Home Author #CookforUkraine has become a rallying cry for the activist cookbook author

#CookforUkraine has become a rallying cry for the activist cookbook author

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In fact, the most common spelling in English, “borscht”, is the Yiddish word for the dish pronounced without the “t” in Ukrainian and Russian. The use of “shch” replaces a single letter “щ” in both languages.

For Olia Hercules, a Ukrainian-born cookbook author who became an anti-war activist after Russia invaded, borscht is inextricably linked to taste memory and family traditions.

“I have a video of my [then] 2-year-old son, tearing a piece out of a bowl of borscht,” Hercules recalled when I chatted with her via Zoom from her London home, “and exclaiming, ‘Look mum, a noodle,’ and I tell him, ‘No, Sasha, it’s a piece of cabbage.’ She pauses and adds, “Borscht was the first thing my mother cooked.

Her grandmother, who raised six children and was a unifying force in the family, once became so ill she was bedridden. Since dinner still had to be prepared, she explained the steps to Hercules’ then 7-year-old mother. “Can you imagine making borscht at age 7?”

The word borscht itself comes from the Old Slavic word “b’rshch” (beet).

While researching borscht for his 2020 “Summer Kitchens” cookbook, Hercules encountered its many varieties, including one using light pink beets for a delicate hue; another that incorporates baby eels; as well as a version from his birthplace of Kakhovka, Ukraine, where locals use sun-dried salted fish for salty taste and umami.

While the dark red, beet-based variety is the best known, there are dozens of variations, depending on geography and what grows well locally. Borscht can be white, green or pink; hot or cold; include meat or fish, or be vegetarian or even vegan. It is usually garnished with chopped herbs such as dill, parsley, green onions, or all three; often topped with fried cubes of salo (cured pork belly) and minced garlic; and served with hearty bread, uszka (small ear-shaped dumplings) or pampushky (yeast buns).

In the summer, cold versions abound, brimming with fresh, crunchy vegetables such as chopped cucumbers and radishes, and filled with halved hard-boiled eggs, placed on top to look like eyes staring at you. And not to forget, there is always a bottomless bowl of smetana (sour cream) to garnish your bowl.

Borshch is an indulgent and not particularly prescriptive dish. It is impossible to identify an authentic version, because there are probably as many recipes as families who prepare it. But several ingredients and concepts are useful to keep in mind when making it:

A: Use sunflower oil, preferably unrefined: much of Ukrainian (and Russian) cuisine is prepared with this oil. Sunflower, the official flower of Ukraine, grows well in this part of Europe, and unrefined sunflower oil will infuse your food with its unique flavor.

Two: Ukrainian soffrito, zacharka or smazhennya, is essential for an extra layer of flavor. This means using an extra cooking vessel, but it’s worth it.

Three: Tomatoes are important for both color and acidity, but often after the borscht is cooked, fresh lemon juice and sometimes sugar is added until a balance of acid, salty and sweet is achieved.

And finally: when you garnish your borscht with dill, a liberal—read: generous—drink of the herb is encouraged. There aren’t too many.

In the dead of winter, when temperatures in my then Leningrad were constantly below freezing and icy winds and piles of snow were our constant outdoor companions, a piping hot bowl of borscht was always the thing that kept me going. brought back from my semi-frozen state. State. I would come home from school in the afternoon (before leaving for hours of lessons at music school) and my grandmother would serve me a bowl of steaming hot soup, with a thick slice of rye bread to side. The bright red color was soon toned down with a generous dollop of smetana, which melted into the hot soup, sending its white streaks all around, like a possessed octopus.

Although a borscht can most certainly be part of a multi-course meal, it should be hearty enough to be a meal on its own. A good borscht should be thick enough for a spoon to stand on, as the saying goes.

It’s not practical to make a small batch. Good borscht, with layers of flavor and depth, takes time to prepare, especially if you’re making your own broth. The soup tastes infinitely better once it sits overnight in the refrigerator. Leftovers also freeze beautifully.

Such recipes encourage and even inspire sharing, and this aspect of cooking is powerful, says Hercules.

Food is about connection. With family and friends. With history and heritage. “Our family could come together and cook, eat, drink, share stories, cry, laugh and repeat,” Hercules says. When she was younger, the stories seemed too distant to understand – almost mythical – but as she grew older, she began to pay attention to them. It was a family tradition, told around the dishes of a long meal.

When asked why people tend to turn to food at times like these, Hercules pauses. “Food is life. Cooking is also family. And so, family is life. Many of us in Ukraine, the time we spend with family, we often cook together. stories.

Cooking together, whether in person or virtually, is about unity and connection, she says. It not only nourishes the body, but also makes us more compassionate. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Hercules went into shock and became emotionally paralyzed for two days, without eating or sleeping. As the second day drew to a close, she left the house for the first time to go out to dinner. At some point during the meal, she went to the bathroom and was there when her brother called. Instead of evacuating with his family, Oleksandr, a pacifist who has never fired a gun, sent his family away and volunteered for the Territorial Defense Forces. “They gave me a gun,” he told Hercules, “and that was it.”

At that point, says Hercules, his paralysis gave way to a desire to do something. She returned home and recorded a video on Instagram asking for donations to her PayPal account to raise money for her brother’s troupe. Back then, she says, they were running around snowy Kiev in sneakers. They had no helmets, body armor or boots. Hercules decided to change that and has since raised enough funds to help Oleksandr get the necessary equipment for his companions.

She begged her parents to come to London to stay with her, but they refused. Kakhovka is their home, they said, so why should they leave?

So she strives to keep the focus on the war and do what she can to support her family and her homeland.

Hercules has also partnered with Alissa Timoshkina, a London-based Russian-born chef and cookbook author, to raise awareness by encouraging people to cook Ukrainian dishes and using the hashtag #cookforukraine. “It gives a human face to the idea of ​​war. It humanizes us. These are not just war stories, these are real people fighting and dying,” she says.

Hercule also has plans for the post-war period. “I’m not going to stop until Ukraine is free. I plan to continue until we rebuild it. Her dream is to create free cooking schools for teenagers. “They can learn to make sourdough or become a chef, but it’s also therapy.”

As I make a pot of borscht so big it’s almost full to the brim, I think of my father’s father, who died long before I was born and hailed from Poltava in central Ukraine, and I feel that link described by Hercules. I serve it to my family and embrace my 7 year old with an aching heart, grateful that we are safe and at the same time heavy to know that so many others are not.