A+ Food Crisis

Comfort food: Familiar flavours in the face of war

7 Mins read

The day is soft like pampushki. Tender like holubtsi. Sweet like varenyky. The sunshine speaks of okroshka, and the most vibrant sunset imitates borscht. Believe it or not, there is indeed a world of Ukrainian recipes beyond chicken Kyiv.

With its embrace of fresh produce and the unapologetic celebration of simple flavours, Ukrainian cuisine is the very definition of “comfort food”. Now, a year on from the Russian invasion, those words have taken on a new meaning: Can these traditional recipes provide the taste of comfort in the face of uncertainty?

In Kyiv, Yaroslava Saienko, 21, starts each morning by planning the day ahead. February marked the anniversary of Putin’s full-scale invasion which sent shock waves across the globe.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, 100,000 people left behind their homes and life as they knew it in the very first 24 hours of the attack. Soon, the Ukrainian capital, with its buzzing nightlife, vibrant street art and lush hillsides, would be deserted. Crowds were no longer pouring into the city’s many clubs, galleries, restaurants and markets. Instead, the only crowds to be spotted were reserved for the outbound trains.

The orange sun is setting over Kyiv. Photo is taken from above the city and the sun is reflected in the water.
Sun setting over Kyiv [Unsplash: Olia Bondarenko]

But when the battle moved to Ukraine’s east and south, daily life slowly returned to the city. Between missile and drone attacks, people like Yaroslava are attempting to rebuild routines and a sense of normality, but the ghosts of what life used to be is everywhere. For example, something as simple as preparing breakfast becomes a challenge during mornings without electricity.

“I have to take into account the power outages because without electricity there is no internet, no light, and sometimes no communication,” Yaroslava says. Her gratitude list now includes the generators installed in her local gym, which allows her to exercise despite blackouts. While she is still able to pursue her studies, it has been a long time since she could step inside a physical classroom. Besides, study time is interrupted by the air alerts ordering her to seek shelter.

“It was difficult for many to survive the first months of the war mentally, but over time people can get used to everything. Now, everyone is calm even about rocket attacks on Kyiv, although there is a high probability that they will fly into your home,” she says. In the evenings, Yaroslava surrounds herself with friends, either at home or gathering around a shared meal in a restaurant. Until the 11 pm curfew, of course. 

Throughout the many challenges Yaroslava has had to come to terms with in the past year, the food on her plate has remained the same. The complications of the war means the country is reliant on its domestic food production now more than ever, but Yaroslava’s family are still able to cook the signature dishes she knows so well. Like syrnyky, pancakes made with cottage cheese which melts on the tongue. Or varenyky, half-moon-shaped dumplings filled with mouth-watering cherries or mashed potatoes.

As with most Ukrainian food, these recipes embrace the ingredients of the land. “Everything needed for these dishes grows in Ukraine. My grandmother has all the vegetables she needs in her garden, and she buys milk or meat from her neighbours,” Yaroslava notes. Growing up, the kitchen table was usually decked with traditional stews and borscht, the characteristically red beetroot soup known for its sweet and sour flavour. 

Yaroslava points out that it is not necessarily the flavours themselves that offer comfort, but rather the setting they belong to. “This feeling is given by the atmosphere in which this food was prepared. For example, when I visit my grandmother, she tells me something and simultaneously brings these dishes to the table,” she says. 

“Food, like music, can tap into our memories, especially associational memories of ‘what I was doing when I ate that’ or ‘heard that song.’ These memories are often triggered by the senses, and often come with emotional associations as well,” explains David Sutton, professor of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University.

Because our relationship with food is an inherently emotional one, he argues that traditional recipes can provide a rooting power when dealing with the kind of instability Yaroslava is up against. “Having food sovereignty, which means the ability to reproduce a familiar way of life and a familiar foodscape, is critical to weathering difficult times,” Dr Sutton says.

In fact, during his research in Greece during the economic crisis, he found people returned to traditional recipes and traditional modes of gathering food as a way to save money, but also as a way to create a sense of continuity amidst disruption. To illustrate this point, he refers to the successful movement started by a man in Athens who cooked food on the street and shared it with whoever was hungry.

“The interesting thing to me is that he was drawing on the tradition, alive still in many parts of Greece, of sharing food with neighbours in memory of a dead relative. This transformation of a familiar tradition into new circumstances is suggestive of how important it is to build on the familiar in difficult times.”

When each day seems to be seeped with uncertainty, Maryna Semenchenko, 22, also expresses gratitude towards her favourite Ukrainian dishes. At the beginning of the war, she was forced to seek shelter abroad, until the russian troops retreated from Kyiv. However, the reality she returned to was vastly different from the life she had left behind.

For Maryna, spending her early 20s in the capital used to mean that her days were centred around dancing, acting and studying. “Now I have to work three jobs to make money,” she says. “The most heartbreaking thing is that we lose our people every day, as they defend our land and our future.” She recently received the news that one of her friends had lost his life. He was no older than 31. Then, only a week ago, two students from her university also died in battle. They were both 20.

Varenyky dumplings ready for cooking and resting on a clean backdrop.
Varenyky dumplings [Unsplash: Christopher Farrugia]

In the midst of all this cruelty, food has become a form of escapism for Maryna: “Traditional cuisine is something that reminds you of who you are, reminds you of a carefree life before the war, something that grounds you.” She recounts her formative years, when she would be greeted by the aroma of warm lunch prepared by her grandmother every day after school. Since then, she has picked up the art herself: “For me, it’s important to cook exactly the recipes of my grandmother, which reminds me of my childhood and her.” 

More than a thousand miles away from home, Anastasiia Oliinyk, 22, is also reminiscing about the tastes of her childhood, from pampushka and salo to bublik and kutia. Anastasiia grew up in the city of Kupiansk, until she moved to Bournemouth to study, shortly before the war broke out. For the first seven months of the invasion, her family was under russian occupation while she was an ocean away.

“The first weeks were the scariest when you just do not know if they are alive,” she says. The people of Kupiansk had their mobile connection cut off, and news reports would reveal stories of locals being forced to work for the occupiers, while their homes went up in flames. “My parents lost the business, russian troops burned down their stores with the goods to the ground. They were left with nothing,” Anastasiia says. With shells raining down above them, her parents eventually fled to France, but her grandparents stayed behind.

To this day, her relationship with Ukrainian food is bittersweet because it reminds her of just how distant the pre-war days have become. “The smell of a certain dish can bring me back to the past and the moment when I helped to cook and eat it. I am transported back to a time when I was surrounded by loved ones.”

Anastasiia awaits the day when she will be able to gather around a big table with friends and family once again, but for now, she has found comfort in Bournemouth’s Ukrainian kitchens, where she can enjoy her favourite dishes amongst fellow Ukrainians. “To find company, to listen to their story, to share your own and to support each other, as common grief brings one another closer together,” she says. 

Like Anastasiia, Iryna Svatula, 37, finds herself miles away from home: “I had to leave everything I had, everything and everybody I love, take my children to a safe place, and start life from scratch,” she says, now one year after she was forced to leave. “I left my favourite work, my beloved husband who is on the front line and now defends Ukraine, my parents, friends, my own house, my past life.” Iryna’s hometown of Lutsk, known for its ancient architecture and the scenic train ride which takes you to the Tunnel of Love, has now been replaced by Nottingham.

Nonetheless, her new home will regularly smell of the dishes of her past. Like zrazy, fried potato pies, or porridge made with buckwheat, corn, or barley, as well as meat and vegetables. “It provides me with a sense of home. I was forced to leave my country because of the war. Now our traditional dishes make me a little closer to my home,” she says.

Iryna points out that some of the most popular recipes date back centuries. Like borscht, which was first documented back in 1584. “Ukrainians continue to cook traditional dishes and enjoy them every day. This is how we keep in touch with our ancestors, history, and do not forget our traditions,” she adds. 

Despite the inescapable feeling of uncertainty, the Ukrainian resilience shines through as Anastasiia, Iryna, Maryna and Yaroslava speak of the future. When russian troops invaded the country, the world watched as Ukraine proved just how hard they are willing to fight in order to protect their culture and independence. Since then, Ukrainian food traditions have become both something worth fighting for, and something to turn to for comfort.

Last summer, Maryna was longing for her favourite watermelons from Kherson and the juicy cherries of Nikopol, as both these cities were under occupation. However, she is convinced that this summer will bring about her favourite fruits and berries, along with the taste of liberation. And when that day comes, she encourages everyone to experience Ukrainian food for themselves, including the “fragrant borshch, sweet varenyky, delicious perepichka, and for dessert, Kyiv cake, Crimean Tatar chebureks, Transcarpathian banosh, Lviv dumplings, kulish cooked on a campfire or Christmas kutya.”

She adds: “I invite you to discover Ukraine after our victory.”

At the request of the interviewees, ‘russia’ is not capitalised. You can donate to UNHCR and Ukraine Food foundation to support Ukraine. 

Featured image by Anastasiya Chervinska

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