One of the joys of being Ukrainian is undoubtedly Ukrainian cuisine. Having grown up on a steady diet of varenyky (perogies), cabbage rolls, borshch and many other hearty examples of traditional Ukrainian cuisine with deep roots in Ukraine’s peasant history, it is little wonder that I need to keep careful tabs on my weight and physique. It is, to be honest, a losing battle. My love for Ukrainian food invariably trumps any desire I may have to look like an Olympic athlete.
The fondness for the particular foods I mentioned above has spread far beyond just the Ukrainian community, as most Canadians have eagerly adopted them as well, making them a regular part of their diet. The frozen food section of your typical Canadian grocery store is now well stocked with several brands and varieties of varenyky and cabbage rolls.
You know a particular food has “arrived” on the Canadian scene when the largest grocery chain, Loblaws decides to put out its own version under the President’s Choice house brand. Considering how much effort is involved in actually making these from scratch, I must guiltily admit that my freezer is usually well stocked with President’s Choice varenyky. They may not be quite as good as the ones we pick up at the Ukrainian Hall, but they are about a third of the cost and more than acceptable taste-wise. Smothered with sour cream and shkvarky, most Ukrainians would be hard pressed to tell the difference between these and the ones made by the friendly old ladies at the Ukrainian church hall or at home.
Which brings me to the subject of shkvarky, a fundamental component of many Ukrainian dishes. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Ukrainian cooking, shkvarky are essentially crispy fried bacon bits. In Ukraine, the preference is to use fatback which has very little lean meat in it and is mostly fat. In Canada, tastes have shifted to our more familiar style of domestic bacon that has a more balanced proportion of lean meat to fat. Shkvarky are liberally applied on top of many Ukrainian dishes such as varenyky, kasha, banosh and others, often in combination with fried onions.
In a way, shkvarky can be considered as a common Ukrainian condiment, though they can also in some forms, be eaten stand-alone. In some parts of Ukraine, fatback is chopped into larger cubes, fried until they are crispy, and served as an accompaniment to drinking beer or vodka, sort of like the way we eat chips or pretzels. It is as a condiment though that they shine, particularly when applied to a relatively bland base such as kasha (buckwheat) or the cornmeal that is the basis of banosh.
Most of you are likely familiar with kasha, though banosh may be much less known. Banosh is an immensely popular and common dish in the mountainous Hutsul region of Ukraine. It is prepared by simmering cornmeal in heavy cream until it reaches a thick porridge like consistency. Shkvarky, fried onions and brindza, a type of Ukrainian cheese similar to feta, is then liberally sprinkled on top before serving. Over the centuries, numerous traditions and customs have become attached to the preparation of banosh, most common being that it should only be prepared by men, and that while being cooked, you should only stir the pot in a clockwise direction. The consequences of not following these proscriptions are not clear, but I am not one to defy traditions that have been passed down through so many generations. One contradicts the dictates of one’s Ukrainian baba (grandmother) with extreme peril!
When speaking of condiments or flavour enhancers in a Ukrainian context, one must always include onions and garlic. I probably use more onions in my cooking than any other vegetable. There is a hoary cliché that in a Ukrainian household, the cook always starts out by frying onions and garlic, and then decides what the main dish will be. One could probably also add horseradish and sour cream as being indispensable garnishers or enhancers to many dishes.
Regrettably, during the Soviet era, Ukrainians in the homeland also seemed to have acquired an unfortunate addiction to mayonnaise. No salad of any kind would ever be prepared without a dressing whose primary component was mayonnaise. Now I have nothing against mayonnaise in particular and use it in my own cooking, but in nowhere nears the quantity that the folks in Ukraine do.
But enough. All this talk about Ukrainian food is spurring me on to start frying some onions, garlic and shkvarky. Now, what shall I have with them?