Food memories from childhood summers tend to stick. Olga Koutseridi, a graduate student adviser at the University of Texas at Austin, formed hers in Mariupol, the small city on the Black Sea whose name has become synonymous with the worst devastation Russia has inflicted on Ukraine.
While she was growing up, her family often moved between Ukraine, Greece and Russia for her father’s work, but they always returned to her parents’ hometown for the summer. Her grandmother’s apartment overlooked the mulberry trees lining Morskyi Boulevard, and the Sea of Azov beyond.
On the way to Mariupol’s beaches, women sold whole roasted sunflower heads and paper cones of fresh, juicy sunflower seeds trucked in from nearby farms. Beachgoers hauled picnic lunches filled with garlicky salami sandwiches on lavishly buttered slices of baton, a staple Ukrainian bread. And on the path home, food trucks sold freshly fried chebureki, half-moons of pastry folded around a meat filling, hot and spitting juice “like a giant fried soup dumpling,” she said.
On Feb. 24, as shelling began, her grandmother and aunt fled the apartment; Ms. Koutseridi did not hear from them again until March 20. With a dozen others, they sheltered in a cellar without heat, water or power until the violence came close enough to force them out. By foot, car and train, Ms. Koutseridi said, they made their way across the Russian border and north to St. Petersburg, where relatives awaited them. Her grandmother, now 86, remains hospitalized there, with dangerous blood clots brought on by the journey.
Last month, Russian tanks rolled along Morskyi Boulevard. Photos shared among refugees and expatriates on Telegram show that the beaches Ms. Koutseridi grew up on are snaked with concertina wire, the windows of her grandmother’s building are blown out, and much of the city has been reduced to rubble.
“Mariupol was the closest thing I had to a home in Ukraine,” she said. “For the world to see it like this for the first time is unthinkable.”
To cope with the constant worry, Ms. Koutseridi, 34, burrowed deeper into her side gigs as a baker, cook and historian of Ukrainian food. About five years ago, she began baking the breads she was homesick for and posting photos of them on Instagram. She joined thriving online sourdough communities, honed her skills, and started a weekend business selling breads, cheesecakes and naturally leavened Ukrainian babka. But at the start of the war, she turned her focus to Mariupol, collecting all kinds of recipes from scattered family members on Telegram, Skype and WhatsApp.
“I had this urge to record,” she said. “It suddenly seemed like it was all going to disappear so fast.”
She transcribed and tested her grandmother’s recipes for varenyky, dumplings stuffed with sour cherries and the farmer’s cheese called tvorog; her mother’s hearty but light borsch (that’s the Ukrainian word; Russians spell it borscht); and fried eggplant slices showered with raw garlic, a family favorite. There are 74 recipes so far, including some from the Donetsk region’s longstanding Greek community in which her father’s family has roots.
“Maybe now is not the time to celebrate Ukrainian food,” Ms. Koutseridi said. “But this feels like the only chance we have to preserve it.”
Ukrainian food, like Ukraine itself, covers a wide territory; the country is roughly the size of Thailand, France or Kenya. Its cuisine has absorbed countless influences over distance and time: from ancient Greece, the Ottoman Empire, the Carpathian Mountains, the Russian steppe and beyond.
Like Odessa, Sevastopol and other cities on the Black Sea, Mariupol is a longtime strategic axis and trade hub, claimed and invaded by regional superpowers that have made it — and its food — particularly diverse. Alongside Ukrainian classics, Mariupol’s culinary specialties include Greek wedding cookies and meat-stuffed breads; the chebureki that arrived with the Tatars from Central Asia; and lots of eggplant, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire and a product of the region’s semi-Mediterranean climate.
As Ms. Koutseridi compiled the recipes into a database, she put her academic training to work, researching archives in Russian, Ukrainian and English, consulting websites devoted to Slavic cheeses and Central Asian food history, and contacting other Ukrainian expatriates and food experts around the world.
One of the first was Olia Hercules, a London chef and cookbook author who grew up not far from Mariupol in Kakhovka, who has long been a chronicler of Ukrainian foodways. Her 2020 book, “Summer Kitchens,” spotlights the art of fermentatsiya — traditional Ukrainian preserves like brined eggplant and mint, apples in pumpkin mash, salted plums, stuffed peppers and innumerable variations of pickled cucumbers, beets and cabbage.
When the war began, Ms. Hercules felt that the work of honoring food traditions at a time of widespread hunger and terror seemed impossible. Instead, she and the chef Alissa Timoshkina (who is Russian and lives in London) started #CookForUkraine, a global series of dinners, bake sales and cooking classes that have raised nearly one million pounds for UNICEF.
Ms. Hercules’s feelings have changed, she said, now that she sees that the Russian war is not just against the Ukrainian nation — the country’s identity, history and culture are all under assault.
“Now is the time to delve into Ukrainian food in detail,” she said. “There’s so much more to it than borsch.”
Long before the war broke out, borsch was a culinary proxy in ancient grudges between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has claimed its beet-heavy borscht as one of several national dishes, but in Ukraine, where the soup has been documented much earlier, borsch is considered the national dish. In 2021, the country’s Ministry of Culture petitioned UNESCO to certify borsch as a symbol of Ukrainian heritage, like Korean kimchi and Belgian beer.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
In Mariupol. The bloodiest battle of the war in Ukraine ended in Mariupol, as the Ukrainian military ordered fighters holed up at a steel plant in the city to surrender. Ukraine’s decision to end combat gave Moscow full control over a vast sweep of southern Ukraine, stretching from the Russian border to Crimea.
Ms. Koutseridi’s family made distinctions between same-day borsch, dished up right after cooking, and second-day borsch that can be served cold or hot, with different garnishes and richer flavors. Her mother’s recipe, procured during Ms. Koutseridi’s recent efforts, is based on tomatoes and cabbage, with beets playing a minor role.
The traditional borsch of Mariupol includes white beans, red peppers, potatoes and local fish, especially tiny fried gobies from the Black Sea. It can also be made with salt-cured fish, and modern cooks often use sprats in tomato sauce, a popular pantry staple of tiny herring canned in a purée that tastes a bit like cocktail sauce.
The Mariupol of Ms. Koutseridi’s childhood was cosmopolitan but tranquil, she said, a place where people left their doors unlocked while on daily shopping trips to the city’s central open market, where stalls overflowed with local produce, cured and dried fish, and pickles of all kinds.
Her family’s elders tended gardens just outside the city center that provided a steady supply of fresh produce. Like most families there, they preserved all the produce they couldn’t eat, filling jars with fermented tomatoes, cucumber and cabbage pickles, and sour cherries in sweet syrup. They drank home-fermented kombucha and kefir, and vodka distilled from grapes grown by her grandfather.
When Ms. Koutseridi last visited Mariupol, in 2013, she said, craft bakeries and beer halls had opened alongside the contemporary pizzerias, burger joints and sushi restaurants that were fashionable when she left the country in 2005 to study ancient history at Ohio State University.
A new generation of Ukrainians had begun to unearth and celebrate the skills of pickling, cheesemaking, baking and brewing that were nearly lost during the industrialization of the Soviet period, and the urbanization of recent decades. Now, she fears, that movement will be set back indefinitely, if not lost altogether.
To defy those fears, she has established a ritual of cooking time-honored dishes like chebureki, her mother’s borsch and ryazhanka, a sweet-tart drink that takes three days to make — milk is gently baked until its caramelized, toasted-nut flavor comes out, then fermented and chilled.