We’re sitting down with Iryna Smityukh and two members of the Ukrainian Association of Sydney at Soul Kitchen, a Rosebery cafe with a unique menu of traditional dishes. Before we eat, one of them asks us if we know what the Ukrainian flag means. It’s just two stripes, blue on top and yellow on the bottom. They pull out their phone to show a picture of a wheat field that melts into the horizon. Above it is a clear blue sky.
Later, after we’ve finished a cold bowl of borshch (beetroot broth) and a few slices of focaccia-like bread, we’re overlooking a table crammed with conical cabbage rolls, dumplings covered in fried onions, long meat-filled crepes and an enormous bowl of buckwheat and mushrooms. That endless field now makes a lot of sense.
Almost everything is heavy on carbs. “We cook a lot with bread, potatoes and buckwheat. Very traditional in Ukraine,” says Smityukh. The dumplings, known in Ukraine and at Soul Kitchen as varenyky, are thick and soft enough to be confused with dense Chinese-style steamed bread.
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Depending on the day, you might find them filled with sweet cherry, sauerkraut, potato and farm cheese, or fried mushrooms. The crepes, or nalysnyky, are part crisp and part elastic like the traditional French variety. Inside them are beef, onion and carrot, shredded and soft.
The most distinct ingredient of the cuisine is buckwheat. “We eat it with everything, mushrooms, meat, vegetables. We make buckwheat soup, we also make buckwheat and cheese dumplings, everything,” says Smityukh, laughing. You have it just on its own with sauce, like kotlety with creamy mushrooms and potato-and-chicken rissoles.
The dishes that aren’t carb-loaded are equally suitable to eat after running a marathon, or you know, ploughing an boundless field of wheat. Holubtsi, cabbage leaves that Smityukh stuffs with rice, beef, onion, dill and sour cream, are a good example. So is salo (thinly sliced salted pork fat) and the range of roast meats, the most popular here being the baked veal with mash potato and braised cabbage – a specialty of Smityukh’s grandma.
Before all this you’d have soup, borshch being the most common. After you might have a layered walnut cake or honey sponge cake with sweetened cream. “You can eat these anytime though. I like to have one for breakfast,” says Smityukh.
Like everything here, the cakes are homemade and based entirely off what Smityukh learnt from her grandma back in Ukraine. But it’s not just the recipes, says Smityukh. In Ukraine, there’s a belief that when someone dies their soul lives on within the family, in a watchful saint kind of way. “I opened my restaurant on the second of April. My grandmother died that morning. My grandmother gave her soul. This restaurant is my grandmother and me.”