Sunday, January 8, 2012

A New Year's Feast from Crimea

Barb Wieser,  our favorite Crimean correspondent, shares a great New Year's meal that exemplifies the diversity of foodways in Ukraine where home cooks mix and mingle influences from around the world to create delicious meals.  Thanks Barb and Lenura (above), a fabulous cook!  Look for recipes and more photos in a following post.

Take the Christmas tree, presents, lights and all the general hoopla of American Christmas and combine them with the fireworks and partying of New Year’s and what do you have? New Year’s Eve in Ukraine. For the seventy years of the Soviet Union, religious holidays were banned. Not to be deterred from celebrating, the Soviet people took those Christmas traditions and morphed them into one big celebration on New Year’s Eve. In present day Ukraine, Christmas is once again celebrated (Eastern Orthodox Christmas is on January 7), but it is a fairly low key affair and focused around the church. New Year’s Eve continues to be the big holiday of the season, and much of it is focused on food.
The food preparation for the New Year’s Eve family dinner typically begins with a trip a week earlier to the local bazaar to stock up on all the products necessary for the New Year’s cooking and celebrations. In my Crimean Tatar family, this consisted of large bags of onions, carrots, potatoes, beets; the fruits of the season--oranges, apples, pomegranates, kiwis, mandarins; various candies; sausages and cheeses; sacks of walnuts; champagne, vodka, sodas and fruit juices, and of course, a very large quantity of mayonnaise. Closer to the 31st the meats were purchased—salted herring, a large whole freshwater fish commonly found around here, chicken, and beef to be baked whole and also ground into farsh. We checked to make sure the staples were stocked up—flour, sugar, eggs, rice, salt and pepper—and the preparations were ready to get underway.
All of December, the mother of the Crimean Tatar family I live with, Lenura, mused about what to make for New Year’s, soliciting opinions from the family. She slowly put together a menu, making adjustments even on the last day (like deciding what kind of cake to make). Unlike our American Thanksgiving, there are not many “traditional” New Year’s foods in Ukraine, and menus seem to vary with the whims of who is doing the cooking and different cultural traditions, though all the menus lean heavily to some kind of meat and mayonnaise based salads. But there are two traditional salads that are found on all New Year’s menus across Ukraine and Russia—Olivie Salad and Shuba or “Fish under a Fur Coat.” 
Olivie Salad is a mixture of finely chopped carrots, hardboiled eggs, pickles, sausage (or ham or chicken), combined with canned peas and lots of mayonnaise. According to internet sources (and affirmed by the people I asked), Olivie Salad was named after a French chef who first created it in a restaurant in Moscow in the 1860’s. Shuba is a layer of chopped herring, covered by the “fur coat”--layers of grated potatoes, carrots, and beets, interspersed with layers of mayonnaise.
We also prepared a salad called Pomegranate Bracelet which involved a ring salad (created by placing an overturned glass in the middle of a plate) and consisted of a layer of chicken and mushrooms covered with shredded beets mixed with, you guessed it, mayonnaise, and topped with walnuts and pomegranate seeds.
Every dish we cooked included some quantity of mayonnaise. Ukrainians consume large amounts of mayonnaise on every possible food, even pizza!  I have asked several friends why mayonnaise is so popular and this is the typical answer: “During the Soviet period it was impossible to purchase mayonnaise and it only became available near the end of the Soviet era. Once mayonnaise started appearing in stores, it was rapidly snatched up and became an ingredient in many dishes, especially salads.” However, the Crimean Tatars (the Muslim ethnic people in Ukraine that I live and work with) have their own distinct ethnic foods and rarely use mayonnaise and talk with disdain about the Ukrainian food and “all that mayonnaise.” However, we mostly we did not make Crimean Tatar dishes for New Year’s Eve,  but the one we dish we did make—peppers stuffed with rice and ground meat called Dolmades—sure enough, did not have any mayonnaise. But this was the New Year’s Eve dinner, after all, and somehow it had to include large quantities of mayonnaise—so much so that we twice ran out and had to send one of the kids to the neighborhood store for more.
Besides all those mayonnaise salads, the dinner menu also included a stuffed fish, a meat/potatoes/mushroom/cheese dish (which Lenura called beef baked “the French Way”), the meat and rice stuffed peppers, and a delicious lemon cake with Lenura seemed to just create out of whatever she had on hand.
Though everything was very tasty (especially when washed down with the continual New Year’s toasts), I thought the real masterpiece of the dinner was the stuffed fish. I had been served it once before at a New Year’s dinner at their house, but it definitely is not a traditional New Year’s dish at anyone else’s house. I asked Lenura if she had learned it from her mother, but she said, “No, it is just something I made up.” Basically the dish consists of first gutting a fish and peeling off its skin intact. The fish meat is then run through a grinder along with junks of beef and salo (the Ukrainian national food of cured slabs of pork fat) and a lot of garlic. The ground meat is then mixed with eggs, a little flour, and yes, a little mayonnaise, and stuffed back into the fish, and baked. Served on a bed of lettuce with a hardboiled egg “flower hat”, it was an elegant centerpiece of our Ukrainian/Crimean Tatar New Year’s Dinner. С Новым Годом!


  1. thanks for the explanation about 'why so much mayo?'!

    it is almost prevalnet like the jello molded foods and desserts of 50s and 60s america.

    please, do NOT tell them about jello molding in ukraina...

  2. Ukrainian food is one of reasons to visit this country. Meals in Ukraine are both tasty and beautiful.There are numerous restaurants and bars where you can try local meals. Most of them are not very complicated so you will be able to try to cook them at home. Welcome to Ukraine and enjoy delicious local food!