Kutia

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Christmas is right around the corner. Eastern Orthodox Christmas, that is.

I was introduced to kutya (кутя) over 10 years ago in a Russian food market in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa where I now offer food tours; it’s a sweet story and you can read it here.

These days, there are few fully Russian markets to be found in that neighborhood, having been superseded by Ukrainian, Uzbek, Uyghur, generally Eastern European and even Turkish establishments. The aforementioned market is long gone and the availability of grab-and-go kutya has vanished along with it.

Needless to say, a little thing like that doesn’t stop me; now I make my own at home. I researched a bunch of Ukrainian recipes for kutia (the more accepted Ukrainian transliteration) and came up with my own spin on the dish. Best described as a porridge, it’s sweet from honey and raisins, chewy from wheat berries, crunchy from nuts, and distinctive and delectable from the poppy seeds; the wheat berries symbolize immortality and hope, the honey and poppy seeds represent happiness, tranquility, and success. It’s an indispensable dish for the family’s feast on Eastern Orthodox Christmas Eve throughout Russia and Eastern Europe.

In addition to wheat berries, poppy seeds, raisins and honey, my rendition includes toasted almonds (although walnuts are customary) and dried apricots. Kutia can be eaten warm or at room temperature and is now one of my must-haves for the holiday season. All that’s lacking is a proper beautiful Ukrainian serving dish, but this one (Federal green Depression glass) was my grandmother’s and it will do.

And as always, heartfelt prayers for safety and peace go out to my friend Olya in Ukraine, my inspiration for creating this recipe.
 
 

Varenyky

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Here’s another temptation that was included in my recent four-part “Everybody Loves Dumplings” series but surely deserves a post of its own.

Like similar dumplings of differing names and nationalities, varenyky (вареники), one of Ukraine’s national dishes, can be found in a pair of divergent guises: sweet, filled with cheese and/or fruit; and savory, stuffed with meat, potatoes, or cabbage, and customarily crowned with fried onions, occasionally bacon, and almost always accompanied by a dollop of sour cream.

These cheese varenyky are served with a homemade sour cherry sauce; all dumplings are comfort food, of course, but these sweet treats easily sashay into dessert territory.

And yes, the blue and yellow color scheme was by design.
 
 

Streecha

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Streecha is a charming-in-its-bare-bones-informality Ukrainian restaurant hidden away in the homey basement of Saint George Ukrainian Catholic Church in Manhattan’s East Village – and it’s a gem. The sparse menu always includes Borsch (beet soup), Varenyky (potato dumplings – with toppings, please), Holubtsi (stuffed cabbage), and Sausage with Cabbage. The sausage is a link of top-notch savory pork kielbasa with an affirmative snap when you bite into it, and the cabbage, despite its sauerkraut-like appearance, is a deliciously sweet cabbage/carrot/onion mélange.

But the Daily Special is a Daily Mystery; it’s not posted anywhere online or even on the premises, so if you want to find out what’s cookin’, go there and inquire, order it, and be pleasantly surprised.

And yes, I’ll be back. Streecha is located at 33 East 7th St in New York City.
 
 

New Section: Ukraine

I’ve created a new section on this site that highlights the cuisine of Ukraine. The prologue begins like this:


Odessa is a port city on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. It is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful beaches and charming 19th-century architecture.

In the latter half of the last century, many Odessites who emigrated to the US came to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, now known as “Little Odessa”. I took this photograph on that beach – and tweaked the colors, just a bit.


As a kid, I studied history from a book titled World Civilization; “civilization” was defined as the advancement of the arts, science, culture and statecraft. At the time, it seemed to me that statecraft had as much to do with waging war as anything else. History was something that was about 2 inches thick and had 537 pages.

When I was in high school, I would eavesdrop on my father reliving World War II in exhaustive detail with his buddy, Jack, over highballs; they had served together in the army overseas. I still have his captain’s bars and his Purple Heart. War became a little more real, more than just something you read about; war had certainly affected my father.

In college, we would watch television nightly, transfixed as Walter Cronkite narrated terrifying scenes from the war in Vietnam; I wondered if I would be drafted. War became even more real; war was affecting me.

But now, I know someone who actually lives in Kyiv and although I am fortunate to not be an eyewitness myself, the horrors of war have never been more real for me.

Her hobby is cooking; that’s how we met – through Instagram of all things. She loves nature in its beauty ardently, the flora and the fauna. We communicate on occasion, a genuine, personal one-to-one correspondence. She is very real.

And every time I hear the reports of the latest atrocities, I worry if she is well. If she is alive.

This corner of my website is dedicated to you, Olya. You and all the brave, stalwart, resilient, heroic, beautiful people of Ukraine.

Stay safe, Olya. Stay safe.

🇺🇦 Слава Україні! Героям слава! 🇺🇦
 
 


Over the years, I have enjoyed and continue to learn more about Ukrainian cuisine; I prepare it at home, and now bring people to visit Little Odessa in Brooklyn so they can experience it firsthand.

It is a small gesture, I know, but at least I can introduce others to a part of the vibrant culture of these resolute people who are giving their lives and losing their loved ones in their quest to preserve democracy.

Here, then, are a few dishes from my Ukrainian posts, with more to come….
 
 
Click here to see the new section and the cuisine. You can always visit as it grows by selecting Stories -> Ukraine in the top navigation bar. Дякую!
 
 

July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

The story began here:

Every August, as a routinely flushed, overheated child, I would join in chorus with my perspiring cohorts, boisterously importuning, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Little did I realize that rather than conjuring dessert, I was conjugating it and probably laying the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with foreign languages and world food.

We lived in close proximity to one of the best dairies in town; it was known for its wide assortment of locally produced natural flavors, certainly sufficient in number and variety to satisfy any palate. Perhaps my obsession with offbeat ice cream flavors is rooted in my frustration with my father’s return home from work, invariably bearing the same kind of ice cream as the last time, Neapolitan. Neapolitan, again. My pleas to try a different flavor – just once? please? – consistently fell on deaf ears. “Neapolitan is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. That’s three flavors right there. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” Some kids’ idea of rebellion involved smoking behind the garage; mine was to tuck into a bowl of Rum Raisin….

There’s lots more to the story, of course. Click here to get the full scoop! 🍨
 
 

Orthodox Easter – Pascha and Kulich (2022)

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Most holidays come equipped with delectable, traditional foods and Orthodox Easter is no exception; it occurs on the Sunday following the first full moon that appears on or after the spring equinox – April 24, in 2022. As an Equal Opportunity Celebrant, I make it a practice to sample as many of these treats as possible around such festive occasions, not because of any personal porcine tendencies of course, but in order to altruistically share information with anyone who might be unfamiliar with these delicacies. 😉

According to Wikipedia, the Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest Christian church with approximately 220 million baptized members. The majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians live mainly in Southeast and Eastern Europe, Cyprus, Georgia and other communities in the Caucasus region, and in Siberia reaching the Russian Far East.

According to ethnojunkie, each region has its own distinctive, specialty baked goods that are prepared in celebration of the holiday. Many are sweet breads called pascha (or some variant), from Greek/Latin meaning Easter, and ultimately from Aramaic/Hebrew meaning Passover. Let’s check out two of them.


If you go out in search of pascha, you’ll discover vastly divergent varieties depending upon the heritage of the bakery you land on. Polish versions I’ve sampled are puffy, yeasty, a little sweet and are designed to be pulled apart and shared at the table. Some other Eastern European and Russian styles are more like a cheese-filled bread, with veins of sweet, white dairy goodness running throughout. This photo was taken surreptitiously in a Russian market. Shhh!


Shown here is Romanian pască. This particular example comes from Nita’s European Bakery at 4010 Greenpoint Ave, Sunnyside, Queens – look for the awning that reads Cofetaria Nita. It is unique (at least in my experience) and undeniably stellar. This dense delight, about nine inches in diameter, is actually a two-layered affair, with a rich topping/filling that is virtually a raisin-studded, hyper-creamy manifestation of cheesecake that sits atop a sweet cake-like bread; the religious theme is easily recognizable.


Here’s a view that reveals the layers. If you like sweet desserts, you’ll love this.


On a recent peregrination through Brooklyn’s Little Odessa on Brighton Beach Avenue where Russian and Eastern European shops abound, it seemed that every market was selling kulich, a Slavic Orthodox Easter bread. Look closely behind the eggs in the first photo and you’ll see an array of them. (Look even more closely behind the kulichi and the sign for яйца and you’ll see packages of the Italian Christmas treat, panettone. Pretty much every market was offering them as well. In terms of taste, they’re pretty close although panettone is a little richer, however I have yet to determine why both are sold in this neighborhood during Orthodox Easter. But I digress.)

Not as sweet as pascha, the cylindrical kulich is often baked at home in a coffee can to achieve the characteristic shape; this diminutive example stands only about five inches high. The Ukrainian legend reads куліч (cake) пасхальний (paschal) and around the beltline з великоднем (Happy Easter) христос воскрес (Christ is risen).


It’s somewhere along the bread <-> coffeecake continuum, laden with raisins, and always dressed with a snow-white sugar-glazed cap and colorful sprinkles.

And at Orthodox Easter this year especially, our thoughts and hearts are with the heroic, resilient, brave, beautiful people of Ukraine. We are all Ukrainians now.

🇺🇦 Слава Україні! Героям слава! 💙💛
 
 

A Ukrainian Ice Cream Novelty

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I can read enough Russian to know when I’m seeing Ukrainian (both are written using the Cyrillic alphabet) – like the label on this package.

The brand is Ласунка (Lasunka) a leading producer of ice cream in Ukraine; it means delicacy or, loosely translated, sweet tooth; пирожено-морожено means cake-ice cream; грушове indicates pear (pictured on the label – look closely); and з карамельннм соусом translates as “with caramel sauce.” (Дякую, Гуглити.)


What appears to be a brown cardboard cup is actually a soft edible bowl (the “cake”) cradling three cute soft ice cream florets. The ice crystals are the byproduct of storage, not the product of creativity, but they were so pretty, I couldn’t resist taking a photo before dispatching them.


And you’ve probably already surmised that I came across this treat while doing prep for my Little Odessa ethnojunket.

You can sign up and taste one for yourself! Please visit the Ethnojunkets page to learn more about my neighborhood food tours and join in the fun!

Hope to see you soon!

🇺🇦 Слава Україні! 💙💛

 
 

Little Odessa Ethnojunkets Are Back!

Good news! COVID hospitalizations are waning and seasonal temperatures are waxing and that means it’s time to bring back ethnojunkets!

We’re getting the ball rolling with Exploring Eastern European Food in Little Odessa and I’ll be adding the rest soon.

Ethnojunkets FAQ:

 
Q: What’s an ethnojunket anyway?
A: An ethnojunket is a food-focused walking tour through one of New York City’s many ethnic enclaves; my mission is to introduce you to some delicious, accessible, international treats that you’ve never tasted but soon will never be able to live without.

Q: Which neighborhoods do you cover?
A: My most popular tours are described on the ethnojunkets page but there are always new ones in the works. For the time being, I’m only scheduling Little Odessa.

Q: When is your next ethnojunket to [fill in the blank: Little Odessa, Flushing, Elmhurst, Little Levant, etc.]?
A: Any day you’d like to go! Simply send me a note in the “Leave a Reply” section below or write to me directly at rich[at]ethnojunkie[dot]com and tell me when you’d like to experience a food adventure and which ethnojunket you’re interested in – I’ll bet we can find a mutually convenient day! (Pro Tip: Check the weather in advance for the day you’re interested in to facilitate making your choice; we spend a lot of time outdoors!)

Q: I’ve seen some tours that are scheduled in advance for particular dates. Do you do that?
A: Yes, in a way. When someone books a tour (unless it’s a private tour) it’s always fun to add a few more adventurous eaters to the group – not to mention the fact that we get the opportunity to taste more dishes when we have more people (although I do like to keep the group size small). You can see if there are any openings available in the “Now Boarding” section of the ethnojunkets page. Subscribers always get email notifications about these.

Q: What will we be eating in Little Odessa?
A: Here are just a few of the Eastern European, Central Asian, Russian, and Former Soviet Union delicacies we usually enjoy on our food tour along Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn. (Not that I’m trying to tempt you to sign up! 😉)

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The overarching term is khachapuri, literally “cheese bread”; they’re commonly filled with tangy, salty sulguni cheese and imeruli, a fresh crumbly cheese which when melted together combine to make stretchy, cheesy nirvana. Georgian adjaruli is shaped like a kayak, the center of which is filled with cheese; a raw egg and a chunk of butter are added just as it’s removed from the oven. Stir the mixture: the egg cooks and combines with the butter and melted cheese. Break off pieces of the bread and dip them into the cheese mixture. What’s not to like?


Uzbek manti, Russian pelmeni, and Azerbaijani kutaby in the back. Azerbaijani food is similar to the cuisine of Georgia but they lay claim to certain dishes such as kutaby as their own. A thin, tortilla-like crepe filled with ground lamb and luscious seasonings, folded in half and griddled, it’s an object of universal culinary lust for anyone whose lips have ever caressed it.


Curd Snacks are not unlike a cross between an Eskimo pie and chocolate covered cheesecake; individually wrapped, they come in an assortment of flavors from chocolate and vanilla to the more esoteric blueberry, blackberry, and raisin.


Salads: At the top there’s fried lagman, a savory noodle dish (also found in soup) of the Uyghur people, an ethnic group living in East and Central Asia. Moving clockwise there’s khe, raw fish marinated in onion, spicy red pepper and vinegar. Russia and North Korea share an 11 mile border; the Korean culinary character of khe is obvious. Finally, there’s norin (aka naryn). Very fine noodles and a generous measure of cumin accompany thinly sliced beef. So good!


I hope you’ll sign up and join us! The cost is $85 per person (cash only, please) and includes a veritable cornucopia of food so bring your appetite: you won’t leave hungry, and you will leave happy!

For more information and to sign up, send me a note in the “Leave a Reply” section at the bottom of this page or write to me directly at rich[at]ethnojunkie[dot]com and I’ll email you with details.

I’m looking forward to introducing you to one of my favorite neighborhoods!
 
 

Ukrainian Borscht

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Home cooking from last summer – borscht, a refreshing, cold beet soup which, according to Wikipedia, is the national dish of Ukraine.

I posted it then because out here, we were all suffering through a hot day.

I’m reposting it now because out there, they are all suffering through a hot war.
 
 
🇺🇦 Sending prayers for peace to the resolute people of Ukraine. 🇺🇦
 
 

Ukrainian Blintzes with a Twist

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Although I can’t know for certain whether my grandmother was Ukrainian, she did make memorable blintzes and she made them often. When I was a kid and just becoming aware of concepts like heritage, I asked her over lunch where she was born. Her responses typically consisted of a single word, in this case, “Brooklyn.”

I pressed on. “Then where were your parents from?”

“Brooklyn,” she replied, tersely.

“Then where…”

“Eat,” she interrupted, setting another plate of blintzes down in front of me figuring that I wouldn’t ask any more questions if my mouth was full. I never did learn about her roots.

Years later, I tried to extract her special recipe: “How much flour should I use?”

“Enough.”

You get the idea. Anyway, I reverse engineered it and I’ve been making them ever since. In a single word, “yum!”

But I told you that story so I could tell you this one: The other day when I was in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood developing a revised itinerary for the upcoming revival of my Little Odessa food tour, I spotted a pint-size deli container filled with an obviously store-made creamy white mass in the dairy case of one of my favorite markets. The home spun label read Sirkovaya Massa (likely a romanization of Сырковая Масса in the surprising absence of Cyrillic characters). I recognized the first syllable, Sir- (Сыр-), as the word for cheese; a closer inspection revealed a list of ingredients: cultured milk, vanilla, sugar, and raisins and I divined that this “Cheese Curd Mass” would probably taste like an Eastern European take on cannoli cream, but more cream cheesy than ricotta based. It was sweet, rich, and absolutely delicious. But what to do with it? Spread it on a bagel? Serve it with fresh fruit perhaps? And then it hit me: combine it with an equal part of farmer’s cheese and make blintzes with a twist! This is a photo of the result, decked out with blueberries, blueberry syrup and sour cream – note the blue and yellow theme. (Next time, I’m might try adding mini chocolate bits to it for a real cross-cultural treat.)


How were they? In a single (Ukrainian) word, “ням!” Grandma would approve.