UKRAINE: Vodka vs horilka

When the Russian invasion started, people here in Canada flocked to buy Ukrainian vodka as a sign of support (and because, well, it’s good). Liquor stores also pulled Russian vodka from their shelves. I’m not sure if Ukrainian vodka is still being produced and exported here – active warzone and all – but it’s still available on shelves.

There is an interesting semantic difference between “vodka” and the Ukrainian word “horilka” – they’re often used interchangeably. Some sources say that vodka was originally made from mixed grains, while horilka is made from just wheat, but since most are all made from various grains / potatoes these days, that difference isn’t really relevant anymore. Realistically, horilka is the Ukrainian name for 40%-ish clear spirits. Most bottles exported to Canada are labelled vodka, since that’s the term people are familiar with.

These are the two main brands of Ukrainian vodka available in Ontario – Nemiroff and Zirkova. Nemiroff has a historical connection going back to 1872, originally founded by a Count during the Russian Empire, then nationalized by the Soviets, and restarting as a private company in 1992. It’s unclear if it’s really a continuation of the company or a new company using the old one’s branding and distillery, but that feels like I’m putting too fine a point on it.

Zirkova has it’s own interesting history – the company was founded in Canada by Katherine Vellinga, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, but the vodka is entirely distilled and packaged in Ukraine, then the whole production run is shipped for sale in Canada. When the war started, she began to donate 100% of profits to humanitarian aid, turned the distillery over to medical sanitizer production, and worked to use it as a hub to help employees and their families to safety. It’s understandably unlikely that any more bottles will come to Canada, but there’s still over 7000 bottles in stock at the LCBO across Ontario right now.

As for flavour comparision – vodka tends to be hard really tell apart, especially with good quality brands since the better a vodka is, the purer and less flavoured it is. Side by side, I would say Zirkova is more neutral, while Nemioff is a bit sharper and grassier.

A really distinctively Ukrainian angle is the love of infusing flavours into vodka – chili peppers or horseradish are common, as well as berries or spices. There’s also a hot spiced version that’s kind of like a mulled wine. I’m going to make a few from the vodka, the recipes tend to be simple: put the flavouring in, let it sit for a few days or weeks, shake occasionally, strain, drink.

I’m trying spotykach (“stumbling”) with a recipe from Authentic Ukraine – vodka infused with spices like cinnamon, cloves, saffron (what I call “Christmas spices”), then boiled with some sugar and served cold. The straight vodka itself tasted wonderful after steeping for a week – cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg come out strongest, though the saffron isn’t too present. Boiling in some sugar makes it wickedly easy to drink, hence the name, and feels like it could be used in a lot of mixed drinks – instead of rum in a rum punch, or mixed with black tea would work great.

I’m also making a flavoured lemon horilka with a recipe from Ukrainian Diaspora. It’s very simple – take off some lemon peel with a vegetable peeler (the peeling is important so you don’t get bitter pith) and let it steep in vodka for a few days. It is also absolutely delicious – it’s got a strong, fresh lemon flavour that is beautiful. This is a total winner – it’s good on its own right out of the freezer, but mixing it with a bit of sparkling water knocks it out of the park for a summer drink. This also keeps in the freezer for a long time.

UKRAINE: Varenyky and pyrizhky

I stopped by Ottawa Pierogies, a little gem of a Ukrainian deli, for some lunch to go. While I was there, I got a bit of a language lesson – while pierogies is the term used in Canada, that’s actually the Polish name. The Ukrainian name is varenyky. Likewise, when I ordered some pyrizhkhy to go, they were sold under the name perojki – possibly a Polish name as well (Canada has almost as big a Polish population as Ukrainian). So while this restaurant is Ukrainian, like many other places in Canada, it uses the Polish names for Ukrainian foods.

I picked up their “Baba’s Visit” platter – pierogies and cabbage roll of my choice, with sour cream and a vinegret salad (beet, potato, and sauerkraut). I went for the potato and cheddar pierogies, boiled and then lightly pan-fried, with a pork and meat cabbage roll. They were really really good, tender and hot pierogies, and the vinegret satisfied my beet cravings. (I made a related salad, rosolli, when I covered Finland).

I also took home two pyrizhky – hand rolls stuffed with fillings, eaten hot. I got a nice but not exciting pork and rice one, and a really good tangy potato and mushroom one. They also had frozen pierogies in less common fillings, plus other treats, so I took some home for later – but that’s for another day, I’m carb’d out!

UKRAINE: Salo

We’re suddenly into hot summer weather here in Ottawa, so perfect for a little Ukrainian dinner al fresco out on the deck. I’m going to try something really Ukrainian: salo.

Salo is cured fatback (like pork belly but mainly fat rather than meat). There’s lots of ways to serve it – cooked into cracklings, mashed with raw garlic, or even included in chocolate (kind of like the bacon chocolate craze a few years back). I’m going to try it the truly classic way: cold of out of the freezer, sliced thin on bread or crackers, and accompanied with vodka, pickles, and other punchy things.

I picked up from Lakomka Deli both plain and smoked salo, as well as several jars of imported Ukrainian goodies from the brand Veres (Верес is Cyrillic, but I still want to call them “bepec pickles”). I’ve got:

  • Beans with mushrooms in tomato sauce
  • Garlic pickles with dill and horseradish
  • Adjika hot sauce
  • Roasted zucchini and tomato sauce with hot peppers

And of course, I served the whole thing with an ice cold glass of Ukrainian vodka, Zirkova One, plus some cherry tomatoes. The salo literally melts in your mouth, and vodka and pickles help cut the richness of the fat. I really love the smoked salo in particular, it’s got a beautiful flavour.

Adjika is actually a Caucasian hot sauce from Georgia, but it’s not surprising that these flavours migrated, probably through the Soviet era. It’s dark and thick, salty and smokey, kind of like a more spreadable gochujang. I ended stirring it together with the zucchini sauce (itself a lot like Balkan ajvar) to spread on top of the salo and that worked wonderfully.

UKRAINE: More snacks

Part 2 of my big box of Ukrainian snacks!

Roshen Lovita Soft Milk cream cookies – Slightly crumbly semi-soft cookies with an extremely sweet milk-flavoured filling. Pretty nice but they make my teeth sing. Milk flavouring in candy is an odd one to pin down – this Eastern European milk flavour is very different from Japanese milk flavour, but they’re both kind of nebulous creamy, and not just what we would call “cream filling” in North America.

Roshen Caramel Bubble chocolate – This is a white chocolate, flavoured with caramel, and filled with bubbles (like an Aero bar). The caramel is very mild, but it’s extremely light and fluffy – it’s a fantastic texture.

Klim Fruit Land – Soft pear and melon jelly candies with a sugar coating. I really love that artificial pear flavour you get in European candy, it’s not very common in North America.

Roshen Dromec – Just plain, simple pear-flavoured hard candy. That’s it. But again, if you like that European pear flavour, this is it.

Roshen Crabs – These were at the heart of a major trademark battle between Roshen and a Russian candy company with a crayfish label back in 2013-2015. It ended with no clear winner, with one design ruled not infringing and the other annulled for being too close – horizontal crabs are ok but not vertical ones. (IP law is wild). The candy is a hard pink and red shell with a soft chocolate and peanut filling that isn’t too sweet.

Crabs vs crabs – Source

Also, is it just me, or are neither actually crabs? They both look very crawfish-y to me.

UKRAINE: Coffee, tea, and herbal teas

Ukraine is mainly a tea country, with the strong traditional black tea culture, but coffee and other tea drinks are popular too. Taya Ukraine has a bit of an explanation of contemporary caffeine culture in Ukraine from Jan 2020 (the before times!). Those seasonal winter coffee and mulled wine stalls look really lovely.

There’s also a lot of herbal teas drunk in Ukraine, including made from local ingredients. I picked up a few from imports from Lakomka Deli – really just picking ones at random from Ukraine that look interested. Let’s see what I got!

Chicory with rosehip – Roasted chicory root has been used as a coffee substitute for centuries – the taste is similar, though there’s no caffeine. I’ve had it blended with coffee before (makes a nuttier coffee) but this is straight chicory, with some rosehip in it. I’m having it black – it tastes like a lighter coffee, with a bit of a citrusy tang from the rosehip. It’s quite pleasant, and nice for coffee flavour in the evenings.

Naturalis Uro-Natur – Meant to be good for your urinary system, this herbal tea is a mix of birch and bearberry leaves, knotweed, nettle, yarrow, and a bit of green tea in for good measure. Birch grows all over the northern hemisphere, and can be tapped like maple trees. I’ve had birch syrup and birch water, but I’ve never tried the leaves for tea. Very mild tasting tea, slightly bitter and herbal, but doesn’t taste like much. Birch leaves do have a long history as part of traditional medicine, as it can be a diuretic (hence the brand) and contains a mild amount of salicylates, which are a precursor to painkillers like aspirin.

Naturalis Seagull – Why seagull? No idea, it’s not a translation error, there’s one also on the box. It’s a herbal tea violet, licorice, and marshmallow root, plus some eucalyptus and chamomile, with another dusting of green tea. It’s very nice, the licorice and eucalyptus gives it a stronger, slightly medicinal taste but in a good way. Some brief googling shows that sometimes violet roots are edible and sometimes …poisonous? These ones are fine, though!

Liktravy Pine Buds – A lot of people aren’t aware that conifers are edible – and tasty! You can make tea year-round from the needles of almost all species of pine, spruce, and fir (not yew or hemlock, though, so make sure to ID correctly) and even eat the needle shoots raw in the early spring. This tea made from the buds of a Scotch Pine, which grows in Eurasia and is invasive in Canada. The buds take a while to steep, but they release this wonderful strong pine resin flavour. I absolutely love this, it’s like a walk in the woods in a cup. I think once I’m done this box, I’ll do my civic duty to stop invasive species by pilfering more buds from the woods.

UKRAINE: Pampushky

I had never made bread successfully from scratch before starting Locally Foreign. I had my first real success with Uzbek non, but I think this one is my biggest bread triumph so far: Ukrainian garlic buns called pampushky. I used this recipe from Leite’s Culinaria. It was surprisingly easy, though the first proofing is overnight, so you need to plan ahead. I went on the absolute minimum of proofing time – 8 hours for the first, and 1 hour for the second, and they still turned out fluffy and soft. Basting the garlic oil onto the hot buns right out of the oven had a satisfying sizzle, and using the remaining oil for a dip was a galaxy brain move – I still have garlic coming out of my pores the next day. Totally worth it.

UKRAINE: Hrechanyky / baked kasha

This was one of those culinary failures that had a successful salvage. Buckwheat is a hearty countryside staple of Ukrainian cuisine, and it’s often cooked as kasha – cooking the grain with veggies and meat and other good things. However, I had scored a bag of toasted Ukrainian buckwheat, and I was feeling clever. I was aiming to make hrechanyky – cutlets made out of boiled buckwheat and meat, browned in a pan, then baked in the oven using the recipe from Authentic Ukraine.

I know where I messed up, and the fault was totally mine for not reading the recipe thoroughly. I measured out the uncooked weight of buckwheat instead of cooked – and kasha is kind of like rice for expansion of volume and weight, so I ended up with WAY more kasha than meat….or anything else. While I did increase the eggs, the patties just weren’t really holding together, and I got maybe one or two to make it through the bowl to the dredge to the pan to the oven. They did come out delicious, though.

Not good, but tasty

So instead, I put the rest of the buckwheat / meat / egg / onion mix into a baking pan and threw it into the oven. Boom! Baked kasha – I had improvised myself into a version of a different Ukrainian dish, and it worked well enough. I originally boiled the buckwheat in broth to increase the flavour, and I had a homemade smoked chicken broth in my freezer that really added to the toasty flavour already there.

UKRAINE: Snacks

Understandably, with the active fighting, the refugee crisis, and the war economy, exports from Ukraine have dropped off very quickly in the last two months. I still wanted to try Ukrainian snacks (I try to get exported snacks from every country if possible), so I had to rely on things already exported to Canada when the invasion happened. I put in a big order from Ukreations, a Canadian supplier of Ukrainian snacks, apparel, and handicrafts, and then got a haul from Lakomka Deli, a really good Eastern European grocery here in Ottawa. I’ve got enough for several posts this month (and so much that I’ll be treating coworkers for weeks).

33 Cows sour cream cookies – The English and Ukrainian sides of the wrapper say sour cream, the French and import label just say cream flavoured cookies, so it’ll be a surprise! These are tasty little cookies with the consistency of arrowroot biscuits and a sweet, vanilla, condensed milk flavour – there’s a little bit of a citrusy tang to them too. Smetana it is!

Roshen Karolina Orange Cake – Roshen is a huge snack manufacturer in Ukraine, named after Petro Poroshenko, who came from a classic oligarch background of snapping up state snack companies in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, that name may be more familiar for a different reason, as Poroshenko was President of Ukraine from 2014-2019. He helped solidify Ukraine’s turn away from Russia and towards NATO/Europe after the loss of Crimea, but also was implicated in huge corruption scandals – and was about to run head to head against Zelenskyy over possibly politically-motivated treason charges in January this year. However, Russia invaded shortly after, and Poroshenko was last seen commanding a military battalion in the Ukrainian defence forces. As for the cookies? They’re identical to Jaffa Cakes: soft cookie, chocolate, tangy orange filling. Very tasty.

Roshen Korivka – I really like the old school wrapper with the pretty flower and cow design. These are soft caramel bars, with an intensely sweet caramel sugary-texture outside and toffee fondant inside. I selling point is that the filling is supposed to stay liquid, but I think it solidified in the long trip to Canada. These are intensely sweet in the “eat a spoonful of sugar” kind of way.

Roshen Crazy Bee – Soft, chewy candies with a jelly filling. Really satisfying texture, and the flavours are all tasty, though it’s a surprise what each one will be, the wrapping is all identical. There’s orange, grapefruit, sour cherry, wild berry, lemon-lime, and strawberry. Too easy to eat the whole bag!

ECUADOR: Podcasts

Cotopaxi, seen from Quito – Source: Malcolm Surgenor

Like the month I covered Chile, I struggled to find a lot of Ecuadorian podcasts in English, and I unfortunately don’t speak Spanish. Mainly these are podcasts about Ecuador, but there’s some really interesting interviews (and music!) in here. Another good one that I included in my post about the Galapagos is Radiolab’s report on the islands.

The Voyages of Tim Vetter: Ecuadorian Food and Culture with Abel Castro – A good interview with Ecuadorian restaurateur Abel Castro – they go over Ecuadorian cuisine in all its regional glory, plus unique Ecuadorian ingredients like naranjillas. Castro is based in New York and also touches on how to provide real authentic Ecuadorian food to a North American audience without compromising it – Americans turn out to have a weird aversion to eating corn on the cob in a sit-down restaurant.

The New Yorker: A Pandemic Tragedy in Guayaquil – Ecuador was hit hard and hit early by the pandemic, with the news picking up stories of bodies in the street in Guayaquil. This reporting (in podcast and article form) by Peruvian-American journalist Daniel Alarcón covers the awful start of the pandemic in Ecuador, the bureaucratic and systemic breakdown, and the human toll. Thankfully, Ecuador has been able to mobilize an impressive vaccination campaign, but the disruption and increase in violence and crime has created new challenges.

NPR: The Lost Tapes Of Caife: A Vintage Ecuadorian Record Label Revived – An interview with Daniel Lofredo Rota, a musician and producer in Quito about his discovery of long-lost recordings from the 50s and 60s from his grandfather’s record studio, how he has become a musical archivist through this, and how this valuable look into Ecuador’s musical past influences his own music now. A playlist of some of the records is available on Soundcloud.

BBC: 1995 Peru-Ecuador Border War – A look back at the 1995 war, including old media excerpts and recollections from officers who fought in the final Peru-Ecuador war.

Feel the Night Podcast – A US-based Latin music DJ podcast, with specials focusing on Ecuadorian chicha. Chicha is the Andean name for cumbia: upbeat folk tunes and rhythms, mixed into dance music (it’s also a local corn beer). These are incredible workout playlists, it’s hard to run on the treadmill without wanting to dance. Check out Episodes 396, 272, 261, 191, and 134 for some great Ecuadorian jams.

ECUADOR: Snacks and maiz tostado

I really struggled finding exported snacks from Ecuador – I checked multiple Latin and South American groceries in Ottawa and Calgary, plus online. Ecuador is a major food exporter, however, and trip down my local grocery aisle had bananas, mangos, yellow dragonfruit, melons, and more all from there. However, these are generally grown as cash crops for export – about 25% of the world’s banana crop comes from Ecuador. I was hoping instead to find some snacks that were more genuinely “Ecuadorian”.

Ecuadorian cacao – This isn’t an Ecuadorian company, rather it’s a British one that sources high-end cacao from single origins like Ecuador. Cacao used to be Ecuador’s major cash crop (and is an indigenous plant to the region). The country was the main world producer until the market crashed in the early 20th century. Cacao is still grown there, but the focus is on smaller amounts at higher quality. However, Ecuador mainly exports the cacao, it’s turned into chocolate elsewhere. As for this bar itself, it’s just a really nice dark chocolate, with a nice bit of depth from the sea salt.

GuayusaGuayusa is a herbal tea that’s related to yerba mate, and almost the entire world’s guayusa crop is grown in Ecuador. The dried leaves smell very green and herbal. Mild tasting tea, kind of like an earthier green tea, and feels like it should be bitter but isn’t. It’s hard to get an exact comparison for how caffeinated it is, but most sources average it around the strength of black tea, with the upside that unlike tea, it can be steeped for a long time without going tannic and bitter.

Tome Tropical Fresa – I am not 100% certain if this pop is truly Ecuadorian or if it’s something made for the export / ex-pat market – kind of like Brio not actually being from Italy. If you do know, please let me know in the comments! It’s an intensely sweet strawberry-flavoured pop, but with enough acidity to keep it from being too cloying.

And now a snack that’s really Ecuadorian, instead of just an export good (admittedly the corn itself is from a Peruvian brand).

Maiz tostado is a type of Andean popcorn, made with cancha corn (a wide kernel corn variety). It’s also made with chulpe, a slightly thinner variety of corn – they may just be two different sizes for the same thing, since cancha and chulpe seem to get used interchangeably.

Regardless, this is a really fun and easy recipe (from Laylita’s Recipes) – just have a lid handy for when they start to pop! It’s kind of like inside-out popcorn, fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.