“It’s my front line and I think I won”: the chef puts Ukrainian cuisine back on the map | Ukraine

In a war there are many different fronts and many different forms of resistance. Yevgen Klopotenko, a Ukrainian chef, is waging war on soup.

In defiance of the Russian cruise missile and drone attacks that have recently hit Kyiv, Klopotenko, 35, was presiding over his bustling downtown restaurant last week. On the menu, dishes such as a salad of beets and herring with smoked pear from the Odessa region, game from the Carpathians and a dessert called “Kherson is Ukraine”.

Alongside a citrus semifreddo, the pudding included watermelon he had bought last season in Kherson and fermented. The region, which Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed last month but which is now the site of fierce fightingis famous for the fruit.

And, of course, Klopotenko served borscht. In this case, with a touch of plum jam to balance the acidity of the beets. For a hint of smoke, it had been cooked slowly and over low heat in a wood-fired oven, like “under a quilt”.

He insists it is a Ukrainian rather than a Russian dish. Like many aspects of Ukrainian culture, it was absorbed and appropriated by the Soviet Union during the 20th century, he argued.

Not everyone agrees. In 2019, a Russian government account tweeted that beetroot soup was “one of Russia’s most famous and beloved dishes”, while the Russian Embassy in Washington said Borscht was a national dish of many countries, including Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Moldova, and Romania.

In retaliation, Klopotenko led an action to persuade Unesco to include Ukrainian borscht on its list of intangible world heritage properties.

Borscht is prepared in the kitchen of Yevgen Klopotenko’s restaurant. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Despite a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson denounce Ukraine’s failure to “share” borscht as “xenophobia, extremism and Nazism” in April this year, Klopotenko’s attempt was successful. Ukrainian borscht was quickly inscribed on the Unesco list in July. (“Cooking borscht is also practiced in communities in the wider region,” the official listing diplomatically states.) “It’s my front line and I think I won,” Klopotenko said.

In truth, it was just a battle. His longer-term war is to rediscover and revive traditional Ukrainian recipes and ingredients, thus contributing, he hopes, to a renewed sense of identity among the Ukrainian people. “If we eat Ukrainian food, we will become Ukrainians,” he said.

About eight years ago, he realized that the only traditional Ukrainian dishes that most people could name were borscht and varenyky – dumplings stuffed with potatoes, meat or sometimes cherries. What was actually eaten was “Russian, Russian or Russian food – or actually, food from the Soviet Union”, he said. “Mashed potatoes, cutlets, pickled vegetables.”

The keynote of Soviet food was sweetness, he said. Until recently, for example, Ukraine’s Soviet-era guidelines still explicitly excluded spices and herbs, with the sole exception of pepper, from school dinners. But in 2018, in a Jamie-Oliver-style reform effort, Klopotenko introduced dishes such as shepherd’s pie, curry and macaroni cheese on school menus.

Not Ukrainian dishes, of course, but nutritious meals that were also, on their small scale, a geopolitical statement. “When you are open to the world, you are part of the world,” he said. “If you’re not afraid of oregano, you won’t be afraid of Greece and Italy.”

To rehabilitate Ukrainian cuisine, Klopotenko became a detective, delving into Ukraine’s pre-Soviet past. (The name of his restaurant, 100 Rokiv Tomu Vpered, which translates to 100 years back to the future, refers to this dive into culinary history.)

A book called 100 years ahead in Klopotenko's restaurant
A book called 100 years ahead in Klopotenko’s restaurant. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

He started with books. As we talked, surrounded by diners who savored galushki – meatballs and cherries from the Poltava region – he dumped a trio of volumes on the table.

The first was a poem by the founder of modern Ukrainian literature, Ivan Kotliarevsky. His Aeneida, published in sections from 1798, is a pleasant re-reading of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid – with Cossacks instead of Trojans. “Characters fight a lot, drink and eat,” Klopotenko said. About 150 dishes are mentioned by name, “of which only two or three are currently consumed”.

Yet it gave him the conviction that at one time Ukrainian cuisine was rich and varied. The second work was Practical Kitchen, the first Ukrainian cookbook, published in 1929. The author was Olha Franko, daughter-in-law of the prolific writer and translator Ivan Franko, a leading figure in Ukrainian literary history. She offered recipes for a handful of dishes mentioned by Kotliarevsky.

The third was a volume published in 1913 titled Food and Beverage from Ukraine. It is attributed to a figure called Zinaida Klynovetska, now seen as a pseudonym for writers assembling Ukrainian recipes under threat of persecution for nationalism under the Russian Empire.

Klopotenko then went on research trips across the country, learning about regional food traditions that still exist in the regions from the Carpathian Mountains to Odessa, as well as Crimean Tatar food which, he insisted, made part of Ukraine despite its annexation by Russia in 2014.

These are very refined versions of some of these recipes, using ingredients from the rich farmlands of Ukraine, which he serves in his restaurant.

Food is ready to be served from the kitchen of Klopotenko's restaurant
Food is ready to be served from the kitchen of Klopotenko’s restaurant. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Since the invasion, he has also run a canteen for refugees and volunteers in Lviv, western Ukraine, and posts dozens of recipe videos online, giving people “an opportunity not to think to war” while learning to cook Ukrainian.

“I understood that I had to fight on this front line – this cultural front line,” he said.

And then there is the unifying power of soup. Each Ukrainian family has their own slightly different recipe, he said. “But it’s still borscht. Just like us Ukrainians, we are all so free and so different. »

He added: “The one thing this country unites around is borscht. you may like [President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy or not, but nobody in Ukraine would say “I don’t like borscht”.

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