To understand the essence of Ukrainian cuisine you need to mix harsh snowy winters, a British-like spring and autumn and desert-hot summers in one big bowl. Sprinkle in nearly a quarter of the world’s most fertile soil, spice it up with very complicated history, and sweeten it to taste with incredible creativity – the result is fascinating!  

Join Olena, who is with us from Ukraine for work experience, to discover more about her country’s rich and versatile cuisine. From a Ukrainian soup safeguarded by UNESCO to a unique dessert that can be baked, fried or boiled, and a little about why a man should avoid a pumpkin! 

The soup which is not a soup 

People in Ukraine would never call Borsch a soup…though technically, that`s exactly what it is! There are plenty of different soups throughout restaurant menus in the Ukraine, but borsch will always feature.  

This signature dish of Ukrainian cuisine is generally cooked with beetroot, cabbage, potato, onion, carrot and garlic. But you will find different varieties throughout the country and the list of vegetables that are fried and boiled together varies from town to town and household to household.  

This is why it’s sometimes called “a hot salad” and depending on the cook’s ingredients, borsch can be either red or green. It is best enjoyed with sour cream, “salo” (salted and smoked pork) and “pampushky” (small slightly sweet buns) with garlic. 

Don’t just take my word for it, this year borsch was acknowledged to be exclusive enough to be inscribed on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.  

Mark the season with filling 

Varenyky is the second most recognisable Ukrainian dish. Adapted from Turkish cuisine, these little half-moon crimped pastries with delicious fillings were so widely and well accepted in Ukraine that, today, varenyky are cooked all over the country and there are over 30 varieties of filling! 

In summer you can enjoy them as a mouth-watering, honey covered dessert filled with berries, cherries or plums. In autumn, the classic potato filling will be enriched by seasonal mushrooms, while winter calls for a sauerkraut filling. At any time of the year, cottage cheese or mashed potato will be the filling of choice for the majority of Ukrainians – a true classic. 

The most popular Ukrainian breakfast 

Syrnyky are fluffy pancakes made from flour, eggs, sugar and cottage cheese mixed together. You can fry, bake, or even boil syrnyky. But no matter what you choose, you always get a delicious and healthy breakfast cooked in a fast and easy way. Be aware – if you choose to boil them, be ready to call what you’ve cooked “lazy varenyky”. 

Customs & traditions 

For Ukrainians, food is an integral part of our hospitality, festivities and rituals. At Christmas, guests not only sing carols but treat the hosts to kutya, a sweet porridge made from whole wheat, and pancakes with melted butter (as a symbol of the sun) are cooked for winter’s farewell. 

At Easter, Ukrainians decorate eggs in such a beautiful way that it has developed into an art called pysankarstvo.  

Korovai, gracefully decorated wedding bread, is part of a whole complex of ceremonies at a traditional Ukrainian wedding. Much like a slice of wedding cake is given to guests in the UK, Ukrainians give a piece of this lovely bread.  

But men, watch out! For centuries across Eastern Europe, receiving a pumpkin meant one thing: ‘No, I won’t marry you!” 

An old tradition held that a would-be suitor would visit a woman’s house to propose. If the answer was yes, then family toasting and celebration would ensue. If no, the poor man was silently handed a pumpkin. 

How much porridge is enough? 

Ukrainians are great fans of porridge. They say “you have not eaten enough porridge yet” to underline that someone is young or inexperienced.  

Porridge is cooked from wheat, rye, buckwheat, rice, millet, peas as a main dish or as a dessert with fruits or milk. While for the British foodies, buckwheat seems pretty exotic, Ukraine consumes up to 180,000 tons of buckwheat per year. This crop is not only nutritious, but also has a romantic link, because during the times of the Cossacks, buckwheat fields were the meeting place for lovers. That is how the expression “jump into buckwheat” means “cheating”.