Say the word “Varenyky” to a Ukrainian and you will immediately stimulate visions of heaping plates of these delicious potato and cheese filled dumplings smothered in sour cream and covered with fried onions and often “Shkwarky” (fried bacon bits) as well. Varenyky are a soul or comfort food for Ukrainians and can fairly be described as Ukraine’s national dish. No feast or special occasion is considered complete without heaps of Varenyky being served.
I was reminded of this recently when my wife and I paid an extended visit to my daughter and son in law in the U.S. to help them out while they transitioned to being newly minted parents to a demanding baby boy. Among other things, we volunteered to do most of the cooking, and when we first asked them what they would most like us to prepare, the immediate reply, of course, was Varenyky. By the time we departed for home, their freezer was well stocked with many dozen freshly made Varenyky.
I love Varenyky in all their plentiful varieties. Their core essence is very basic. You make a simple dough, roll it out, cut out circular shapes using a large glass, place a filling in the center, fold the edges over the filling into a half moon, and crimp the edges with your finger to hold the filling in. You then boil them for a few minutes and serve. The variety comes from the fillings, which can be cheese, mashed potato, mashed potato with different kinds of cheeses and/or onions, sauerkraut, sauerkraut with mushrooms, meats, and even dessert variations filled with blueberries, cherries or strawberries. I have even heard of some fancy Ukrainian restaurants serving specialty Varenyky filled with lobter or crab meat.
Although making varenyky sounds simple, there are probably as many recipes as there are Ukrainian cooks. Even something as simple as making the dough can lead to fierce debates if you have more than two or three “babas” in the room. You can make a simple dough with nothing more than flour water and salt. Typically, most cooks will also add some combination of milk, cream, butter, eggs and even mashed potato to the mix. My own favourite recipe comes courtesy of Father Anton of the St. John Ukrainian Catholic Church in St. Catharines. As well as being a much-admired pastor of his flock, Father Anton is also a chef extraordinaire, doing most of the cooking and catering for the parish hall. His dough recipe is the ultimate in simplicity – one cup of full fat sour cream for every two cups of flour. That’s it. Mix them well, knead until you have a nice elastic dough, roll it out, cut out the shapes and go to town with whatever fillings your heart desires.
Most non-Ukrainians are familiar with Varenyky by the more commonly used Polish name Perogies. Poles also love and make Perogies by the ton. In fact, so do most Eastern and Central European countries. There are a number of German and Austrian versions known as Schlutzkrapfen, Kärntner Nudel or Maultaschen. In Jewish/Yiddish cuisine they are known as Kreplach. German Mennonites that originally came from Ukrainian or Russian lands call them Wareniki. In Hungary, they are known as Derelye, and in Romania they are called Colțunași. In Slovenia, they are commonly made with buckwheat flour, and are called Ajdovi Krapi. In Russia, as well as making Ukrainian style Vareniki, they also make a smaller meat-filled version Pelmeni.
The actual origins of Varenyky are unknown, but we do know from historical records that Ukrainians have been making them for at least eight or nine hundred years. There is much speculation that they originated in China, where they have been making stuffed dumplings of various kinds likely for thousands of years. There is a Polish legend that one of their saints, a monk by the name of Jacek, brought them back to Poland from the Far East.
Whatever you choose to call them, Varenyky are addictively delicious and I have come to really enjoy making them, as labour intensive they may seem. When I do not have the time or inclination to make them, I can easily buy them from most Ukrainian church halls, where the making and selling of Varenyky have provided the main income stream for their existence. They have also become so ubiquitous and popular to all Canadians, that you can buy them frozen at most major grocery chains anywhere in Canada. On my last shopping excursion, I bought a kilo of frozen No-Name potato and bacon Perogies for just under $2.00.
In Western Canada’s Ukrainian heartland, in the village of Glendon, AB, there stands a 7.6 metre monument of a Varenyk on a fork, a befitting homage to one of the many notable things Ukrainians have contributed to Canada.