I am a 3/4 Ukrainian, 1/4 Polish Jew. I love the foods of my heritage, but it’s a bittersweet relationship. My folks fled their little shtetls for their lives . . . and to be blunt about it, they were part of the very few who even had the opportunity to do so. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum lists one of the shtetls as being completely liquidated of its Jewish population. My then 98-year old grandfather cried when he heard about his hometown. My very literate mother counts author Nickolai Gogol as a permanent nemesis, after his derision of the Jews in “our” shtetl.
Even so, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, I, too, am a Ukrainian. Our family was invited to settle the area by Czar Peter the Great, as they were diamond merchants in Amsterdam made unwelcome by the Spanish rulers. For hundreds of years, the Ukraine was my family’s home.
For many years, I’ve enjoyed wandering around NYC’s East Village and then stopping for a bite to eat at Veselka. It’s been in business since 1954 and they’re open 24 hours! Recently, I sat at the diner counter, as it was a long line to get a table. The place is popular! I have some New Yorker friends who mention other Ukrainian restaurants in the area, but they appear to be more formal, less joyful and fun.
I started with a vegetarian mushroom barley soup. The mushrooms made it have a “meaty” quality and it seems to be harder and harder to find such a soup in restaurants.
I had never had “Ukrainian” borscht before. How come? My grandmother made a vegetarian “Jewish” style borscht served with sour cream. Veselka’s is served hot with pork, beets, lima beans. It’s got a tangy quality.
Since I was in NYC, I washed everything down with a chocolate egg cream. My dad used to make me chocolate egg creams in the middle of the night, much to the chagrin of my mom! Veselka also has Ukrainian beers, too.
I then ordered a mixed plate of fried pierogies — little stuffed dumplings — part of which was on a daily special menu: short rib and also roasted beet/goat cheese. These are so tasty! I like fried so much better than boiled — it’s like they’re different creatures altogether. If the only pierogies you’ve ever had were at a festival, those were boiled and made with boring ricotta-like cheese. Veselka’s will change your mind about pierogies! They’re served with applesauce and fried onions.
They’re different from pirozhki, which are little stuffed buns, but similar stuffings and flavors are used. Many years ago, I founded the Goucher/Johns Hopkins Russian chorus. One of the seniors and active students in the Russian dorm “paid” me for my conducting services in pirozhki that her Russian boyfriend made. I probably gained at least the freshman 15! The cuisine of the region is that good.
Maybe related, I bought a big Veselka t-shirt with a beet on it and have been wearing it on agri-culinary adventures!