Aubergine caviar, post-Soviet kebab kiosks: what Ukraine’s food culture taught me 30 years ago

<span>‘The concept of <em>gostipriimnost </em>(hospitality) meant that guests must be well-fed, preferably overfed.’</span><span>Illustration: Cat O'Neil/The Observer</span>
‘The concept of gostipriimnost (hospitality) meant that guests must be well-fed, preferably overfed.’Illustration: Cat O'Neil/The Observer

Thirty years ago, I spent the year I turned 21 in the former Soviet Union, starting in St Petersburg and ending up in Ukraine. I was studying Russian but most of my friends were Ukrainian. This was the time when the former USSR had recently started to call itself the Commonwealth of Independent States. Although Ukraine had been independent for three years, overt declarations of national identity were mostly buried beneath the surface. Until it came to food and drink.

Among my friends it was a matter of great importance as to whether you privileged borsch over shchi (beetroot soup v cabbage soup) or horilka over vodka (Ukrainian wheat-based vodka versus Russian potato-based vodka). The main thing that kept me going through one of the coldest Russian winters on record, however, was not the drink but the thought of a lazy hot summer in the south of Ukraine. It was the year I learned my way around a kitchen. And, by the time I got to Odesa (then Odessa) – with its famous meze dishes, such as aubergine caviar, its post-Soviet kebab kiosks and an endless supply of Eskimo ice-cream – it was the summer I really learned to eat.

This was another world, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall when people still talked about “the Iron Curtain”. For a few of us from the west who came of age around this time, these countries were among the first places we travelled alone as adults, the first places we ate food that you couldn’t get back home. Even if some of that food was kholodets (meat in aspic). To look at what has happened over the past two years, it feels like I dreamed those months. Or it happened in another lifetime.

The place names from my memories of that summer are now familiar for the worst of reasons. Odesa is on the front line and Kryvyi Rih, then Krivoy Rog (“Crooked Horn”) – Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s hometown, where I spent most of July and August 1994, the place the president calls “his big heart and soul” – is under constant aerial bombardment. It is becoming impossible to remember these places as they once were. Certain parts of Ukraine, the Black Sea port of Odesa in particular, were once more commonly thought of in terms of romance, culture and hedonism, never more so than just after the country’s independence in 1991. At that time there was a sense of optimism, despite the intensity of the “shock therapy” to the economy and the queues outside shops. Any animosity between the different parts of the former Soviet Union seemed to be obscured, and disagreements played down, at least in front of foreigners.

Most people I encountered that year had never met a foreigner before and had not expected to do so in their lifetime. A lot of their focus was on culinary treats. In Russia, these were the early Yeltsin years, when Uncle Ben’s was being advertised on a loop on state TV and advertising hoardings for Snickers, Baskin Robbins and Milka chocolate were everywhere. I was often asked to confirm whether Bounty really is “the taste of paradise” or, as it was translated into Russian in a mellifluous voiceover, “raiskoye naslazhdeniye” – paradisiacal gratification, although few could afford these exotic things. They cost sometimes as much as 20 times the price of local equivalents.

This was not a time of plenty. Everyone carried an avoska – a “just in case” string shopping bag, for the moments when you came across a shop that had suddenly received a consignment of goods. When I first visited the former USSR in 1992, I lived with a Russian host mother who, one morning, solemnly and with great reverence served me a solitary tomato for breakfast. (I tried to argue that we should share it.) Bread sprinkled with sugar was a treat. I was on tour with my boyfriend’s punk rock band in the summer of 1994 (he was the lead guitarist) and, away from their mums’ pancakes and borsch, they subsisted solely on cans of peas and tushonka (stewed meat), both eaten unheated from the tin.

Most people had never met a foreigner and had not expected to do so in their lifetime. A lot of their focus was on culinary treats

That year, I learned to cook Russian and Ukrainian dishes but I also learned a mish-mash of home cooks’ favourite recipes from many of the former Soviet republics: pastes and flatbreads from Georgia, polenta (mamaliga) from Moldova, lamb casseroles and pilaf from Armenia. Some were cooked by friends or families who had “adopted” me. Some were elaborate family recipes that had been passed down. Others were informed guesses or variations on a theme.

What little that people had was to be shared. If they had more than a little, it was to be lavished upon you. The concept of gostipriimnost (hospitality) meant that guests must be well fed, preferably overfed. To neglect your duties as a host was shameful. To neglect your obligations as a guest – to overeat, to enjoy the food to the most demonstrative extent and to match your host drink for drink – was unthinkable.

People were horrified if you didn’t want a second or third helping. Even when you tried to stop eating after three servings, they would sulk and say “Obidno” (you are insulting me). The first host mother I lived with would tell me, approvingly, that I was “pukhlinkaya” (chubby in a cute way). When we visited my Ukrainian boyfriend’s grandmother at her dacha, she took one look at me, narrowed her eyes and spat that I had “zhopa yak u vorobya” (an arse like a sparrow).

I was teaching English to adult learners and many of my unofficial cookery teachers were my students. The first to invite me into her kitchen was Oksana, a shy and always immaculately made-up Uzbek woman. She was raised in Tashkent and wanted to demonstrate her mother’s recipe for manty (dumplings). I didn’t really know what dumplings were, let alone how they were made. Oksana ceremonially unpacked the gleaming mantovarka (Uzbek dumpling steamer) she kept in a bottom drawer. The dough was made from scratch on a table with much sprinkling of flour. The elegant and meditative manty process required being a cross between a professional chef and a sculptor, all within the confines of a kitchen that was about two metres square. The circles of dough were cut expertly by hand, heaped with an aromatic mix of meat, carrot and onion, carefully bundled up and pinched deftly into a ruffle at the top.

Once they were cooked, we waited for the puffy, meat-filled parcels to cool so the insides wouldn’t burn our tongues. “You can decide how you eat them,” Oksana explained, “Some eat them all in one bite. Some nibble a hole and suck out the juice for good luck.” They were like miniature soft, wilted Cornish pasties or giant puffball ravioli, a sort of inflated version of dim sum. They were fragrant, juicy, delicious. And although they had taken a long time to make, it was a simple process that only really required patience.

No one I met made a big deal about the difference between speaking Russian or Ukrainian at this time: you just spoke however you spoke

Knowing about manty and how to eat them (you bite off the top and suck out the juice) stood me in good stead by the time I arrived in Odesa. For centuries, the city has been famous for its restaurants, museums, theatres and opera house (whose basement is now used as an air-raid shelter.) In the early 1990s it was the heart of the post-Soviet tourist industry: people would expect to treat themselves to their favourite foods while they were on vacation, whether khachapuri (Georgian flat bread) or voblya (dried fish which people bought to eat on the beach). There were cafes and food vans on every corner. That summer I ate variations on all the foods people had taught me to cook that year, anything to escape the tinned meat the guys in the band feasted on.

This was, of course, all before food became as political as everything else. In Ukraine, my boyfriend’s mother taught me how to cook syrniki pancakes with tvorog (curd cheese), talking to me in a mix of Russian and Ukrainian, a language called surzhyk – the name for bread made with a sprinkling of rye. I never met anyone who made a big deal about the difference between the speaking of Russian and Ukrainian at this time: you just spoke however you spoke. As to the future, there was at least a clue to what it held in the preparation of borsch. A Russian host mother had told me that borsch was a Russian dish (bezuslovno – undoubtedly) – as long as you added beef. Ukrainians told me it was Ukrainian (bezumovno – undoubtedly) and must include salo (pig fat). Ukrainian borsch was added to the Unesco “endangered heritage” list in 2022.

After I got back from Ukraine, a lot of that cooking might have been lost to me were it not for Anya von Bremzen’s 1990 recipe collection, Please to the Table, itself a product of another era with its celebration of more than 400 delicacies of the former Soviet Union. I was given a copy shortly after I got home to England, and many of its recipes have been the dishes I have cooked the most over the past three decades: pilaf with a crust, mushroom julienne and – of course – manty. Latterly I’ve come to rely on cookbooks by writers such as Olia Hercules and Alissa Timoshkina who have popularised creative contemporary recipes that move way beyond the boundaries of the post-Soviet world. As for all the people I knew back then, I have lost touch with most of them over the past 30 years. By the mid 1990s, many of my friends from that time were headed either for Moscow or abroad. The innocence of that time is long gone. Von Bremzen’s latest book, National Dish, is explicitly about the politicisation of food and contains a chapter that explores her family’s complicated feelings about cooking Russian recipes. It makes a point of explaining the importance of accepting borsch as uniquely – and undoubtedly – Ukrainian.

The fee for this article, and all author proceeds from her new book, below, will be donated to PEN International Appeal for Writers in Danger

One Ukrainian Summer by Viv Groskop is published by Bonnier Books Ltd, £16.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply