Food is an important part of life in both Russia and Ukraine. Guests are always offered something to each and drink as an expression of hospitality. Celebrations and holidays in Russia and Ukraine like Easter, Christmas, New Year’s and others all have special dishes associated with them.
Because of their geographic proximity and interwoven histories, there are a lot of crossovers between Russian and Ukrainian food and drink. Each region also has its own unique influences and special dishes, as well.
Russian cuisine is quite diverse; this only makes sense, since, by area, Russia is the largest country in the world. The culture was originally agrarian, which led to the development of a rich array of peasant foods. Grains like rye, wheat, millet and barley all grow well there, leading to a wealth of breads, pancakes and other grain-based food items. The coasts offer seafood, and mushrooms, berries, poultry and game are all plentiful.
In the 16th century under Ivan the Terrible, Italian craftsmen came to Russia to help create ornate public buildings. These craftsmen brought foods from their homeland with them, including pasta, pastries, and frozen confections such as gelato. Russians took to all of these enthusiastically.
Peter the Great brought a French chef to court. From that point forward, many members of Russian nobility had French chefs in their homes, which had a tremendous influence on Russian cuisine. One French custom the chefs brought was meals served in courses rather than all at once. The French influence on Russian cooking can also be seen in dishes like Chicken Kiev and Salat Olivier.
One book that can give insights into the ways that the Russian middle and upper class ate during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is A Gift to Young Housewives by Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets. It was the most successful cookbook in Russia in that era, and was used in many households. Recipes include ones for roast suckling pig, aspics, mousses, jams, mustards and even vodka. There was also advice for managing household servants and suggested menus for feast days. The book fell out of popularity after the rise of the Soviet Union, as it was viewed as decadent and bourgeois.
In the Soviet era, cuisine changed to accommodate the reduced variety of ingredients available. Most dishes were simplified adaptations of Russian and French foods. In Soviet cuisine, meals generally consisted of four courses. The first would almost invariably be a soup because of soup’s ability to stretch ingredients. The second course was usually some sort of meat or poultry served with noodles, potatoes or another starch on the side. This was followed by a drink (commonly coffee, tea or kompot) and a dessert. Salads, when available, were served on the side. Soviet era food was typically mild and simple due to the difficulty acquiring spices. Many Soviet era foods remain popular today due to childhood nostalgia and the easy preparation of food like frozen pelmeni.
Globalization has made imported ingredients available in Russia, and Russians are once again expanding their palates. In cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, ethnic restaurants featuring cuisine from all over the world is available. Dishes from other parts of the world are often given a distinctive Russian flair. For instance, at a recent food festival, a chef made a version of Spanish Paella using spelt, a Russian native grain.
Seven thousand years ago, nomadic tribes called the Tryppilian roamed the fertile steppes and low mountains of Ukraine. They planted wheat, peas, and barley, and hunted plentiful game that included bison, deer, wild boar and hares. Ukraine is still known as the bread basket of Europe because of fertile soil that grows rich crops.
Ukraine has been under the rule, at various times, of Russia, Austria and Poland. As a result, Ukrainian food is influenced by cooking from a number of cultures including German, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian and Turkish, but also retains its Ukrainian character.
Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. Much of the country is made up of steppes where the soil is dark and fertile and ideal for growing grain, potatoes, berries, mushrooms, beets and other vegetables. The land is also perfect for grazing; dairy products, beef and pork are all important elements of Ukrainian cuisine.
Many Ukrainian holiday meals are steeped in local tradition. The celebrations were, in pre-Christian times, centered around the seasons and the harvest, but are now associated with religious holidays. For instance, Christmas Eve dinners include 12 meatless dishes. Common foods served on Christmas Eve are cabbage rolls, fish, mushrooms, and a raisin dish called kutya which is only served at the Christmas Eve meal. Easter dinners are blessed by Orthodox priest before being taken home and shared with family. Many rural Ukrainians grow vegetables in their home gardens to increase the variety of food available to them.
A lot of Ukrainian food is quite simple in order to spotlight the individual ingredients. Other dishes are more elaborate, incorporating 10 or 20 different ingredients. Borscht is the most popular meal, and there are as many recipes as there are Ukrainian cooks. Bread is served at every meal. Food is served in large portions to ensure that guests at Ukrainian tables are well-fed. Guests at Ukrainian homes are always offered food; when you visit, know that your host will appreciate you accepting their hospitality.