Making Ukrainian pierogi ties me to my family tree
All that changed on February 24th when a chef in San Francisco, where I live now, texted me and asked me if Russia was going to bomb Kyiv. I replied, “Of course not!” Then I opened my social media and saw a post from a Ukrainian chef saying that Russian missiles would hit major Ukrainian cities, including the capital. It was so surreal I thought I was in a bad dream. In reality, it was the beginning of the worst nightmare I could imagine.
Immediately I called my mother in my beloved hometown of Snihurivka and woke her up. I said she needed to pack her emergency kit and go somewhere safe. She didn’t believe me at first, but after a few days, she and my grandma, plus seven other members of my family and a small dog, descended the same steep staircase to hide from Russian bombs in my grandmother’s basement. Nine people were trapped 12 feet underground in a room no larger than a typical restaurant walk-in refrigerator, surrounded by jars of pickles, jars of sauerkraut and sacks of potatoes and beets. My family stayed there for two weeks, wrapped in blankets and shivering from the cold and terror.
The last time I was in this root cellar was many years ago, but even now I can remember every detail. I remember the old door with its heavy, rusty latch that was never locked, and those steps into the darkness before I could turn on the light. A dozen more steps and we were there – in my grandmother’s pantry, surrounded by unlabeled jars and bottles of all shapes and forms, sacks of aromatic apples and crops. I could almost feel the chaotic movement of the wild yeasts crowding this place, getting fermentation going in every corner: in an enameled pot of sauerkraut slowly simmering on a lower shelf; in a wooden barrel with fermented tomatoes hidden in the farthest, darkest spot; and in jars of my grandmother’s rosé wine, so strong it’ll knock your socks off with a tiny glass. The smell was cool, earthy, vegetal, with hints of damp forest soil and wild mushrooms, just like the nose of a fine Bordeaux wine, which I love.
The author hopes #cookforukraine will draw attention to the pain of war
Well, I can’t think of this place without tears in my eyes. The war turned my happy place into a gloomy bomb shelter full of fear, sadness and misery. For the first time, my family had to open these cans, not because they wanted a tasty condiment to go with their food, but because they had to rely on them to feed them through the war.
In a peaceful period, a typical Ukrainian root cellar is an underground structure used as an alternative to a refrigerator for storing crops, preserves and ferments. No matter what the weather is up there, this place stays cool, around 65 degrees in summer and just over 35 in winter, and relatively humid: the perfect conditions for storing late-harvested apples, root vegetables, cured meats and cucumbers. Traditionally, these were meant to sustain the family during the austere winter months, and to this day root cellaring is widespread in small Ukrainian towns and villages, as preservation is still an integral part of our food culture. Every good hostess has her familiar recipes for bubbly fermented tomatoes, flavorful pickled cabbage, and salty pickles. My family is no exception. From June to late September, my mom and grandma embark on a meticulously planned quest to capture the flavors of summer and preserve everything that grows under the sun. It usually starts with my mother’s delicious strawberry jam and ends with my grandma’s homemade wine.
Make the recipe: Spicy and Sour Tomatoes
Somewhere in the middle comes my favorite part – the pickled tomatoes, my mom’s masterpiece. The secret lies in their flavorful marinade: herbaceous, flavorful, and pleasantly vinegary with just enough salt to penetrate the tomato skin so they’re soft, yet still hold their shape until they burst in your mouth. In the past few years, these tomatoes have been on the table at more family gatherings than I can count, and at the many pop-up dinners and cooking classes I’ve hosted in San Francisco and online. I feel it is my duty to share this treasured family recipe with as many pickle lovers as possible.
My family fled to Odessa and no one knows if my grandma’s house is still standing, but I have a feeling that even if the house is ruined, when my grandma comes back, the root cellar will be waiting for her. Maybe even with last year’s jugs of their rosé and a few glasses of my mother’s tomatoes that were there when they escaped. And these tomatoes will still taste good without a hint of bitterness from the war that has crept into those earthy root cellar walls.
In our family, we share the dream that after the end of the war, Ukraine will set a huge table across the country, from the easternmost part of the Lugansk region to the extreme western point of Chop, and the whole nation will rejoice in a feast of celebration for our victory. We will cover this huge table with embroidered fabrics and fill it with thousands of Ukrainian dishes. Everyone will add something special to the feast – red Ukrainian borscht, plump varenyky, garlicky pampushki and buttery crepes. I know what I’m going to bring: my mother’s deliciously hot and sour tomatoes.
Voloshyna is a food writer, photographer, cooking instructor, and pop-up dinner host based in San Francisco.