Read Igor Klekh's Essays on the Cultural Symbolism of Ukrainian Food

Courtesy of Glagoslav Publications
Courtesy of Glagoslav Publications
Photo of Matthew Janney
Uk Books Editor19 December 2017

How communities source, prepare and consume food is one of the most revelatory data sources we have at our disposal, when exploring a foreign culture. In Igor Klekh’s majestic book of essays and recipes, Adventures in the Slavic Kitchen, he studies the central role that food has on the “formation and expression of a nation’s character”. With a style that has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges, and covering topics from hangover cookery to the political significance of the sausage in Ukraine, Klekh’s essays make for a highly amusing and informative read – a literary feast, if you will.

Part 1: The Philosophy of the Kitchen

From In Defense of Sumptuous Eating

Why does the amount of tasteless food constantly increase in the world? You would think that when the iron curtain fell, a gigantic gastronomic world would have opened before us. In comparison with relatively empty store shelves and shameful product “orders” for Soviet holidays (which is sickening to remember, but remember we must), it is true. But the illusion has quickly dissipated. It turned out that the consequence of the lack and over-abundance of provisions results in the development of omnivorousness (not without reason the SU [Soviet Union] and the US [United States] look like an inversion of each other, as one of my American friends has pointed out). Somewhere, as it was in the time of Gilyarovsky, entire fortunes are eaten away through gourmet dinners, but people must have a tightly packed purse, persistency, and know places to do it. Nowadays gourmets have become conspirators and misfits. Some underlying processes force more and more people to eat tasteless and unhealthy food and pay quite a lot for it (which is especially cynical). Nowhere in the world have I met such a great number of unbelievably obese people as in American provincial cities, and I looked at them with a mixture of horror, rapture, curiosity, and repulsion. It would be fine if they ate with delight for the sake of pleasure, but they swallow everything in quick succession in their fast food restaurants with pseudo Chinese and Mexican buffets as well as cheap pizza, chasing everything down with iced drinks at any time of year, turning any food into alimentary garbage with their gluttony.

You can argue about tastes, but fresh oysters “American-style” with ketchup and horseradish (where a humble slice of lemon on ice looks like a relic) is something more than an aberration, it is act of sabotage, an attack on taste receptors and a purposeful obliteration of the very notion of taste. If you look hard, you can find freshly baked bread and soft-boiled potatoes from Idaho, and a suburban store with three thousand sorts of cheese (the French have less than five hundred!), and even a grenade with carcinogens – smoked “kielbasa” (they gave up and introduced the Slavic word into the American dictionary, but nevertheless recommend that it be kept in the freezer), but it doesn’t change the fact of the matter. Sooner or later you will give in and start to eat like everyone around you, having completely forgotten about the taste of food: in public fast food places or the ready-made dishes warmed up in the microwave, scrutinizing the labels for the presence of chemicals among the ingredients. It is a universal phenomenon, but particularly in the US, it would seem, that’s where the trouble lies. The reason for it is the refusal of much-vaunted individualism and the degradation of home kitchens. If you do not cook (or at least rarely) and only warm up ready-made dishes, atrophy of one of the senses is inevitable. Calorie counts, diets, the tantalizing symbols of exotic kitchens and culinary adventures, and other secondary things will take the place of taste.

Food pluralism is a circular paved road to the wide gates of the universal McDonald’s or in Soviet times the obshchepit cafeterias. Fortunately, the New Russia is a backward country, where many still believe that food first of all must be tasty, everything else is details.

Ukrainian Russian Borscht with White Beans | © Timolina/Shutterstock

Part II: Cultural Dictionary of Eastern Slavic Food

From Hangover Cookery

The regrettable condition of a hangover is a weighty argument, but of a lower order to use as a refusal from abusing alcohol. A certain psychiatrist, my childhood friend, advised everyone to reject occasional shameful drunkenness, which leads to pseudo- binge-drinking (when one drinks not from an internal need, but “for company”), but instead of this load up on alcohol twice a month, so that you maintain a healthy psyche. He proscribed his personal abstinence syndrome with followers of his teachings at weekly Saturday soccer matches and the bathhouse with beer after that. A certain part of his advice sank into my soul, as happens in youth, and allowed me over time to accumulate my personal practical experience.

We’ll leave the metaphysical, psychological, and social bases for the abuse of alcohol aside (and this, undoubtedly, is an indecisive and semi-conscious form of suicidality), concentrating exclusively on the corporeal aspect and on what one can undertake, in order to emerge from a critical condition that gives you an idea of what it would feel like being in hell (where the church, not without reason, places drunkards).

Of course, “an active life” is always preferable, i.e., soccer (or skiing) and a sauna afterward, but if this for some particular reason is impossible or turns you off too much (resources for self-restraint aren’t unlimited), one can try a softer variant and strive to return to normal life activity through the kitchen. Work therapy that does not demand a certain amount of super effort is not only inevitable, but also desired. The fulfillment of compulsory service in the kitchen has as its nearest goal to make up for the organism’s deficiency of those nourishing and mineral substances and vitamins that the alcohol burned and washed out. The organism must not give to drink, but to nourish (therefore the inordinate use of liquid the next day is the most widespread mistake; after all an alcoholic is a person, who has shifted to liquid products for nourishment, calories in pure form, which alcohol supplies; they are more easily digested, and the organism, always inclined to laziness, unnoticeably falls in this way into biochemical dependence).

You can begin by making a non-alcoholic cocktail, from time immemorial called “The Morning of Our Homeland”: into a tart tomato sauce (or tomato paste with ajika or salt and pepper) squeeze a clove of garlic through a garlic press, then add – mandatorily, and this is the main nuance! – minced green dill or several drops of essence of dill, you drop in an entire egg yolk, and this entire mixture is shaken and churned up in a bottle (preferably a glass one) of mineral water. The bursting little bubbles and the yellow luminary floating up over the bloody-red horizon, which you swallow and which slips down your alimentary canal, along with other teasing and refreshing ingredients will be the thing that eventually will bring you to your senses.

Only just such a cocktail prepared according to the recipe that has been carefully passed down from generation to generation, from hand to hand, has the right to be called “The Morning of Our Homeland,” and not the odious inventions of boozers, abstractionists “in life.”

Thirst isn’t a fancy, and you should remember that no amount of water will quench it. Fermented or sour milk (katyk) is better. Of the brines, a cabbage one is considered the best for the simple reason that strictly speaking, it is cabbage juice and not water, like the one added during the pickling process to cucumbers and tomatoes. If you do not have any kind of brine, you shouldn’t try to replace it with marinades – this is a perilous path of imitating our “younger brothers in reason,” who try without thinking anything that is nearby in the futile hope that it will give them relief. Not too bad in terms of a first step would be about three glasses of a strong freshly brewed piping hot tea with lemon and sugar, which will give a shock-inducing dose of mysterious life-giving vitamin C and tannins to your organism.

In order to dispose your organism toward egress from the hangover (and in any case, not to allow yourself to slip inadvertently back into a drinking binge), it is necessary to firmly and in a variety of ways nourish it. You can step out to the nearest market and buy groceries, catching a breath of fresh air while doing that, and immediately indulge yourself in the preparation of food. Whatever you happen to make, from boiled potatoes to fried eggs with salo or bacon, all will be good. A hot soup, that would extract from vegetables, chicken, or anything you want those nourishing substances that are so necessary for your life would be even better. The more concentrated the dish is (not containing more ingredients!), the better. After the first scorching spoonfuls, you’ll immediately break into a sweat. Now, accompanied by the hot dish, you can finally drink a glass of vodka (we are talking here about the traditional variety of hangover, specific to our climate; a wine hangover is greatly helped by chilled oysters with champagne, but even to mention similar methods of sobering up in mass-market writing would be simply cynical).

Ukrainian Vegetable Dietary Cabbage Rolls in Leaf of Savoy Cabbage | © Lunov Mykola/Shutterstock

Part III: Seasonal Culinary Art

From Cabbage – it is the head!

There are dozens of kinds of cabbage in the world, and each is good in their own way. The curly Savoy cabbage is good in European soups; the pale Peking cabbage – in Chinese salads with wood mushrooms; Brussels sprouts, sautéed in batter, as a side dish; red cabbage – marinated; and young green kohlrabi (cabbage-turnips), which in taste resembles a stalk of white cabbage or the stems of cauliflower, in soups or raw, with a mayonnaise dressing.

Nevertheless, the head (pun intended) of all cabbages is the traditional green one, the juiciest and most universal, which is good in salads, in soups, in main courses, and for marinating. It is especially good twice a year – early and late (when after the first frost the juices go to its head, and that is the best time for it to be pickled).

I never liked the tired emigrant witticism about early strawberries that come up for sale at 6 in the morning and not at the end of May, because, I repeat, nothing makes food more appealing than when it’s in season. In the same way, nothing can compare to the finesse of the taste of the first curly head of young green cabbage, the messenger of approaching summer.

The simplest vegetable soup with it and a tablespoon of butter, without any meat, is already something, and if you add miniature meatballs to the soup – it’s super good! However, without a doubt you should also cook this early cabbage before it becomes mature once in a while to prepare golubtsy (stuffed cabbage leaves), or properly speaking – “golubchiks,” the very name of which brings associations with turtledoves.

In the beginning you will have to struggle with the cabbage leaves that have grown into each other and then keep them covered in boiling water for five minutes. For the filling: mix equal parts of ground beef, sautéed with onions and carrots, and semi-ready rice, cooked in water, and chicken or vegetable broth (1/1 1⁄4 proportion), add parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper to taste. Dissolve sour cream and 1 Tbsp. of tomato paste in the cabbage broth. Place the filling onto the cabbage leaves and roll them. Put the golubtsy in the broth, drop a couple of bay leaves into it, cover them with a plate, cover the pot, and cook at medium heat for 40 mins. If you make golubtsy using mature cabbage, sauté it before putting the cabbage leaves in the pot. The taste of the golubtsy is made even better with all kinds of “additives” – such as sweet peppers or a few prunes. The golubtsy have to sit half-drowning in the sauce when they are put on a plate with sour cream and greens (dill, parsley, cilantro) spooned on top of it. Golubtsy are a strictly family dish – so arm yourself with a spoon and bread and shamelessly attack the sauce until it’s all gone.

You can read about everyday cabbage soup, bigos, cabbage pie and sauerkraut in other parts of this book.


Cover courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

by Igor Klekh

Translated by Slava I. Yastremski and Michael M. Naydan

Glagoslav Publications | 177 pp | €21

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