Conversation with Olena Braichenko: Where food meets culture, pt. 2

The continuation of a conversation with Olena Braichenko, founder of the yizhakultura project, about contemporary Ukrainian cuisine and the variety of cultural trends that can be found in it.

Iryna Slavinska: Speaking of home cooking, can one spot trends from other countries in it?

Olena Braichenko: The topic of home cooking is so interesting. Regardless of the dishes, you can see how the understanding of home cooking has actually changed before our very eyes over the past ten, fifteen, or twenty years. I can explain the background of these changes. During the Soviet period, few people could afford to go to a restaurant. Dining in a restaurant was a sign of your ability, first of all, to live in a city and secondly, people mostly cooked at home. Even in the large cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Lviv, a lot of people did home cooking. Today, among members of the twenty+ generation, especially urban residents who may work several jobs and have an active lifestyle and look at the world differently than their parents, I know a lot of cases where people hardly ever cook at home. They constantly eat outside the home or order food to be delivered. You can see how much the demand for delivered food has grown in big cities in the last five years. The quarantine only boosted this.

There is another international trend that is also appearing in Ukraine: virtual restaurants that exist only on the Internet. You don’t even know where their kitchen is located, but from any part of the city you can order food, and it will be delivered. It’s called a cloud kitchen. This change is leading to a somewhat different perception of home cooking; it acquires the connotation of something romantic, like your mother or grandmother cooking for you. In people’s consciousness and perception, home cooking is seen as healthier, of higher quality, and safer.

Iryna Slavinska: Are there borrowings from other cuisines in Ukrainian home cooking?

Olena Braichenko: Absolutely. Furthermore, everyone who is interested in Ukrainian cuisine and is trying to discover old recipes or village practices, querying older people, often forgets that people whom we consider to be older are actively hooked up to the world web. Someone who is eighty years old also uses the Internet and finds some recipes. In researching gastronomy, we should not forget this.

The dining room table and family get-togethers are an important component of our culture. This interaction often takes place at home, around a table. We don’t have the same practices as in Western Europe—get-togethers in restaurants or tea-time within families, when really only tea and pastry are served. In our country, it is a full-fledged feast that is prepared in advance. The members of the older generation, who want to have nice relations with their loved ones and be modern, are introducing into their daily home cooking modern cooking techniques from other cuisines.

Iryna Slavinska: Speaking of borrowings from Jewish home cooking, in which Ukrainian cities are such borrowings the most widespread? Is this a transregional phenomenon?

Olena Braichenko: It is definitely Lviv. Odesa is creating a certain gastronomical myth—in the best sense of that word—of Odesan Jewish cooking. You will also see restaurants offering Jewish cooking in the city of Dnipro, definitely in Kyiv and in Lviv. Even if there is no restaurant offering ethnic cooking as a separate specialization, you will find Jewish dishes even in ordinary restaurants, cooking, and in supermarkets.

Forshmak [or vorschmack: a meat or fish appetizer—Trans.] is a very well-known dish from the 1920s and 1930s. In the last four or five years, it is seeing its heyday, forshmak is in vogue.

The foodie vogue is a very interesting thing. It depends on many factors. For example, from time to time in the restaurant industry, there is a demand for restaurants of other countries. I hope that one day I will manage to obtain a grant for a yizhakultura project to research food consumption behavior or our food habits in the last twenty years. This is a very dynamic period that reveals many things about us. For example, when Ukrainians began to travel more, we could see how dishes, individual products, or even restaurants began appearing in our restaurant landscape. The communities of these countries are also contributing to the opening of restaurants offering their cuisines; for example, Turkish cooking in Kyiv—and not just one or two of them.

Several factors explain this diversity of restaurants that offer cooking from individual regions and Jewish cooking. This demand is formed by the circumstance that the modern world is very tolerant and supports the desire for a variety of tastes. You get to know another country, a different culture, through taste if you don’t have the opportunity to travel there.

If you do not have the possibility to travel somewhere, then at least you can visit a restaurant in Kharkiv, Dnipro, Cherkasy, or Chernihiv that presents this culture through food. This has become very popular and widespread in the last fifteen to twenty years.

Iryna Slavinska: What is this frequency connected to?

Olena Braichenko: If we are talking about the Ukrainian space, it must be said that we experienced certain waves in the restaurant landscape. If we recall the 1990s, there were few restaurants; only those with deep pockets could afford to go to them. Taste was not the big issue there. It was mostly about where it was located; get-togethers were designated there. There was a very small gastronomic component. This situation begins to change in the 2000s, and the restaurant market grows. In recent years, Asian cooking has become popular.

Iryna Slavinska: In recent years, I have noticed that restaurants featuring modern Israeli cooking have begun to appear. There are establishments like this in Kyiv and Dnipro. What is this vogue? How is it emerging?

Olena Braichenko: There are many factors at play here. A restaurant is a kind of library of taste, but essentially it is a business. Ukrainians have learned and are continuing to learn how to eat out at restaurants, not at home. The demand for visiting local, specific establishments is rising. The emergence of modern Israeli cuisine is also a tribute to the times and the need to satisfy consumer demand.

This is a very positive phenomenon. During the Soviet period, we saw standardization, the unification of everything—life, housing, including our culinary habits. Today we are seeing the opposite picture: a variety of tastes, offerings, interiors, and establishments.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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