Liver cake and colostrum cake—these are real foods that Ukrainians eat on a regular basis. I didn’t believe it either until I saw it with my own eyes. However, I immediately noticed some contradictions. For example, one of my first nights in Ukraine, my native Ukrainian girlfriend and I watched a man in a suit eat a whole plate of sliced lard—and wash it down with a soda. Ukrainians usually bake their colostrum cake with loads of white sugar. And the traditional Ukrainian sit-down chain restaurant serves liver and brains. . .fried in vegetable oil!
Ukraine is home to some of the most beautiful women in the world, but how long will that last with modern foods slowly gaining more popularity? In this article, I am going to uncover the nourishing traditions of Ukraine—before they vanish.
BREAD BASKET OF EUROPE
Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev, is over fifteen hundred years old. In most Slavic languages, the word “Ukraine” translates to “borderlands.” Throughout history, many different cultures have influenced the lands of Ukraine, ranging from Western and Slavic cultures to the nomadic horse people of the Eurasian Steppe.
Ukraine has some of the most fertile farmlands in the world, earning it the nickname, “the bread basket of Europe.” The Ukrainian flag is even composed of two vertical strips of blue on top of gold, which represent blue skies and fields of golden wheat. Ukraine’s extremely fertile soil, called “chernozem,” is a deep black color found only in the Eurasian steppes and North American prairie lands. During World War II, Hitler took train loads of Ukraine’s soil back to Germany for study, and to this day, there is a black market for the valuable soil.
Although Ukrainians use this very fertile soil to produce foods of greater nutrient density, the soil qualities do not protect them from modern diseases when they begin shifting toward modern foods. Sugar, vegetable oils and non-sourdough grains are the three biggest foods that wreak havoc on Ukrainian health. Today, it would be extremely difficult to find a Ukrainian eating a 100 percent ancestral diet. Even in remote villages, it is normal to see people in horse-drawn carts eating organ meats but having a jelly-filled donut for lunch.
Let’s go through each food group and explore some of Ukraine’s nourishing foods.
Ukrainians love their lard. Lard is the country’s most consumed meat product—and the national food. The first time I visited the daily farmers market, I was overwhelmed by the amount of pork belly for sale. Lard is everywhere and is prepared in many different ways. The man in the business suit who ate a plate of lard all by himself ate it with three different seasonings. It is very popular to eat lard raw by adding it to a sandwich or just eating it as a small snack. It is also a component of soups and dumplings, and Ukrainians add extra chunks of lard to their cured and fermented meats. Many parents have their babies suck on pieces of lard instead of a pacifier!
Whole chickens are very popular and come with the head, neck, feet, liver, stomach and other organs. Most chickens sold in American grocery stores are very lean with no fat, but Ukraine’s chickens are stewing hens with lots of fat. If you were to slaughter a hen, you would find inside various egg yolks in different stages of development from big to small. You can buy a cup of these growing eggs at any Ukrainian market.
You don’t see many steaks or lean meats in Ukraine. When Ukrainians do consume lean meats—such as rabbit—they are usually either fried in lard or slathered with butter, cream or sour cream. Unfortunately, lean meats are becoming more popular as the belief that “fat isn’t good for you” slowly starts to take root.
Cured meats have developed a not-so-good reputation in modern “healthy eating” circles, but ask yourself, “how did humans preserve meat before the advent of the refrigerator?” They cured it! In Ukraine, cured and fermented meats are huge. In the average grocery store, half of the meat offerings are raw fresh meat, and the other half are fermented or cured meats. If you look in the right places, you can find delicious cured and fermented meats prepared in a healthy manner. Whereas most modern cured meats have all sorts of nasty chemical additions, organic cured or fermented meats use all natural ingredients. Don’t be alarmed if the ingredient label lists “sugar”—look for the “lactic acid starter” in the ingredients. The sugar feeds the probiotic starter much like when you add sugar to ferment kombucha. Many of the “uncured” meats found in organic grocery stores in the U.S. have been cured in this fashion.
If you put fried brains in front of the average American, they might faint, whereas the average Ukrainian would eat it before the American hit the floor. Organ meats are consumed regularly in Ukraine, with the average Ukrainian eating organ meats one to three times a week by my estimate. When you go to the grocery store, you will always find liver, kidneys and heart—and the daily farmers market will have any organ meat you could ask for. In addition, at farmers markets you can find stomach or sausages stuffed with organ meats. Blood sausages are also very popular, along with blood pudding.
There are many different brands of liver paté available, typically featured on restaurant menus along with breaded fried brains. A lot of restaurants also serve liver dumplings.
Ukrainians regularly consume liver cake (mentioned earlier) and can purchase it at the grocery store or in restaurants. Ukrainians do not make liver cake to mask the taste of liver—far from it; Ukrainians actually enjoy the textures and tastes of organ meats. Liver cake looks like a stack of pancakes and gets served as an appetizer at celebrations and weddings.
BONE BROTHS AND MEAT STOCKS
Soups are quite popular in Ukraine and are usually made with meaty bones. Meaty bones are also available at a cheap price at the daily farmers markets. Chicken heads and feet are very cheap at farmers markets and are often used in stews.
One interesting dish is called meat jelly. They use pig’s feet to produce really gelatinous broth; they then mix the meat into the broth and let the gelatin stiffen up overnight in the fridge. In America, we have gelatin with fruit suspended in it, but in Ukraine, they do this with meat!
Seafood is quite popular in Ukraine as well. Ukraine borders the Black Sea and is home to many lakes and rivers. The daily farmers market has lots of fish, both fresh and pickled.
You will also see men ice-fishing all winter long for fun, and they usually eat their catch for dinner. My girlfriend’s father made us fried fresh fish that he caught that day. Everyone at the table but me sucked the tasty juices out of the fish heads before saving the fish carcasses for a fish stock.
The most popular seafood in Ukraine is fish eggs. Ukrainians’ favorite way of consuming fish eggs is to grab a piece of bread, load it with butter and then top it off with fish eggs.
Dairy’s importance to Ukrainian culture is evident because it is a part of many dishes. And one of the first words you learn in Ukrainian is “sour cream”—they put it on everything! Although raw milk is not available in grocery stores, it is incredibly easy to get in Ukraine. You just need to go to the daily farmers market, where the milk is usually from the previous night or the morning and may still be warm when you purchase it. In my experience at just one farmers market, there were over fifty different people selling warm raw milk as well as raw butter, raw sour cream and raw cream. Most cities have multiple farmers markets. (You do want to question your farmer to ensure that the milk is of good quality because many people do use antibiotics and hormone injections.)
The farmers market is also where you will find “colostrum cake.” Colostrum is the first milk that a cow (or human or other mammal) produces, and it is extra high in nutrients. However, Ukrainians cook it with sugar.
My favorite dairy product in Ukraine is “kefir made with roasted milk.” (I know, this sounds like “pasteurized milk,” a no-no!) However, the Ukrainians take milk and slow-roast it at low heat in a clay vessel for hours until the milk turns brownish and almost tastes chocolate-y; then they ferment it, and it is soooo good.
VEGETABLES AND FRUITS
Fermented vegetables are everywhere, and houses typically come equipped with underground food storage cellars. My girlfriend’s mother uses over thirty one-gallon jars each year to pickle and preserve her garden harvest. Primarily, this consists of cucumbers and tomatoes combined with herbs from the garden. These pickled vegetables will last through the winter. This is just an ordinary thing that Ukrainian mothers do—and in the fall “pickling season,” everyone is talking about pickling their garden.
Ukrainians eat “salads,” but they are very different from American salads. A typical salad will mix boiled vegetables with mayonnaise and eggs. Also sometimes called a “salad” is sauerkraut with other things added to it.
Borscht is probably one of the Slavic people’s most popular dishes. It can be either a soup or a stew; in addition to bone broth, meat and lots of sour cream, the inclusion of beetroot gives borscht its telltale purple hue.
Ukraine does not offer anything terribly exciting on the fruit front, but pickled apples and homemade probiotic wines are common offerings. There are also lots of dried fruits. Stewed fruit is popular, and after stewing and straining the fruit, Ukrainians also create a very tasty drink.
Bread is a huge part of Ukrainian culture, but you will not find any whole-grain breads. There are breads that look whole-grain, but they are actually just grains with a darker tint.
It is also very hard to find sourdough bread in Ukraine. In fact, I was shocked at the absence of sourdough bread, considering the prominence of wheat and Ukrainians’ heavy use of fermented foods. Baker’s yeast did not become popular until the 1950s, so my girlfriend’s father tells stories of his mother using wild yeasts to get the dough to rise. She made a sourdough starter from scratch, which is really easy to do. Even during her time, however, they were also buying white refined flour from the store.
I suspect that Ukrainians used to grind their grains, sifting out a good portion of the bran and then using sourdough to ferment the endosperm and germ flour. The bran may have been fermented and given to farm animals or put back into bread but fermented for additional days.
The Weston A. Price community consumes a lot of beet kvass, but in Ukraine and other Slavic countries, kvass beverages made from bread are very popular with everyone. Kvass is comparable in taste to a traditional ale from western Europe. It is a fermented beverage that uses bread as its sugar source, along with various spices and herbs. Essentially, you take bread and dissolve it in water and add a starter. The starter grows off the starch dissolved in the water from the bread. Add some spices and, boom, you have some sort of kvass.
BRINGING UKRAINE’S LESSONS HOME
Weston A. Price witnessed healthy primitive peoples eating the most nutrient- and energy-dense foods available in an easy-to-digest, toxin-free format. This usually consisted of organ meats, fatty meats, raw dairy, properly prepared starches and plant foods. The people who Dr. Price studied understood that for all life on Earth, health is governed by the laws of Mother Nature. As Dr. Price said, “Life in its fullest is Mother Nature obeyed.”
If you ever find yourself confused about how you should eat, just ask yourself the following questions: How do I give my body as many nutrients as possible? How do I make these nutrient-dense foods as easy to digest as possible? How do I deactivate the antinutrients found in the skins and seeds of plants? Which wild animals consume this food? What does their gut look like, and how does it compare to the human gut? (For example, cows can use their built-in “fermentation tanks,” while humans must ferment foods externally.) If you are reacting poorly to nourishing foods, ask yourself: Do I have bad bacteria and fungi in my gut that are stealing my nutrients and eating me alive? What fermented foods do I need to eat to get my gut microbiome back in order?
In any event, all of us can draw inspiration from Ukraine’s nourishing traditions and use some of their time-tested ideas to get more nutrients into our own diet.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2019