I’ve eaten sushi, Italian food, and fruit since I've been here in Kiev so far. In the midst of what I'd characterize as an uneasy peace (mostly) here, I’ve been fiending to figure out what the city's culture is all about.
Now it's time to discover the food. I mean some serious Ukrainian food – no fusion dishes infused with Mediterranean spices and essences of India.
“Hey, can you guys show me where I can get some real Ukrainian food?”
My local friends’ eyes light up and they say, “Meet at the Odessa restaurant tonight.” I can’t wait. I’m already hungry.
I get to Odessa early and ask for a booth. The place is already suspect before I sit down – it breathes "trendy" and "designer" to me. But my buddies say this is legit Ukrainian food, so let’s do this.
The menu delivers a fatal blow before they even show up. “…It is its unique menu that offers gastronomical designer’s dishes….” Sure, I love English typos in foreign countries giving the place some thankful foreignness, but this is EXACTLY where I don’t want to be. But I’ll play it off like I enjoy it still. Damn.
My mobile rings:
“Where are you Dominic?”
"I’m here in Odessa already."
“We say meet in front Odessa, not inside. We outside.”
I bolt out of the fantastically fancy fusion joint in no time. Alex and his girlfriend, Karina, are outside on the sidewalk shaking their heads at me. They point to the restaurant next door like I’m an idiot.
The real deal
Half a step into the joint I’m already in utter Ukrainian heaven as my eyes fixate on the traditional décor. It’s not upscale at all; the servers are dressed to match the farmland feel. It’s as if I’ve stepped into a small village in the countryside somewhere and am now being led to a celebration dinner.
"Increase your sexual prowess," "cure seven illnesses," and other claims are listed next to the varieties of vodka offered. Now how did I stumble upon this menu page first before others? Hmm. Alex is quick to claim that Ukrainians invented vodka. I’m more focused on how the vodka knows which illness of mine it will cure…or increase prowess, of course.
Ukrainian cuisine with salo
But drinking is not tonight's focus – it’s time to eat. First up is borscht: the staple beetroot tomato Ukrainian soup. What I’m hearing about borscht reminds me of my tortilla chip rule in Mexican restaurants: if the chips (borscht) are bad, don’t stay for the entrée.
Next comes the salo (check out the video for a visual explanation). It’s a food that Ukrainians have lived on for centuries, keeping their energy levels up for long periods of time. Put "salo" on "black bread" (rye) with a bit of garlic followed by a vodka shot, and you’re in Ukrainian utopia. Seriously, it was strangely satisfying.
By the end of the meal, I’m well aware Ukrainians generously slop sour cream on everything, including stuff like potato pancakes. Oh, or on the side of every plate just in case you might want some extra white creamy sauce. Dumplings (Varenyky) are a staple, with sour cream of course.
All in all
As Alex and Karina explain the differences between Ukrainian, Russian, and USSR restaurants (which go right over my head), I soak in the moment. Ukrainians have a visible pride in their food, their identity, and their traditions.
It’s been another fascinating glimpse into the culture of the Ukrainian people. I’m not feeling like a local yet, but I’m a little closer to it.