The Life of Wonderful People: Place Names and Food in Ukraine

2018-09-15 21.57.08September, 2018: I love the names of things in post-Soviet places, and Kyiv is an absolute treasure trove. I’m sure it’s partly translations, but it can’t be just that…. Not when I went out for cheesecake and cocktails at Life of Wonderful People (pictured here: the Eruca Smash, with gin, lime, sugar syrup, arugula leaves, and rhubarb bitters), breakfast at Favorite Uncle, and 2am white-tablecloth dinners at Under Wonder.

Sadly I didn’t make it to the Georgian restaurant called “Oh, Mama! It was in Tbilisi” though I did visit a different Georgian restaurant (Georgia is a popular vacation destination for Ukrainians and the food is popular in Kyiv as a result). I ordered two things and managed to approach both dishes completely wrong, leading the very kind waiter to gently school me in the proper techniques.

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Turns out you do NOT cut open khinkali (soup dumplings) with a knife and fork; instead you pick them up by the little topknot, nibble a hole in one side, drink out the broth, and then eat the rest of the dumpling. You also do NOT slice up khachapuri like a pizza, though it sort of looks related; the cheesy, eggy goodness in the middle is quite liquidy, so you tear off pieces from the edges and dip them in the middle (similar to how you might approach spinach-artichoke dip served in a bread bowl). These Georgian food tips came in very handy later on in actual-Georgia, but after this attempt I stuck to mostly Ukrainian food for the rest of my time in Kyiv.

No complaints, though: with the exception of some candy and snacks (about which, more later), Ukrainian food is delicious. Borscht (hearty beet soup)? Yes please. Varenyky (aka pierogi, or little dumplings with potato, mushrooms, ground meat, etc)? Absolutely. Deruny (basically latkes)? Sure, why not. Golubsti (cabbage rolls with meat and veggies)? Yum. Nalysnyky (little crepes rolled up with cheesy filling and then baked)? Sign me up. Banush (corn grits, typically served with mushrooms, sometimes bits of bacon or sausage, and sour cream or cheese)? Sounds great. Also: excellent salads, and incredible homemade lemonades, often with tarragon. I don’t know why tarragon is so popular in Eastern Europe, but I’m completely on board.

Then there are of course a few things that take, perhaps, a bit of practice — things you might have to grow up with to like. I gave salo a strong effort, and I must say I didn’t hate it. Salo is a traditional peasant food; what you’d eat for your breakfast while working in the fields. It consists of slices of lard, sometimes salted, peppered, or smoked, sometimes not, along with raw cloves of garlic and some rye bread, and typically some vodka to wash it down (though in my experiment, I stuck with my favorite tarragon lemonade):

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I also tried gorgonzola ice cream in Kyiv, for the first and probably last time, but hey, try anything once.

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Gorgonzola in the back, salted caramel in the front

Anyway, back to the place names for a bit… I drank coffee on the innumerable benches scattered throughout the Park of Eternal Glory (across the Bridge of Kisses from the Palace of Children and Youth). Soviet and post-Soviet green spaces are another fascination of mine; these countries have some of the loveliest parks you’ll find anywhere, and they’re always packed full of pleasant benches.

Some things are more toned-down; I attended a concert at the simply-titled Kyiv Planetarium, for example (though I did walk by the Palace of Sports to get there). On the other hand, I visited the Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War and walked by the Friendship of Nations arch.

I love the sheer number of words and the specificity involved in some of the names: the “Monument in honor of the 2000 anniversary of the birth of Christ” or the “Central House of Officers of the Armed Forces Ukraine.”

Other things are more likely to be slight mis-translations, though still fascinating. Examples include the State Inspection of Plant Quarantine (an abandoned government office, presumably dealing with agricultural imports) or Park Landscape Alley (a small park full of exceptionally weird sculptures for kids to play on). Some of those mis-translations make normal shops and cafes that much more charming, though, like a bookstore called “Wonderful Book” and a coffee shop called “Small Talking”. Of course, Kyiv has its fair share of hipsters, so it’s entirely possible that some of these translations are correct and the humor is intended.

There were also a few confusing or slightly worrying signs, like this chalkboard:

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I don’t want to think too deeply about unique massages, so let’s talk about the candy. I almost got myself kicked out of two stores for sneakily taking pictures of the bulk candy displays…. I could have just bought some, but I’ll admit I was a little afraid, especially after buying a MAX FUN bar on a whim and regretting it later:

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Don’t worry, I translated the Ukrainian for you — you’re looking at a candy bar that proudly claims to contain “Marmelade with the flavor of cola, popcorn and explosion of caramel.” It was… not good.

So instead of buying more candy, I instead took pictures of some of the more bizarre packaging choices, like this half-dressed cow in an apron carrying a pail of her own milk:

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Or this elf running off with an armload of stolen… nuts? Lemons? Unclear:

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Or this, which I initially took for a tiny wizard staring up at an… angel? I had no idea what to make of it until I translated the longer word to “Gulliver” so now I assume it’s some sort of Lilliputian scenario, but I don’t know what that implies for flavors:

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Moving on from candy, let us not forget the presence in stores of Good Meat Food:

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And rainbow-patterned curved sausages:

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Which leads to this packet of baguette crackers, presented without comment:

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And of course there were veal-flavored crouton things:

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Not all the weird foodstuffs are Ukrainian. German snacks are also quite popular, like Pic Pom Knabberspass (which was unfortunately more fun to say than to eat):

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funny — crispy — animal — tasty

Getting back to Ukrainian foods, though: I hadn’t encountered bulk frozen foods before. Seafood, fish, vegetables, you name it; long rows of bins, open to the air, with rolls of plastic bags sitting on top and plastic scoops unevenly distributed throughout. I’ve seen a lot of food markets with questionable sanitation practices, and at least this stuff was frozen, but I still found it worrying:

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And this was at a big, modern grocery store. The markets are much more fun (I do love an Eastern European market), particularly the butchers. Rows and rows of meat laying out in the open air on well-used tables, unrefrigerated haunches and carcasses hanging on meat hooks, and huge tree stumps for chopping blocks. If I were in the habit of cooking meat at home, I absolutely would have bought mine here — at least it’s fresh!

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Finally, I hate to perpetuate stereotypes, but I will note that the grocery store included one entire aisle dedicated entirely, on both sides, to vodka:

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Ah, Ukraine. Come to think of it, I don’t think I actually had vodka once while I was there… but I did make a lovely new friend (at Life of Wonderful People; sometimes names reflect reality) who brought me to a fantastic underground speakeasy for delicious cocktails like these:

I love making new friends while traveling, and I miss Ukraine already.

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