Food memories of childhood summers often linger. Olga Koutseridi, a graduate student counselor at the University of Texas at Austin, set up hers in Mariupol, the small Black Sea town whose name has become synonymous with the worst devastation Russia has inflicted on Ukraine.
While growing up, her family often moved between Ukraine, Greece and Russia for her father’s work, but they always returned to her parents’ hometown for the summer. Her grandmother’s apartment overlooked the mulberry trees along Morskyi Boulevard and the Sea of Azov beyond.
On the way to the beaches of Mariupol, women sold whole roasted sunflower seeds and paper cones of fresh, juicy sunflower seeds brought in from nearby farms. Beachgoers hauled picnic lunches filled with garlicky salami sandwiches on lavishly buttered slices of baguette, an essential Ukrainian bread. And on the way home, food trucks sold freshly baked goods cheburekiccrescent dough folded around a meat filling, hot and spewing juice “like a giant fried soup dumpling,” she said.
On February 24, when the shelling started, her grandmother and aunt fled the apartment; Mrs. Koutseridi didn’t hear from them until 20 March. With a dozen others, they took shelter in a basement with no heating, water or power until the violence got close enough to force them out. On foot, by car and by train, Ms. Koutseridi said, they crossed the Russian border and headed north to St. Petersburg, where relatives were waiting for them. Her grandmother, now 86, is still in the hospital there, with dangerous blood clots caused by the trip.
Last month, Russian tanks rolled along Morskyi Boulevard. Photos shared on Telegram by refugees and expats show that the beaches where Ms. Koutseridi grew up have been lined with concertina wire, the windows of her grandmother’s building have been blown out and much of the city has been reduced to rubble.
“Mariupol was the closest to a house in Ukraine,” she said. “It is unthinkable that the world will see it this way for the first time.”
To cope with the constant worries, Ms. Koutseridi, 34, delved deeper into her performances as a baker, cook and historian of Ukrainian food. About five years ago she started baking the loaves of bread she was homesick for and posting pictures of them on Instagram† She joined thriving online sourdough communities, honed her skills and started a weekend business selling bread, cheesecakes and, of course, leavened Ukrainian babka. But at the beginning of the war, she turned her attention to Mariupol and collected all kinds of recipes from scattered relatives on Telegram, Skype and WhatsApp.
“I had the urge to record,” she said. “It suddenly seemed like it was all going to disappear so quickly.”
She transcribed and tested her grandmother’s recipes for varenyky, dumplings filled with sour cherries and the farmhouse cheese called tvorog; her mother is firm but light borsch (that’s the Ukrainian word; Russians spell it borscht); and sautéed eggplant slices topped with raw garlic, a family favorite. There are 74 recipes to date, including some from the long-standing Greek community in the Donetsk region, where her father’s family has roots.
“Maybe this is not the time to celebrate Ukrainian food,” said Ms Koutseridi. “But this feels like the only chance we have to keep it.”
Ukrainian food, like Ukraine itself, covers a large area; the country is about the size of Thailand, France or Kenya. The cuisine has absorbed countless influences over distance and time: from ancient Greece, the Ottoman Empire, the Carpathians, the Russian steppe and beyond.
Like Odessa, Sevastopol and other Black Sea cities, Mariupol has long been a strategic axis and trade hub, claimed and invaded by regional powers that have made it — and its food — particularly diverse. In addition to Ukrainian classics, Mariupol’s culinary specialties include Greek bridal cookies and meat-filled breads; the chebureki who arrived with the Tatars from Central Asia; and lots of aubergine, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire and a product of the region’s semi-Mediterranean climate.
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While Ms. Koutseridi collected the recipes in a database, she put her academic education to work, researched archives in Russian, Ukrainian and English, consulted websites about Slavic cheeses and Central Asian food history, and contacted other Ukrainian expats and food experts around the world. world.
One of the first was Olia Hercules, a London chef and cookbook author who grew up not far from Mariupol in Kakhovka, and who is a longtime chronicler of Ukrainian foodways. Her 2017 book, “summer kitchens”, highlights the art of fermentatsiya – traditional Ukrainian preserves such as pickled aubergine and mint, apples in pumpkin puree, cured plums, stuffed peppers and countless variations of pickled cucumbers, beets and cabbage.
When the war started, Mrs. Hercules believed that the work of honoring food traditions seemed impossible at a time of widespread famine and terror. Instead, she and chef Alissa Timoshkina (who is Russian and lives in London) started #CookForUkraine, a global series of dinners, bakery sales and cooking classes that have raised nearly £1 million for UNICEF.
Ms Hercules’s feelings have changed, she said, seeing that Russia’s war is not just against the Ukrainian nation — the country’s identity, history and culture are all under attack.
“Now is the time to go into great detail about Ukrainian food,” she said. “There is so much more than borscht.”
Long before the war broke out, borscht was a culinary proxy in ancient resentments between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has claimed its beet-heavy borscht as one of many national dishes, but in Ukraine, where the soup has been documented much earlier, borscht is considered the National court. In 2021, the country’s Ministry of Culture petitioned UNESCO to certify borscht as a symbol of Ukrainian heritage, such as Korean kimchi and Belgian beer.
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Mrs. Koutseridi’s family distinguished between same-day borscht, which is prepared immediately after cooking, and second-day borscht, which can be served cold or warm, with different garnishes and richer flavours. Her mother’s recipe, obtained during Mrs. Koutseridi’s recent endeavors, is based on tomatoes and cabbage, with beets playing a minor role.
The traditional borsch from Mariupol includes white beans, red peppers, potatoes and local fish, especially small fried gobies from the Black Sea. It can also be made with salted fish, and modern cooks often use sprats in tomato sauce, a popular stock ingredient of small canned herring in a puree that tastes a bit like cocktail sauce.
The Mariupol of Ms. Koutseridi’s childhood was cosmopolitan but quiet, she said, a place where people left their doors locked while doing their daily shopping to the city’s central open market, where stalls were packed with local produce, salted and dried fish and pickles of all kinds.
Her family’s elders tended gardens just outside the city center that provided a constant supply of fresh produce. Like most families there, they saved whatever produce they couldn’t eat, filling jars with fermented tomatoes, cucumber and pickles, and sour cherries in sweet syrup. They drank home-fermented kombucha and kefir, and vodka distilled from grapes grown by her grandfather.
When Ms. Koutseridi last visited Mariupol in 2013, she said artisan bakeries and beer halls had opened alongside the contemporary pizzerias, burger joints and sushi restaurants that were fashionable when she left the country in 2005 to study ancient history at the Ohio State University.
A new generation of Ukrainians had begun to excavate and celebrate the pickling, cheese-making, baking and brewing skills nearly lost during the industrialization of the Soviet period and the urbanization of recent decades. Now, she fears, that movement will be set back indefinitely, if not lost altogether.
To face those fears, she has instituted a ritual that involves cooking time-honoured dishes such as chebureki, her mother’s borscht, and ryazhankaa sweet and sour drink that takes three days to make – milk is gently fried until the caramelized, roasted nut flavor comes out, then fermented and cooled.