Food memories from childhood summers tend to stick. Olga Koutseridi, a graduate student adviser at the University of Texas at Austin, formed hers in Mariupol, the small city on the Black Sea whose name has become synonymous with the worst devastation Russia has inflicted on Ukraine.
While she was growing up, her family often moved between Ukraine, Greece and Russia for her father’s work, but they always returned to her parents’ hometown for the summer. Her grandmother’s apartment overlooked the mulberry trees lining Morskyi Boulevard, and the Sea of Azov beyond.
On the way to Mariupol’s beaches, women sold whole roasted sunflower heads and paper cones of fresh, juicy sunflower seeds trucked in from nearby farms. Beachgoers hauled picnic lunches filled with garlicky salami sandwiches on lavishly buttered slices of baton, a staple Ukrainian bread. And on the path home, food trucks sold freshly fried chebureki, half-moons of pastry folded around a meat filling, hot and spitting juice “like a giant fried soup dumpling”, she said.
On 24 February, as shelling began, her grandmother and aunt fled the apartment; Koutseridi did not hear from them again until 20 March. With a dozen others, they sheltered in a cellar without heat, water or power until the violence came close enough to force them out. By foot, car and train, Koutseridi said, they made their way across the Russian border and north to St Petersburg, where relatives awaited them. Her grandmother, now 86, remains hospitalised there, with dangerous blood clots brought on by the journey.
Last month, Russian tanks rolled along Morskyi Boulevard. Photos shared among refugees and expatriates on Telegram show that the beaches Koutseridi grew up on are snaked with concertina wire, the windows of her grandmother’s building are blown out, and much of the city has been reduced to rubble.
“Mariupol was the closest thing I had to a home in Ukraine,” she said. “For the world to see it like this for the first time is unthinkable.”
To cope with the constant worry, Koutseridi, 34, burrowed deeper into her side gigs as a baker, cook and historian of Ukrainian food. About five years ago, she began baking the breads she was homesick for and posting photos of them on Instagram. She joined thriving online sourdough communities, honed her skills, and started a weekend business selling breads, cheesecakes and naturally leavened Ukrainian babka. But at the start of the war, she turned her focus to Mariupol, collecting all kinds of recipes from scattered family members on Telegram, Skype and WhatsApp.
“I had this urge to record,” she said. “It suddenly seemed like it was all going to disappear so fast.”
She transcribed and tested her grandmother’s recipes for varenyky, dumplings stuffed with sour cherries and the farmer’s cheese called tvorog; her mother’s hearty but light borsch (that’s the Ukrainian word; Russians spell it borscht); and fried aubergine slices showered with raw garlic, a family favourite. There are 74 recipes so far, including some from the Donetsk region’s longstanding Greek community in which her father’s family has roots.
“Maybe now is not the time to celebrate Ukrainian food,” Koutseridi said. “But this feels like the only chance we have to preserve it.”
Ukrainian food, like Ukraine itself, covers a wide territory; the country is roughly the size of Thailand, France or Kenya. Its cuisine has absorbed countless influences over distance and time: from ancient Greece, the Ottoman empire, the Carpathian Mountains, the Russian steppe and beyond.
Like Odesa, Sevastopol and other cities on the Black Sea, Mariupol is a longtime strategic axis and trade hub, claimed and invaded by regional superpowers that have made it – and its food – particularly diverse. Alongside Ukrainian classics, Mariupol’s culinary specialties include Greek wedding cookies and meat-stuffed breads; the chebureki that arrived with the Tatars from Central Asia; and lots of aubergine, a legacy of the Ottoman empire and a product of the region’s semi-Mediterranean climate.
As Koutseridi compiled the recipes into a database, she put her academic training to work, researching archives in Russian, Ukrainian and English, consulting websites devoted to Slavic cheeses and central Asian food history, and contacting other Ukrainian expatriates and food experts around the world.
One of the first was Olia Hercules, a London chef and cookbook author who grew up not far from Mariupol in Kakhovka, who has long been a chronicler of Ukrainian foodways. Her 2020 book, Summer Kitchens, spotlights the art of fermentatsiya – traditional Ukrainian preserves like brined aubergine and mint, apples in pumpkin mash, salted plums, stuffed peppers and innumerable variations of pickled cucumbers, beets and cabbage.
When the war began, Hercules felt that the work of honouring food traditions at a time of widespread hunger and terror seemed impossible. Instead, she and chef Alissa Timoshkina (who is Russian and lives in London) started #CookForUkraine, a global series of dinners, bake sales and cooking classes that have raised nearly £1m pounds for Unicef.
Hercules’ feelings have changed, she said, now that she sees that the Russian war is not just against the Ukrainian nation – the country’s identity, history and culture are all under assault.
“Now is the time to delve into Ukrainian food in detail,” she said. “There’s so much more to it than borsch.”
Long before the war broke out, borsch was a culinary proxy in ancient grudges between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has claimed its beet-heavy borscht as one of several national dishes, but in Ukraine, where the soup has been documented much earlier, borsch is considered the national dish. In 2021, the country’s Ministry of Culture petitioned Unesco to certify borsch as a symbol of Ukrainian heritage, like Korean kimchi and Belgian beer.
Koutseridi’s family made distinctions between same-day borsch, dished up right after cooking, and second-day borsch that can be served cold or hot, with different garnishes and richer flavours. Her mother’s recipe, procured during Koutseridi’s recent efforts, is based on tomatoes and cabbage, with beets playing a minor role.
The traditional borsch of Mariupol includes white beans, red peppers, potatoes and local fish, especially tiny fried gobies from the Black Sea. It can also be made with salt-cured fish, and modern cooks often use sprats in tomato sauce, a popular pantry staple of tiny herring canned in a purée that tastes a bit like cocktail sauce.
The Mariupol of Koutseridi’s childhood was cosmopolitan but tranquil, she said, a place where people left their doors unlocked while on daily shopping trips to the city’s central open market, where stalls overflowed with local produce, cured and dried fish, and pickles of all kinds.
Her family’s elders tended gardens just outside the city centre that provided a steady supply of fresh produce. Like most families there, they preserved all the produce they couldn’t eat, filling jars with fermented tomatoes, cucumber and cabbage pickles, and sour cherries in sweet syrup. They drank home-fermented kombucha and kefir, and vodka distilled from grapes grown by her grandfather.
When Koutseridi last visited Mariupol, in 2013, she said, craft bakeries and beer halls had opened alongside the contemporary pizzerias, burger joints and sushi restaurants that were fashionable when she left the country in 2005 to study ancient history at Ohio State University.
A new generation of Ukrainians had begun to unearth and celebrate the skills of pickling, cheesemaking, baking and brewing that were nearly lost during the industrialisation of the Soviet period, and the urbanisation of recent decades. Now, Koutseridi fears, that movement will be set back indefinitely, if not lost altogether.
To defy those fears, she has established a ritual of cooking time-honoured dishes like chebureki, her mother’s borsch and ryazhanka, a sweet-tart drink that takes three days to make – milk is gently baked until its caramelised, toasted-nut flavour comes out, then fermented and chilled.
All are documented in her growing archive, which she hopes to turn into an open-source database and, eventually, a book.
“Every time someone makes a Ukrainian dish in an American kitchen,” she said, “it’s an act of resistance.”
Chebureki (fried meat turnovers)
Chebureki are the southern Ukrainian branch of the global family of empanadas, pot stickers, pasties and salteñas – dough pockets filled with meat and deep-fried until golden and juicy. A blistered, chewy crust is the sign of a really good cheburek, according to Olga Koutseridi, who grew up in Mariupol, and adapted this recipe for her home kitchen in Texas. The dough for this recipe is relatively stiff, which means it will take a bit of time to mix it by hand. You could also use a stand mixer, but your mixer may struggle. After the first few, these pies become much easier to assemble, and you can roll and fill the next one while one is frying. It is best to fry one or two at a time, which helps control the oil temperature and ensures the freshest chebureki. They should be eaten within just a few minutes of their emergence from the fryer.
Recipe from: Olga Koutseridi, adapted by Julia Moskin
Total time: 4 hours
Serves: 12 chebureki
For the meat filling:
1 medium onion, any kind (except sweet), coarsely chopped
115g ground beef
115g ground pork
2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1½ tsp salt
225g plain kefir, plus more as needed
For the dough:
510g all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting (if needed)
1 tsp fine salt
240ml plus 1 tbsp cold water
Peanut oil or refined sunflower oil, for frying (about 1.9L)
1. Make the meat filling: place the chopped onion in a food processor and process until it is very fine and has started to release moisture. Transfer the onion to a large bowl. Add the beef, pork, black pepper and salt, and mix very well. Gradually add kefir to the mixture and mix it into the meat using a spoon. The consistency should be pourable and almost soupy, not stiff. If necessary, add more kefir, 1 tbsp at a time, to achieve the desired consistency. Cover mixture and place it in the refrigerator to chill for 1 hour.
2. Make the dough: place 3 cups of the flour in a large bowl. Add the fine salt and mix with a fork. Add the water and mix until combined. Sprinkle a work surface with some of the remaining flour and knead in the rest of the flour little by little (you may not need all of it), until the dough is pliable and not sticky, about 15 minutes (the dough should spring back when you make a slight indent with your finger). Shape the dough into a ball, place in a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rest for at least 1 hour.
3. Set up your frying station: pour 5cm of oil into a wok or a casserole dish. Line a baking tray with a wire rack and some paper towels to absorb any excess oil from the finished chebureki. Heat the oil over medium-high until the temperature reaches between 180-190C.
4. Divide the rested dough into 12 pieces and roll them into balls (the dough should be pliable and shouldn’t need much flour). Flatten the pieces into disks and cover with plastic wrap so they don’t dry out. Working with one piece at a time, lightly dust the counter with flour and roll out the dough into a very thin round about 20cm in diameter (you should be able to read text through the dough).
5. Place 3 level tbsp of filling on one side of the round and spread it into a thin half-moon, leaving a 2½cm border around the filling. Make sure not to add too much filling! Overfilling increases the risk of leakage during frying.
6. Fill a small bowl with water, and using your finger, dampen the edges of the whole round to help seal the cheburek. Fold the dough over the side with the filling, trying to make sure there are no air bubbles between the filling and the dough to help decrease the chance of bursting. Press the edges to seal tightly, then seal them completely with a fork. Use a pasta wheel or paring knife to trim off any uneven edges, if you like.
7. Once the oil is at 180C, carefully lower the shaped cheburek into the oil and fry until the dough is golden brown and bubbly, about 2 minutes per side. Using tongs or a large slotted spatula, transfer the fried cheburek to the rack. Repeat shaping, filling and frying with the remaining dough and filling.
8. Let the cheburek cool slightly, then dig in! These are best eaten hot. Enjoy with a glass of ryazhanka or kefir.
Ryazhanka (fermented caramelised milk)
Ryazhanka, a classic Ukrainian drink, is cool, tangy and lightly sweet, like yoghurt with a touch of dulce de leche. This recipe comes from Koutseridi’s childhood summers in Mariupol, where vendors sold chilled ryazhanka that she’d guzzle after a day at the beach. The slight caramel flavour comes from slowly baking whole milk, which can be done in the oven or a slow cooker, before mixing it with a fermented starter like sour cream or kefir.
Recipe from: Olga Koutseridi, adapted by Julia Moskin
Total time: 3 days
Serves: About 7 cups
1.9L whole milk
3 to 4 tbsp plain whole-milk kefir (see tip) or sour cream
1. If using an oven, heat to 100C. Place the milk in a casserole dish (if baking the mixture) or large, heavy saucepan (if using a slow cooker) and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring from time to time so the milk doesn’t scorch. It will take about 15 minutes to get to a simmer.
2. Transfer to the oven, if using, and bake, uncovered, until the top is a deep caramel brown, about 6 hours. If using a slow cooker, transfer the milk to the slow cooker, cover and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 4 to 6 hours, until the top is caramel brown. You can discard or save the skin that develops on top of the milk, refrigerating it in an airtight container. Traditionally, the skin is served on top of a glass of ryazhanka.
3. Transfer the cooked milk directly to jars or first to liquid measuring cups to cool the milk and determine how much you have. Let cool at room temperature, uncovered, to 45C. You do not want to add kefir to hot milk, as the heat will kill the bacteria. Add 1 tbsp kefir for every 2 cups cooked milk (you’d use 1 tbsp kefir per pint jar, 2 tbsp per quart jar, or 3½ tbsp kefir total for 1.6L cooked milk). Stir or whisk the kefir until fully incorporated. If the mixture isn’t already in jars, divide among jars. Cover the jars with coffee filters and secure around the tops with rubber bands or string.
4. Leave the jars in a warm place until the ryazhanka develops a consistency that’s thicker than kefir but thinner than yoghurt, 24 to 48 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen. You might see some separation between liquid and solids. The flavour will be both sweet and sour from the fermentation. Cover the jars with their lids and refrigerate until chilled. The ryazhanka can be refrigerated for up to 7 days.
Tip: Packed with probiotics, kefir is a fermented dairy product that is tart and tangy. Often likened to a drinkable yoghurt, it can be found in the dairy section of most supermarkets.
Borsch with fish
Every Ukrainian family has its own style of borsch (that’s the Ukrainian word; Russians spell it borscht). Koutseridi is a historian and collector of Ukrainian recipes; she’s documented more than 70 recipes, including her mother’s “tomato-centric and cabbage-centric” borsch, as well as this version often eaten in Mariupol. Borsch with fish is traditional in southern Ukraine, where Black Sea ports like Mariupol and Odesa have relied on fishing since ancient times. Modern cooks often use canned versions of local species like anchovies, gobies and sprats. With bell peppers and carrots along with the usual beets and cabbage, this soup is hearty and chunky, but also very light.
Recipe from: Olga Koutseridi, adapted by Julia Moskin
Total time: 2 hours, plus at least 3 hours soaking
Serves: 4 to 6
120g dried cannellini beans, rinsed (see tip)
3 bay leaves
½ tbsp salt, plus more to taste
1 medium beet, peeled
1 large carrot
1 onion, any kind (except sweet)
1 medium red bell pepper
4 medium potatoes (peeled or unpeeled)
1 small bunch dill
½ small head cabbage (340g)
3 tbsp olive oil
1½ tsp sugar
480ml tomato juice
1 to 2 (225g) cans sprats in tomato sauce, or sardines in tomato sauce
Sourdough bread (preferably 20 per cent whole wheat or rye) rubbed with garlic, for serving
1. Place the beans in a medium bowl and add enough water to cover by 10cm. Let soak for at least 3 hours and up to overnight. Drain and rinse the beans. Fill a large pot or casserole dish with 1.8L of water, add the soaked beans, bay leaves and salt, and bring to a boil over high. Reduce the heat and let simmer until the beans are tender, 30 minutes to 1½ hours, depending on soaking time and age of beans.
2. While the beans cook, use the large holes of a box grater to shred the beet, then the carrot. Finely dice the onion and bell pepper. Cube the potatoes into medium pieces. Chop the dill. Shred the cabbage using a knife.
3. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan over medium. Add the shredded beets, sprinkle with the sugar and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, then add the carrot and cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and wipe out the pan.
4. Add the remaining 1 tbsp oil and the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Pour the tomato juice into the pan, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes.
5. Once the beans are done cooking, add the potatoes and the beet-carrot mixture to the pot, bring to a boil over high, then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the bell pepper and onion-tomato mixture. Let simmer for 10 minutes, then add the cabbage to the pot along with the sprats and dill, and let simmer for another 5 minutes
6. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and let sit for 20 minutes to let all the flavours mingle. Remove and discard the bay leaves and adjust salt level as desired. Enjoy warm or at room temperature. Serve with a side of sourdough bread rubbed with garlic.
Tip: You can substitute the dried beans with 255g rinsed, drained canned cannellini beans and use 1.8L vegetable broth instead of water. Don’t add the beans to the pot until step 5; add them along with the potatoes and beet-carrot mixture.
© The New York Times
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