Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Thursday, 10 March 2011

Celebrating food traditions in Ukraine

Evgeniya Rudenko
BBC Ukrainian service

Families often sit around the table for a custom commonly known as zastillya

Celebrating festivities without a table full of food and drink is almost unheard of in Ukraine.

Often families and friends gather for "zastillya" - a sitdown meal at home - or raise a glass for "budmo" - a traditional toast.

"Usually, when my friends or neighbours come by for a chat, I cook them something hastily", says Nadiya, from a village in the Poltava region.

"It could be fried potatoes or scrambled eggs with sauerkraut and pickles and of course, occasionally, some "samohon" (homebrewed alcohol.)

When my mum called me, her first question was: 'How are you? Not hungry?'

"But if I'm waiting for guests, of course, my table will be completely different," she continues.

"Often I will cook some meat with potatoes in the oven and make various salads and snacks along with a wide range of drinks, including homemade wine.

"And some strong stuff. My husband loves to make samohon, you should taste it".

Endless variation

Ukrainian cuisine is simple and complex at the same time.

It is simple because many products are grown near home or in the village and complex because almost every dish is handmade and takes a great deal of time and effort.

In Ukraine it is mainly women who do the cooking.

And it is a matter of honour to treat guests to fresh - and more importantly, hot - food, rather than sandwiches or cold snacks. "Borsch", a traditional Ukrainian soup, is one such hot dish.

Ukrainian food is simple and complex at the same time

While it is not a food you would generally tend to find at the table during a celebration, it is one of the most popular dishes in the country.

Whether you are eating in a city or a village, in someone's home or in a restaurant, you will always find borsch.

Amazingly you'll find it tends to vary in every house or restaurant.

"I've been travelling all over Ukraine and I've been treated to various kinds of soup," explains Peter Sterling, a journalist from London.

"And every time I asked what it was, they told me the same - borsch."

Handmade dishes

Every Ukrainian housewife seems to have her own borsch recipe, although the main ingredients remain the same - beetroot (which gives deep red colour), potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onion, flavoured with sour cream.

Differences are often found in its density, vegetable quantity and in some additional ingredients like meat, beans or even prunes.

That is why at first sight it looks like a different kind of beetroot soup, but in reality it is always the same borsch.

It is a similar story with another traditional Ukrainian dish - "varenyky".

This meal, which is commonly served with sour cream, often involves filling handmade pastry with fruit, meat, potatoes and cottage cheese. It is then shaped into a semi-circle.

Every housewife has her special fillings, and, of course, each semi-circle differs, as it is created by hand.

No waste

For a lot of Ukrainians throwing away food is paramount to crime.

This is primarily because many people still remember the famine during 1932-1933.

"I can't throw away bread," admits Andriy, an IT manager in Kiev.

Throwing away food in Ukraine is tantamount to a crime

"I was taught from my childhood that bread is a key product and you should eat it dry or put it in a dish like meatballs or burgers. It is important not to put it into the garbage bin."

His girlfriend, Svitlana, adds: "I've not lived with my parents for the last few years and I've already got used to being independent.

"But I remember at the beginning when my mum called me, her first question was: 'How are you? Not hungry?'

"She knows that I can cook and have enough money for food, but eating is an important part of our culture."

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