Ukraine and Belarus are located in Eastern Europe, bordering the west of Russia, both being former members of the USSR. Their cuisines have therefore been influenced by neighbouring Russia, the Baltic States to the north, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, and the Balkan Peninsula to the south. The high societies of these countries have historically been very taken with Italian, German and French cuisines, and influences from these countries have therefore pervaded some aspects of the food culture, although little filtered down to typical working-class recipes, particularly after the 20th century political upheavals resulted in the virtual extinction of the privileged classes. The traditional cuisines are therefore heavily based in the rustic home cooked meals of the working classes. Bread in particular is an important staple in both Ukraine and Belarus, with Ukraine boasting some of the most fertile soils in Europe, sometimes called the “breadbasket of Europe”, due to its history of prolific wheat and grain production and export. Belarus, on the other hand, has less favourable conditions for growing wheat and therefore has more rye bread. I found this week’s cuisine to be a nice addition to my winter menu – warm and comforting, with simple but effective flavour combinations.
Pork chop, mushroom kasha and roasted garden vegetables
Kasha refers to whole buckwheat grains that have been dry roasted until they are a lovely reddish brown colour. The grains can then be cooked in water or stock, as you might cook rice or quinoa, until they have absorbed the liquid and are tender. I don’t think I’d ever eaten buckwheat this way before, and was impressed with the texture and flavour. The large size of the grains means that it feels like a substantial side dish, while the pre-roasting of the buckwheat lends a deep, nutty flavour that is much more flavoursome than rice or quinoa. Kasha as a dish is thought to be over 1000 years old, representing one of the oldest known dishes of Eastern Europe. Kasha can be combined with meat or vegetables and is served as a side to almost anything in this part of the world. It is also sometimes eaten as a porridge for breakfast after being boiled in milk. I made my kasha side dish with mixed forest mushrooms, onion, parsley, dill, and some obligatory butter. I say obligatory because in Russia there is a saying that “you’ll never spoil kasha with a lot of butter”. The rest of the meal doesn’t have a particularly special name or preparation owned by this part of the world, but is commonly eaten with kasha. I fried pork chops with a little mustard, and baked some cute garden vegetables, including orange and purple carrots, Brussel sprouts and radishes.
Beetroot-based soups are served in numerous iterations throughout eastern Europe, with or without meat, hot or cold, chunky or smooth, and with different seasonings depending on the region. Ukraine is perhaps the loudest claimant of its origins, however, so I have included it in Ukraine week. The origins of borscht lie in an ancient soup that was more of a green colour, being made from pickled common hogweed, a herb that grows in damp meadows. This original concept gave rise to many types of soups, of which the beetroot borscht has become the most popular. Indeed, the word “borscht” actually means “hogweed” or “stubble”, referring to the spines of hogweed. To make my borscht, I grated boiled beetroots and stewed them in beef stock along with shredded beef shanks, shredded white cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, onion, carrot, garlic, bay leaf, parsley and dill. Borscht is traditionally served with a big dollop of sour cream, which is an ingenious way to give your soup an extra depth of flavour, while also sneakily bringing the temperature down so that you can scoff it all immediately without scalding your mouth. Borscht is one of the dishes commonly prepared as an offering to the souls of dead relatives on Forefathers’ Night (Dzyady), usually held in October/November, as well as for Christmas Eve dinner, when it is traditional to eat 12 meatless dishes. However, borscht of all varieties is also eaten all year round, triggering the Ukrainian saying “borscht and porridge are our food”. I can’t argue with that!
Chicken Kiev describes a preparation of a boned and skinned chicken breast, rolled flat, and stuffed with butter and herbs. The outside of the breast is subsequently coated in egg and breadcrumbs, and the whole thing is fried or baked until golden brown and crispy on the outside, with explosively hot butter on the inside. This latter feature is considered so dangerous that pamphlets were distributed to tourists of the Soviet, warning about the dangers of eating chicken Kiev, lest they unwittingly splatter themselves with molten butter. Chicken Kiev is clearly named after the capital of Ukraine, although the origins of the dish are far less black and white. In Ukraine, Russia and Poland, the dish is often called “côtelette de volaille”, which is actually a general French term for “chicken cutlet” (not referring to this specific preparation), and has predominantly come to be called chicken Kiev in the English speaking world, although the reference to Kiev is sometimes also used in Eastern Europe. Confusingly, in France, chicken breasts coated with eggs, breadcrumbs and sautéed are treated “à l’anglaise” (“English style”). It is thought, therefore, that the dish is originally French, with some English influence over the battering, and was introduced to Eastern Europe in the 18th century when French cuisine was hugely popular among upper Russian society. Its explosive popularity in this region then led to a synonymy with the city of Kiev for the rest of the world. Chicken Kiev is therefore of complicated origins, but Ukrainian enough in name for my purposes. Also… it’s delicious! I served my chicken Kiev with mashed potato, steamed asparagus, and a typical Ukrainian beetroot salad made with cubes of cooked beetroot, carrot, potato, peas and pickles, flavoured with mustard and dill.
Machanka and yeast crepes
Machanka is found in various forms across Eastern Europe, but is particularly famous in Belarus, where it manifests as a meat stew (usually pieces of pork or pork sausages) in a broth made of stock, thickened with flour and sour cream, all flavoured with black pepper, onion and bay leaves. Legend has it that the preponderance of pork in dishes from this region came about during the Ottoman Empire, when Muslim rulers would not confiscate pigs from the locals because the consumption of pork is forbidden under Islam practices. Pork therefore became a more reliable staple of the Belarusian and Ukrainian diet than other domesticated meats. I made my machanka with pork sausages, and the preparation strongly reminded me of the typical British comfort food from my childhood: sausages with onion gravy. However, I would go so far as to declare that machanka is superior to that beloved classic, because the gravy is thicker and more abundant. The other winning aspect of machanka is that it is commonly served with yeast crepes. Crepes and pancakes are hugely significant in Belarusian culture, with ancient traditions involving their formation and consumption, such as gifting pancakes to shepherds on the first outing of a flock in Spring to bring good luck for the season, said to resemble the sun and god of fertility. Young girls would also gain prophetic insight into their futures by the consumption of pancakes on yuletide, and again honour the dish if their good fortunes came true by cooking them on the second day of their wedding. On the equivalent date of New Year’s Eve, 12 pancakes are traditionally stacked by the head of the household and cut into four parts, representing each quarter of the 12 months of the year, then sequentially eaten by the household to symbolise the disappearance of the previous year . If these three specific dates aren’t enough, pancakes are also cooked and eaten at any time of the year to commemorate the dead, worship ancestors or, I suppose, if one has a hankering for pancakes? Certainly, then, this dish won’t be winning many awards for beauty, healthiness or fresh innovations, but if you’ve had a cold hard day and want a little warmth and comfort in your evening, I can’t think of anything better than wrapping yourself in a blanket of machanka and yeast crepes.