Ukrainian Jewish Food: Remember the Past Through Recipes – Advice Eating

When Russia’s barbaric aggression against Ukraine began, Jewish aid organizations estimated that 200,000 Ukrainian Jews were integrated into the life of that country, making the Jewish community there the third largest in Europe and fifth largest in the world.

Jews have fled in droves since March, mostly to Israel. Feeling helpless, my husband and I sent money through the Jewish Federation. On Passover we put a beetroot on our Seder plate out of solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

Borscht, the gorgeous garnet-red soup, gets its radiant color from turnips. Popular throughout Eastern Europe, borscht was not only invented in Ukraine but is its most famous food. However, original recipes were made from a bitter white root called borsh. Poverty caused this unpleasant soup to spread.

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But during the Renaissance, people started making this recipe from much sweeter beets, while keeping the original name. Finally, Ukrainians added beef, beans and greens to the recipe.

Jews have created two different types of borscht: a thick meat-based borscht and a thinner vegetarian version to which they added smetana, a sour cream-like cheese. When Jews immigrated to America, the vegetable borscht overshadowed the meat borscht.

Many famous Jewish foods have their roots in Ukraine. Babka, the cake baked in loaf pans in America, is baked in tall round pans in Ukraine. In both Ukrainian and Yiddish, baba means grandmother; Babka means little grandmother. Some say this large cake resembles grandma’s long skirt.

Many Ukrainian Jewish recipes are well known to Ashkenazi Jews, especially challah and stuffed cabbage. Kasha-lackke were made from nut-flavored buckwheat and evolved into fly noodles with caramelized onions. In Ukraine, potato latkes are often prepared with butter and served with sour cream. Jews created an oil-based version to eat with meat. This popular dish is served at Hanukkah and throughout the year.

But there are some Ukrainian Jewish foods that are unfamiliar to most Americans. Carrot and zucchini muffins are popular at Passover but eaten year-round, kotlety are mushroom-filled meat pies, and syrniki, cheese pancakes, are a treasured treat.

Since the crisis in Ukraine began, I have cooked these dishes as a tribute to Ukrainian Jews who were driven from their homeland by a cruel tyrant—a theme repeated throughout Jewish history. Although it is unclear whether Jews have a future in Ukraine, I try to keep the memory of Jewish life there alive through food.

American-style Ukrainian borsch | meat
Yield: 3 liters

If you chop beets, your hands will turn red. I therefore rely on bottled borscht and refine it in such a way that even a Ukrainian grandmother would think it was homemade. She would only suspect the truth because my hands are not tainted.

2 (32-ounce) bottles of borscht (made from beets, not concentrate)
3 (14 ounce) cans of beef broth
12 small pieces of marrow bone
3 pounds short ribs for flanking, slit lengthwise between bones
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
5 carrots, peeled and cut into circles
2 medium onions, diced
6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 bay leaves
16 peppercorns
⅔ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup) sugar
Kosher salt to taste

Three days before serving, add all the ingredients to a large soup pot. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour or until the meat and potatoes are tender. Check the spices. If it’s too sweet, add a little more vinegar. If it’s too acidic, add a little sugar.

Refrigerate and skim off the fat from the top. Remove bay leaves, bones and peppercorns. Serve hot.

Syrniki (cheese pancakes) | dairy
Yield: Makes about 8 Syrniki

Equipment: Preferably a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or large mixing bowl and an electric mixer

⅓ cup flour plus ⅓ cup
1 pound farmer’s cheese
2 eggs
⅓ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup golden raisins
4-8 tablespoons vegetable oil, or more if needed
Side dishes: yogurt, sour cream, canned food or berries

Place ⅓ cup flour in a flat-bottomed bowl. Arrange 2 layers of kitchen paper on a plate. Reservations.

In the bowl of a food processor (or large mixing bowl if using an electric mixer), crumble the farmer’s cheese. Add the eggs. Mix well until combined. Add ⅔ cup flour, sugar and salt. Beat until the lumps disappear. Gently mix in the raisins. Leave to rest for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 4 tablespoons oil over medium-low heat, adding more oil at any time if needed.

Using a soup spoon, scoop out a heaping spoonful of pancake batter and drop it into the reserved flour. Roll the dough carefully in the flour. Lift the ball of dough and shape it into a flat pancake with your hands. Shake off as much excess flour as possible.

Move the pancake to the heated oil. Repeat, but add no more than 4 pancakes to the pan at a time. Fry them until the undersides are golden brown and firm. Turn to the other side with a spatula until golden brown. Watch the pancakes carefully as they burn easily. Place them on paper towels to drain.

Before the second batch you may need to drain the oil from the pan as it could be dusted with flour which could burn. If so, once cool, wipe out pan with kitchen paper and start again with another 4 tablespoons of oil.

Serve immediately with yoghurt or sour cream, jam and/or berries.

Kotlety (meat patties) with mushrooms | meat
Yield 5-6 kotlety

Mushroom Filling:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 ounces mushrooms, finely diced
½ small onion, finely diced
Kosher salt to taste
1 garlic clove, chopped
¼ cup breadcrumbs

In a medium-sized skillet, heat the oil over medium-high flame. Add the mushrooms and onion. Sprinkle with salt and sauté until the vegetables wilt. Add the garlic and stir. When the garlic is fragrant, add the breadcrumbs and stir to blend for a minute. Take it off the flame and keep it.

1 pound ground turkey
½ small onion, finely diced
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Place the turkey in a medium-sized bowl. Add onion, salt and pepper and mix with a fork. Spread the flour on a plate.

Gather the ingredients in the order you need them. Start with the turkey bowl, followed by the mushroom stuffing, and then the plate of flour ending with a clean plate set by the stovetop.

Place ⅓ cup of turkey in the palm of your hand. Flatten the turkey into a thin burger patty and make a well in the center. Place 1½ teaspoons of the mushroom filling in the well. Close the turkey around the stuffing, making sure there are no seams. Flatten the patty a little. Roll the patty in flour and shake off the excess. Reserve them on the clean plate.

Repeat until all of the turkey is gone. You’ll need to rinse your hands under cold water once or twice to keep them from getting sticky. Reserve the leftover mushroom filling.

Drizzle 3 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet and heat over medium-high. Add the kotlety to the pan and fry until browned on the underside. Turn them over and brown the top. Turn them back and forth a few times until the turkey is no longer pink on the inside. If browning occurs too quickly, reduce the flame.

Move the kotlety to a platter. Heat the reserved mushroom mixture over medium-high and sprinkle over the kotlety.

Savory Carrot Zucchini Muffins | Pareve or Dairy
Yield: about 18 muffins

Equipment: 2 muffin tins, a food processor and 2 large saucepans

3 jumbo carrots
1 large sweet potato
1 large white potato
3 large zucchini
2 medium onions
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, or more if needed
Kosher salt to taste, plus ¾ teaspoon and ¾ teaspoon
non-stick vegetable spray or 2 tablespoons butter
¾ teaspoon sugar, plus ¾ teaspoon
1 egg, plus 1 egg
¼ cup potato starch, plus ¼ cup
½ teaspoon lemon zest, plus ½ teaspoon

Set up a food processor with the metal cutting blade. Pour the water into 2 large saucepans until they are two-thirds full.

Peel the carrots and both potatoes. Rinse them and the courgettes under cold water, then drain on paper towels.

Dice the carrots and sweet potato into ½ inch pieces. Move them to one of the big water pots. Cover the pot with a lid and cook on high flame for 45 minutes, or until the vegetables are very tender when pierced with a utensils-sized fork.

Dice the white potato and zucchini into ½-inch pieces. Move them to the second pot of water. Cover with a lid and cook on high for 35 minutes, until vegetables are very soft when pierced with a utensils-sized fork.

Meanwhile, dice the onions, then chop. Heat the oil in a medium sized skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sprinkle with salt to taste. Sauté them until the onions are fragrant and soft. Reservations.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly coat the muffin tins with non-stick vegetable spray, or preferably butter, as the muffins will be easier to release from the pans. Do not use muffin liners as these muffins are quite soft and will fall apart when removed from the liner.

Drain the carrot mixture in a colander until the cooking liquid stops dripping. Place the carrot mixture in the food processor and puree. Transfer to a large bowl with a spatula. Rinse and dry the stand mixer.

Drain the zucchini mixture in a colander until the cooking liquid stops dripping. Move it to the food processor. Switch on and off to puree when zucchini becomes watery. Using a spatula, move it into a second large bowl.

In both bowls, add half the onions, ¾ teaspoon salt, ¾ teaspoon sugar, 1 egg, ¼ cup potato starch, and ½ teaspoon lemon zest. Using a silicone or wooden spoon, mix the ingredients in each bowl well.

Scoop the zucchini mixture into each well in the muffin tins, filling one-third full. Flatten the zucchini mixture with the back of a teaspoon to create a smooth surface. Cover with the carrot mixture until two-thirds full.

Bake for 45-50 minutes. A cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean. Remove pan from oven and cool completely to room temperature before removing from muffin tins.

Serve them muffins with borscht, kotlety, stuffed cabbage and even eggs. PJC

Linda Morel writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliate publication in which this first appeared.

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