My grandfather came from the city of Boryspil in Ukraine. One-quarter of the blood in my veins is Ukrainian.
In Ukraine, you cannot separate the people from the land and you cannot separate the land from the food that is grown on it.
The soil of Ukraine is unsurpassed in its fertility. So much wheat is grown there that it is often called the bread basket of Europe.
“You just need to drop a seed, and it will grow there,” said Tetiana Mouzi, a senior research chemist for Pfizer who hails from the western part of Ukraine.
Although her family loves a wide variety of ethnic cuisines, Ukrainian food to her is comfort food. It’s what she turns to when she is feeling nostalgic. It is what she turns to when times are bad.
“Whatever you ate when you were a child, it’s always got that home-sweet-home feeling. The feeling of that warmth and smell and taste that your mom made and your grandma,” she said. “It always stays with you.”
Borsch — the T at the end is the Yiddish spelling — is the unofficial national dish of Ukraine. The hearty beet soup was invented there, Mouzi said, despite some other Slavic nations’ efforts to claim it as their own. Some historians suggest people have been eating it since the 1300s.
It has almost infinite variations. Beets are a necessity in borsch, of course, but everything else is a matter of taste. It can be vegetarian, or it can have meat — beef, pork, chicken or even duck. It can be made with beans or without, with cabbage or without.
It does have to be served with bread, preferably rye bread, on the side. That is a must.
There’s also a recipe here for one of the best known Ukrainian dishes, which is even named for the nation’s capital. Chicken Kiev is the famous dish of chicken breast stuffed with herbed butter, and fried.
When prepared properly, it is an exceptional dish. And it is simple in concept. At the very center is butter mixed with herbs (I used tarragon, but you could also use chives, parsley, chervil, thyme or rosemary). Wrapped around that is a chicken breast that has been pounded thin.
This package of chicken and herbed butter is dipped first in flour, then egg and finally breadcrumbs before being deep fried to a golden brown.
When you cut into one, the crust is crispy, the chicken is moist and melted butter flows out of the middle.
For dessert, try Ukrainian crepes called nalesniki. I filled mine with a lightly sweetened cheese filling, but Mouzi said you could put literally almost anything in them: meat, vegetables, jellies, herbs, mushrooms, fruit, whipped cream — anything.
The Ukrainian food I made was all truly exceptional. It made one-quarter of my heart very proud.
Daniel Neman is food writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] or @dnemanfood on Twitter.