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 Some sources say that vodka was originally made from mixed grains, while horilka is made from just wheat, but since most are all made from various grains / potatoes these days, that difference isn’t really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: 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: 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.

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.

ECUADOR: Colada de avena con naranjilla

I know Ecuador has a really varied flavour profile to their cuisine, but I keep on gravitating to the tart fruit recipes – there’s so many great choices! I’m making colada de avena, a strained oat drink, drunk hot or cold, often made with fruit. There’s a whole bunch of different ways to make it across South America; I’m trying one with naranjilla fruit.

Naranjillas (also called lulo) are sour fruit that has a flavour somewhere between lime and rhubarb (they’re related to tamarillos). I can’t get any fresh in my part of Canada, but frozen pulp works fine for this recipe. Recipe from Laylita’s Recipes. I went for a bit less panela, but it’s still needed as it’s a very tart fruit.

The long simmer with the cinnamon sticks made my kitchen smell heavenly. I tried the colada hot off the stove – it’s very thick, sweet and sour, with a good cinnamon aftertaste. It sticks to your ribs and is very warming (and warm! the consistency keeps it hot for a long time, so be careful sipping).

I also tried it cold the next day for breakfast, it’s like a nice smoothie. I think I’m going to make some more variations on this recipe. There’s a lot of delicious tropical fruits that are native to Ecuador, so I picked up a few other packs of frozen pulp to try in coladas: sapote (mamey), banana passionfruit (curuba / taxo), and guava (which is called guayaba in Ecuador, because confusingly a totally different fruit is called guava there).

ECUADOR: Mango ceviche

South American ceviche was introduced widely to Canada a few years back, but we’ve really only been exposed here to the kind made with whitefish (which is delicious). Using lime juice or other acids to cook food is much more common in Ecuador and Peru than just with fish dishes:

“There’s a general misconception that ceviche should always have fish or seafood. Yes, the most popular ones do include those ingredients. However, growing up in Ecuador we had ceviches made with chochos (a lupini bean), with hearts of palm, with mushrooms, chicken (fully cooked of course), broccoli / cauliflower. In the southern city of Macara, there’s even a ceviche de carne made with beef.”

Laylita’s Recipes: Mango ceviche

With that in mind, I’m making a mango ceviche! Recipe is from Laylita’s Recipes, which has been a really useful English-language collection of Ecuadorian recipes. It’s straightforward, though a bit messy, between peeling and dicing all those mangos, and juicing all that citrus.

It’s really tasty and refreshing – the acidity of the lime juice meets the mango sweetness, and the red onion, cilantro, and hot pepper make it into a very fresh, savoury salad. It’s a similar flavour profile to the sweet-and-tart aji de tomate de arbol on chocos I tried earlier; I really like it.

ECUADOR: Chaulafan de pollo

Ecuador has a large and long-established Chinese community, and there are several Ecuadorian dishes that have a distinct Chinese influence or origin. Most notable is chaulafan de pollo.

The name “chaulafan” comes from the Chinese word for fried rice – chao fan (chǎofàn in Mandarin, and caau faan in Cantonese). This is total speculation, but I bet the “la” comes from the Chinese word for “spicy”, since this dish is normally served with hot sauce.

I’m using this recipe from Laylita’s Recipes – she’s become my go-to for Ecuadorian recipes. Chaulafan is generally pretty similar to other fried rice recipes you might find, though there’s a few distinctly Latin American ingredients – especially Worcestershire sauce and adding raisins. I’m a little skeptical on the raisins, but they’re a common addition for savoury meat dishes (see Chilean empanadas), so I’ll roll with it.

First of all, this recipe makes a HUGE amount of food – your meal prep for the week is taken care of. Cooking the rice in broth adds a lot of flavour, as well as using pancetta, Worcestershire, and soy sauce (if you’re on a low-sodium diet, try something else). The raisins actually work pretty well – they add a bit of sweetness that actually blends in nicely.

I later tried it with a bit of the tamarillo aji as suggested. I was expecting it to be too many competing flavours at the same time, but it was a nice balance – savoury and meaty rice with a sour and sweet sauce, and everything mildly spicy.

The spread of Chinese cuisine around the world with the Chinese diaspora is an interesting story in its own right – a dish as simple as fried rice has many local twists. If you’d like another local twist on Chinese fried rice, check out the Nauruan spam fried rice from last year.

ECUADOR: Aji de tomate de arbol

Freshly made aji is a staple on Ecuadorian tables – it’s fresh hot sauce, often made with tart fruit. There’s a lot of variations, like a straighforward aji criollo with green hot peppers and garlic, aji de maracuya with passion fruit, and aji de tomate de arbol – made with tamarillos.

Tamarillos are a South American fruit sometimes called a tree tomato, though they don’t really taste like one – they have a fresh tartness that’s more like passionfruit or citrus. They’re sweet enough to eat straight, but also refreshingly sour. There are two varieties, yellow and red – mainly from the colour of the inside pulp, though I’m not sure if they have different flavours.

The recipe is from Laylita’s Recipes – a great Ecuadorian food site. She uses yellow tamarillos, I could only find red ones. While the recipe suggests less-spicy peppers, why make a hot sauce without any heat? I blended in an un-seeded yellow habanero. I did also find chochos (lupini beans) to add to this sauce – the recipe site suggests adding them is a regional favourite in Quito.

The red tamarillos pulped up to a beautiful burgundy – my phone captures it a bit more red. It’s wonderfully tart and fresh, sweet and acidic and punchy, with a nice background noise of heat. This could really go with all kinds of dishes, basically anything that would go with citrus. I’m going to serve this alongside a few other Ecuadorian dishes I’m planning to make, but I had a bit over the remaining beans and it was fantastic.

I did have to go back and correct “tomatillos” to “tamarillos” about three times while writing this, however.

GABON: Chicken nyembwé with chikwangue

Chicken nyembwé is the classic Gabonese dish – there’s a million variations, but at it’s base it’s smoked chicken in sauce graine, a thick palm nut sauce. I’m building off this recipe from Popo Loves Cooking; she brings together everything I saw in other recipes (and the recipe is bilingual!)

Whole smoked chicken was surprisingly hard to find, but my local African grocery had them – they’re easy to defrost and work with because the smoking means they’re partially cooked already. This recipe also includes garlic and onion, hot pepper, sorrel leaves (similar to spinach), bay leaves, and a couple rondelles chucked in whole. Rondelles are also called olum, bobimbi, or country onions/garlic – they look like a hazelnut but have a pungent garlic and onion aroma that really oomphs up a dish.

I also picked up chikwangue for a side dish – these are batons of grated fermented cassava, wrapped in banana leaves. You can buy them frozen and steam them – they’re a versatile accompaniment to Central African dishes, or you could swap for fufu or rice.

There was a fair bit of splatter as the sauce cooked down, but it turned out really tasty. The smokiness of the chicken comes through the strongest, and goes really well with the earthiness from the palm nuts. It’s got the richness and consistency of a thick curry (and stains like one too – don’t wear a light shirt!). There’s a bit of heat from the pepper, and all the onion, garlic, and rondelles add lots of flavour. The tang from the fermented cassava balances the creaminess of the sauce. Yum!

I’m also totally sold on smoked chicken itself, it’s absolutely delicious. I’m saving the carcass to use for broth – I’m thinking a smoked chicken noodle soup. I’m also glad I had much more success than my other Gabonese chicken dish.