From vegetable-filled dumplings to bright pink beetroot soup, traditional Slavic recipes have become a symbol of former Soviet old-fashioned cooking. But as violence in the region continues, many turn to dishes from the past for a healthy dose of reassurance.
On Feb. 24, the war in Ukraine will mark its two-year anniversary. According to the United Nations, the fighting between Russia and Ukraine has claimed more than 10,000 civilian lives and injured 18,500 others.
To deal with the uncertainty and strife, many have turned to their kitchens. “Things definitely changed after the war,” says Vera Reznik, who moved from Dnipro 10 years ago and now lives in Toronto, Canada. “Now I cook less Soviet food, which is associated with Russia — like Olivier salad, etc. Now I cook more Ukrainian food, like borscht and vareniki. I decided to incorporate that into the house, more traditions that are specifically Ukrainian and not Soviet-Russian.”
The hallmarks of Slavic cuisine
Slavic cuisine is a diverse and vibrant part of the culinary world, steeped in tradition and enriched by the various cultures that fall under the Slavic umbrella. From hearty soups, stews and delicate traditional blintzes, to tangy homemade fermented cabbage and pickles, these recipes offer a glimpse into the soulful and robust flavors that have been passed down through generations. They reflect not only a wide range of ingredients but also the historical movements and exchanges among different peoples.
At the core of traditional Slavic recipes is the use of fresh, locally sourced ingredients, prepared in a way that is both simple and ingenious, maximizing flavor and nutritional value. Root vegetables like beets, potatoes and carrots, along with grains such as buckwheat and barley are used to form the backbone of many typical dishes. Dairy products like sour cream and tangy cheeses frequently provide a creamy contrast to the rich, earthy tastes that define these cuisines.
Affordable ingredients make meal planning easier
These ingredients are also usually affordable, an unexpected suprise given the rising food costs across North America. “Growing up, we always shopped local and found the best-priced shops,” says Irena Tchaoussovska, whose family moved from Kharkov in 1988. “Unlike large mainstream grocery chains, these shops are made to earn enough to keep themselves going, but not at the expense of the people that frequent them — and they become staples within the Slavic community… This allows for a sense of community, affordable groceries in smaller or larger quantities and delicious meals that are built to last.”
Grains play a significant role in the Slavic kitchen, with wheat, rye, barley and buckwheat being most popular. They are commonly used when making breads, pastries and porridges, such as the famous kasha, toasted buckwheat grains cooked like rice and then mixed with other flavoring agents, like caramelized onions.
Slavic cooking features a hearty array of vegetables. Cabbage, potatoes, beets and mushrooms are frequent stars in many recipes. These vegetables are utilized in everything from salads, like vinaigrette salad, to stews and pickled dishes.
Pork, beef and poultry are the primary meats found in Slavic cuisine. They’re prepared in various ways, including smoking, curing and stewing. Sausages called kielbasa and stuffed cabbage rolls known as “holubtsi” are prime examples of traditional meat-based fare.
Finally, dairy products, particularly sour cream, cottage cheese and butter, add richness and flavor. They serve as toppings or fillings for pastries, pancakes and blini.
Slow cooking for maximum flavor
The cooking techniques employed in Slavic kitchens speak to a deep respect for preserving the integrity of ingredients while also evoking a sense of home and comfort. Slow-cooking methods such as baking, stewing and fermenting are prevalent. Like many old-world recipes, traditional Slavic recipes showcase a world of flavor that is both humble and sumptuous, while also being accessible yet complex.
Many have chosen to bring Slavic flavors into their household through slow cooking. “What’s wonderful about Slavic food is that you can make something from nothing and nothing is wasted,” says Tchaoussovska. “We came from a place where we didn’t have money or resources, so we made the best with what we had. It’s allowed us to have a cuisine that has lots of soups and plenty of other dishes that are versatile and hearty — perfect for slow cooking during the cold long winters!.”
Murky origins, new preparations
The conflict in Ukraine shines a light on one of the biggest disputes in Slavic cooking, the question of origins. While Russians claim they invented the hand-held pie, also called “piroshki,” Ukrainians stake their flag on the beet soup known as “bortsch,” a spelling that changes whether you are writing from a Ukrainian or Russian perspective.
The reality of these dishes’ origin is much murkier. According to The New Yorker, food writers like Maksim Syrnikov have spent the last two decades tracing the origin of traditional Russian and Ukrainian dishes. Yet they are nowhere closer to resolving some of these mysteries.
In her book “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing,” Anya Von Bremzen traces the origin of many popular dishes associated with Slavic or Soviet cooking to state-sponsored propaganda. Particularly, the official cookbooks published by the Soviet State and sent or gifted to every household. Thus, dishes seen as traditional were actually a result of the state apparatus trying to create a pan-Slavic identity across the region.
Syrnikov goes further to disprove the Russian or Ukrainian origins of produce like potatoes. He traces them to the Americas, telling The New Yorker that “in the middle of the eighteenth century, there were riots because people didn’t want to grow potatoes.”
Thus, even the dishes many Ukrainians grew up with are not as traditional as they may seem. This has led expats to dig deeper and resurrect old-world Ukrainian traditions.
“People of my generation grew up in a Ukraine that really understands what is Ukrainian in food, music and art. For my parents’ generation, this was not the case,” says Reznik. “But even I discovered new Ukrainian foods that I didn’t know of. For example, in Ukrainian Christmas, where we have to have 12 dishes that need to be vegetarian. This year, many in Ukraine celebrated a traditional Ukrainian Christmas instead of just making another Olivier salad.”
The kitchen remains a place of solace for many Ukrainian expats. Whether cooking from family favorites or discovering new-to-them traditional recipes, people throughout the country are turning to cooking traditional Slavic recipes as a way to reconnect to their culture and country of origin.
Ksenia Prints is a food writer, blogger, photographer and recipe developer from Montreal, Canada. She blogs over At the Immigrant’s Table, a food blog showcasing healthy, beautiful international recipes for adventurous home cooks. She loves to highlight ethnic cuisines and immigrant cultures by working with chefs from relevant countries and adapting those recipes to gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, sugar-free and other dietary restrictions.