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With its long agricultural tradition, rich dark soil and expansive fields of produce, Ukraine has gained the nickname ‘the breadbasket of Europe’. With its bountiful harvests, it makes sense that the country has plenty of delicious traditional dishes. Many of these Ukrainian dishes rely on certain ingredients to give them their distinct taste and flavour. We’ve put together the top five essential ingredients in Ukrainian cooking.
It’s no secret that Ukrainians love sour cream, and you’ll find it in all kinds of sweet and savoury dishes. It’s commonly added to borscht, a sour soup made with red beetroots and Ukraine’s national dish. Sour cream is also used as condiment with other traditional dishes such as varenyky and pelmeni (dumplings), as well as porridges like banosh (corn porridge with brynza cheese) and hutsul porcini (corn porridge with porcini mushrooms).
Salo is a traditional Ukrainian delicacy of cured pork fat. It’s made by curing the pork fat in salt or fermenting it in brine—sometimes it’s also smoked for a delicious, almost smoked cheddar-like flavour. Salo has a rich, buttery, melt in your mouth texture and is best served with garlic, onion and pickles. You can also have it on a slice of rye bread with pickled cucumbers and horseradish sauce—washed down with a shot of vodka, of course. Salo specifically comes from pigs that have been fed potatoes, as their bellies tend to have higher starch content. It’s said that a good indicator of quality salo is when a slab is six fingers thick.
Brynza is a sheep’s milk cheese popular throughout East-Central Europe, but primarily in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, Slovakia, Romania and southern Poland. This creamy white cheese has a strong taste and smell, with a crumbly and slightly moist texture. To make it, sheep’s milk is fermented in brine which gives it a saltiness similar to Parmesan. Brynza is commonly stuffed in varenyky, sliced onto salads, and used as a topping for porridge.
Uzvar are dried pears and plums which have an intense smokiness due to being kept in a wood-fired oven. They’re a popular snack during the winter months and are used in a traditional Christmas drink of the same name. The dried fruits are boiled in water, before being brewed for several hours. You can then add sugar and honey to your taste. Some people also add spices like cinnamon, star anise and nutmeg to give the drink extra flavour. The drink is said to symbolise a good life: the fruits mean fertility and the honey means a sweet life.
Despite its name, this ingredient doesn’t come from the sea. In fact, sea buckthorn is a plant that grows at high altitudes across Europe and Asia. Sea buckthorn oil is made from the berries, leaves and seeds of the plant, and has been used for thousands of years for its medical properties. It’s a popular remedy in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, and is said to protect against diabetes, stomach ulcers, heart disease and skin damage. Sea buckthorn oil also has culinary uses and is considered a vegetable oil. It’s commonly used in Ukrainian cuisine as a salad dressing, with its sharp, zingy taste and floral scent. The oil can also be stirred into teas, and the berries made into jam.