Up until last year, I confess that everything I knew about Ukraine could have been written on a teaspoon. The short list didn’t exactly carry warm thoughts either: former Soviet republic, Chernobyl ground zero, target of illegal Russian land grabbing, weather fit for an Ice King (a quick Google weather search just revealed that it’s a balmy -10° in Kiev as I type this).
It was through an auspicious encounter with two Ukrainian refugees, both also named Natalia to score high on the coincidence meter, that I started to associate Ukraine with warmer things that offered comfort and uninterrupted slumber. Indeed, comfort food goes by the name of borshch and guylash and farshmak, just a few of the traditional Ukrainian dishes I got to taste while working with these two Natalias.
Natalia Tsivenko and Natalia Oleksovych are two lovely mothers and home cooks who have worked closely with the Project Chefugee team in organising two pop up dinners and most recently, a cooking class with Soeasytocook.com. In between sharing with us famished guests their rich culinary tradition, they told us their heartbreaking personal stories about leaving their home.
“I still don’t know exactly why the war reached my village,” said Natalia T., who was separated from her family when she first fled Ukraine to seek asylum in Spain.
The chances of them moving back home in the near future are pretty bleak, but they have adjusted pretty well to life in Madrid (and Natalia T. has even reunited with her family here). I asked them what Spanish food they liked.“¡Tortilla…y jamón!” they said (but then again, who doesn’t like jamón?). They did admit however, that they weren’t overly keen on Spanish food, and just like any immigrant/ expat/ refugee/ transplant or any permutation of the words “adoptive citizen”, they really missed the food from their home country.
Dill with it
During the cooking class the Natalias taught us students, many a guiri, some Ukrainian cooking 101, starting with how to prepare borshch, or beet soup, which required us peeling and grating beets until our hands literally turned red. I think that what gave it a distinct aroma and wonderful taste was the fresh dill (or in Spanish, eneldo), a bunch of which was chopped and added on to the pot. I realised then that Ukrainians love using heaps of dill in their food, remembering the dill spread they prepared at the last pop up dinners.
We were also introduced to grechca, which is a kind of buckwheat that I suspect would seduce any quinoa-loving hipster. Preparing it was quite simple, and similar to cooking couscous, by adding it to boiling water and salting it a bit until the buckwheat groats absorbed all the water. On the next stove, a slow-cooking beef guylash or beef stew was simmering in onions, garlic and paprika.
Sans pressure cooker, the slow cooked meals needed at least 2 hours to be ready, and we had all worked up a ravenous appetite by ten o’clock PM. As the Natalias were serving us hefty plates, I felt like a leopard that had just ended its hunger strike, ready to sink its teeth into a wildebeast.
To say that it was excellent would be doing it a disservice. Echoing my friend and colleague Felicia’s words, “Gurllll, this is so good it’s ridiculous!” It was an amazing, wonderful, hearty meal, made even more special knowing that sharing it together brought a little piece of home to two homesick Ukrainian ladies.
Hungry for more? Check out the recipes of borshch and grechca con guylash here