‘New’ Foods? A Dearth of Cookbooks on the Ukrainian Market
A week or more back local Russian-language entertainment magazine Afisha published a small profile on imported local foods, what they were, how to use them and where to find them. They listed hoisin sauce, tamarind, dolmas and a few other items that, while not necessarily household items in the West, are certainly familiar enough to most people that their existence doesn’t create a stir. Here, however, they do.
Ukraine has remained largely cut off from the rest of the world for much of its independence for various reasons: travel restrictions on Ukrainians; serious corruption in the customs service and control over imports and exports; lack of imagination in the local food culture; historically limited disposable incomes, and virtually no market for cookbooks of any sort, to name a few. So, when Afisha published its little overview of the abovementioned products and others, I almost felt that the magazine was pandering a bit. Then again, perhaps not.
The thing is, aside from Russian celebrity chef and author Yulia Vysotskaya, who has published a series of excellent cookbooks in the style of British chef Jamie Oliver – big color photos, simple but elegant recipes, usage of non-staple foods/ingredients – in this part of the world the idea of cooking anything other than Slavic dishes hasn’t really registered with the vast majority of people, a fact reflected in the website for Vysotskaya’s show (http://www.edimdoma.ru/). She has a page listing various “exotic” ingredients such as oregano, basil, cinnamon and chili pepper. That list offers a fairly good indication of the kind of work that’s needed to bring Slavic tastes into the 21st century. The thing is that Ukrainians, their food and their tastes are still mired in the past, beholden to horrible ideas such as salads featuring copious dollops of mayonnaise; dense and often stale white or dark bread; greasy pork and chicken cutlets; flavorless side dishes, and very banal desserts.
But it’s not just the fault of average Ukrainians: no Ukrainian chef or restaurant has yet dared to reinvent the varenyky (stuffed dumplings) or the cabbage roll; none has ever thought of updating the deruny (potato pancake). When I go to work with a lunch of fettuccini alfredo with a few asparagus spears tossed in, my colleagues marvel at the creation despite it consisting of all locally available ingredients, just prepared in a way that escapes their limited cultural appreciation of food. I’m hopeful of seeing a simple Ukrainian cookbook that offers basic recipes for all the Ukrainian standards I’ve mentioned and more and yet offers twists to bring them up to date and show how different, colorful and delicious traditional and also non-traditional foods can be.
Spiralling costs at the market
Is anyone in Kyiv these days living on a tight budget? Lucky for those who are not, as inflation continues to rise here as fast as yeasty dough in a warm oven. Prices for everything from eggs, dairy products, meat, vegetables and fruits have all jumped considerably over just a few months ago (eggs have gone from about Hr 6 for 10 to about Hr 10/10 since January) and analysts expect them to rise further. Last year’s inflation rate was 16.6%, and though these same analysts expect the figure to be largely the same this year, one politician has even suggested the rate could hit 25%.
As a Canadian, I’m used to low inflation levels – 1% per year or less – so the price hikes have forced me to reconcile my spending habits somewhat with the reality of what my salary is really worth. A year ago I was spending $100/month on groceries, but just this weekend I spent $100 for goods that should last two weeks! Bananas at one local grocery were advertised at a “special” price of Hr 10/kg when just a few months ago they, like the eggs, were selling for Hr 6/kg. I pity the pensioners whose monthly government checks, despite recent increases to them, keep getting smaller and smaller.