sales, supper clubs, Pierogis for Peace dinners and fermentation workshops as far afield as Australia. Countless individuals have made one of the Ukrainian recipes featured on the JustGiving page and given money in return.

But as well as continuing to raise both awareness and cold hard cash, Hercules has turned her attention to practical support for those hosting refugees, sharing links and resources including, of course, the odd piece of advice about food. Since the conflict began she has also been to Poland to collect her teenage niece, who has fled from Ukraine while her father (Hercules’s brother) is busy defending Kyiv: before the war he worked for an e-bike start-up.

[See also: ‘We invented the cow 10,000 years ago. Lab-grown meat is just the next step’]

Those brave souls who manage to successfully navigate the UK government’s Homes for Ukraine application process are not expected to cater for their guests, just house them. But posters on my local community site (you know the one) wonder what they can stock up on to make the new arrivals feel at home. After all, however cosmopolitan your palate in ordinary times, when your world has been turned upside down a few familiar foods might prove reassuring. In response to such queries, Hercules has written a “season-appropriate list”, which she will update as necessary. It starts with fresh dill, “a lot of it”, and sour cream, a “big tub”, as well as things one might expect from an eastern European country, such as beetroot, potatoes and cabbage.

But, as Hercules wrote in her first cookbook, Mamushka, until people in the UK observed that she must be used to the cold she hadn’t realised how much our image of Ukraine is bound up with the perception of Russia as “vast, grey and bleak”. In fact, Kherson, the area where she grew up and the first major city to be taken by Putin’s forces, is only an hour’s flight from Turkey; “our winters are mild, our summers long and hot and our food a cornucopia of flavour”. Photos show vast ripe tomatoes “the size of a small grapefruit”, stuffed aubergines, and the “huge, firm, stripy” watermelons the south of Ukraine is renowned for. This summertime bounty is carefully preserved for use in leaner months – who can forget the Kyiv woman who reportedly knocked a Russian drone out of the sky with a jar of fermented tomatoes.

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Wild mushrooms, freshwater fish and borscht in various colours are all popular and, as in much of the region, rye bread is a staple – sometimes paired with thinly sliced salted pork belly, so addictive it is nicknamed Ukrayinskyy narkotyk, and raw garlic. But the country dubbed the “breadbasket of Europe” is also a huge producer of wheat. Indeed, a round, soft wheat loaf known as palyanitsa has become one of the icons of this war, thanks to the difficulty non-Ukrainians have in pronouncing it. A widely circulated video shows a Ukrainian soldier explaining how to identify suspected Russian saboteurs by asking them to repeat the word.

Dumplings – whether stuffed with curd cheese, cabbage and sour cream, or pork and potatoes – are, however, particularly beloved; Hercules claims she can eat 40 Ukrainian varenyky in one sitting, calling them “my ultimate source of comfort”. Should you also find yourself in need of a little comfort at this time, Timoshkina’s dumpling recipe is on the Cook for Ukraine JustGiving page.

[See also: The Greeks were right about wine: it is the definition of civilisation]

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma