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Reporting a Cookbook from War-Torn Ukraine
A Q&A with cookbook author Anna Voloshyna.
Howdy cookbook fans!
Today’s issue is an interview by freelance writer Sharon McDonnell, who spoke with cookbook author Anna Voloshyna. Voloshyna is a cookbook author who immigrated to the Bay Area from Ukraine in her early 20s, and released her first book, Budmo! (“cheers!” in Ukrainian), last year. Voloshyna recently returned from a trip to Ukraine, where she reported (and, along with photographer Jason Perry, photographed) a cookbook on the ways Ukrainians are preserving their culinary heritage during wartime.
Below, Voloshyna tells McDonnell how she got into food writing in the first place, what people get wrong about Ukrainian food, and what it’s like reporting from a war zone that also happens to be your hometown.
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Q&A: Cookbook Author Anna Voloshyna
How did you land your cookbook deal for Budmo!? You don’t have a restaurant, the book isn’t a collaboration with a high-profile chef, and you immigrated to the US in 2011.
In this day and age due to social media it’s not that unusual anymore, people who are active with something to say can get book deals. Over the past 10 years with social media, everything changed. I got very lucky. I found a cookbook writing course at Stanford University in Continuing Studies, near where I lived then. I showed my writing to the teacher, Tori Ritchie, a cookbook author, former Food Network TV host, food editor and San Francisco Cooking School instructor, one of the most talented people I know. She was excited, and felt my book would be successful. I found my literary agent through the class too, a speaker who talked about how she did mostly cookbooks, but also some books on flower design. I connected instantly with her, Leslie Jonath, she’s a most kind human being. Then Tori helped me shape my proposal–she was the greatest mentor. Every semester in my cooking classes I tell people about this class!
I got a lot of rejection when I started. Ukrainian wasn’t hottest cuisine, people felt nothing was happening there, and didn’t believe it would be a best-seller. But I’m the whole package, I told them: I’ll write it, take photos, have the skills to test everything, and I host pop-ups where people love my food. I was a food stylist and photographer before my cookbook. It only takes one publisher to believe in you! I found Rizzoli–they had nothing like that in their portfolio, and felt Ukrainian food was up and coming. I had wonderful cooperation from them. My book was done before the war broke out (in February 2022), and published in late 2022. Its name is a toast, like “cheers” in English.
Were you a food stylist and photographer back in Ukraine?
No. I came to the Bay Area at 21, started my food blog around 2013 and got interested in food photography. Once I improved my craft, restaurants, brands, and local startups began reaching out for photo shoots and different projects. I freelanced for Feastly, MealPal, and Zesty, and brands like BevMo, Hestan, Duckhorn, Instant Pot, Ducktrap, MSC etc. I did pop-up meals, and did cooking classes for Tastemade and Truffle Shuffle. I went to San Francisco Cooking School in 2020, got my Culinary Arts degree, and then worked for chef Tyler Florence. My cooking school externship was at Miller & Lux in San Francisco, Tyler’s latest restaurant, and Monarch Collective, his multimedia production company. Then I worked on his new cookbook, American Grill, to be published in 2024.
Your first book is a revelation to people who don’t know much about Ukrainian cooking–which is most of us–and full of luscious, colorful dishes whose photos leap off the page. Most recipes are your modern twists on beloved classics–for example, borscht. Many think of it as a cold, red beet soup in Russia and Ukraine. But you have three recipes for borscht in your book.
That’s a very common misconception outside of Ukraine. In Ukraine, 99% of people think of it as a hot dish. In summer, we eat cold borscht made of beets, radishes and cucumbers. At other times we eat hot green borscht made with no beets but spinach, sorrel and potatoes, or hot beet borscht made with other vegetables or a fruit, like prunes or smoked pears. One of my borscht recipes combines prunes and mushrooms. But in Ukraine, regions use one or the other, not both.
What are some other staples of Ukrainian cooking?
Sour cream and dill on everything is our family motto. Dill is without a doubt the most popular herb, and sour cream is the must-have ingredient. We pickle everything from mushrooms and whole apples to gooseberries. Almost every holiday has a dedicated pastry, blini, or dumpling dish.
Let’s talk dumplings.
Ukrainian dumplings, called varenyky, can have sweet or savory fillings, like sour cherries, poppy seeds or syr, a tangy fresh curd cheese (also called tvorog), similar to fromage blanc. When I was growing up in southern Ukraine in the small town of Snihurivka, there were sour cherry trees in nearly every backyard. It broke my heart when I came to the US and couldn’t find my beloved sour cherries at any of the local farmers’ markets. Cheese varenyky typically have a sweet filling, rarely a savory one, in one part of southern Ukraine. But in western Ukraine, syr is one of the most popular fillings, served with crispy bits of fried pork belly and sour cream.
What are your early food memories growing up in Ukraine?
A land of abundance, with vast stretches of sunflower fields, flourishing fruit orchards and the long, winding Dnieper River teeming with fish. Sunflowers are an important crop–we cook with sunflower oil, and snack on dried sunflower seeds and sunflower halvah. We have all four seasons, with long, hot summers and frosty winters, and these dramatic changes in temperature greatly impact local cuisine. With at least five months of the year too cold to cultivate crops or even a household vegetable garden, we cherished every young spring zucchini, preserved summer’s sweet apricots, and fermented tomatoes for winter. [Weekend] mornings, my mom and I would go to a local farmers’ market to buy fresh produce and other foods for the whole week. There were no supermarkets in my hometown before the Soviet Union collapsed, and no imported foods.
Tell me about the recipes in your book from your family.
My mom’s spicy and sour tomatoes are hands down the most popular snack I serve at my dinners: she immerses them in a thick sauce made from fresh herbs like dill, flat-leaf parsley and cilantro, a jalapeno chile, oil and vinegar. I’ve personally witnessed diners at my pop-ups drinking the leftover liquid once the tomatoes are wiped out. Her chicken and mushroom crepes, bundled and tied at the top with green onion into a “beggar’s purse,” are legendary. My grandmother’s roasted duck with green apples and peppercorns was always on the table for family celebrations, from Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday to birthdays.
I don’t think many people think of seafood as part of Ukrainian food. But you have recipes for crawfish, pickled mussels and herring mousse.
We have two seas, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. We eat tiny shrimp, sardines, and herring all the time. My father used to have a beer tent every summer, where crawfish and smoked and dried fish were served. One summer I helped out, and boiled crawfish several times a week. Crawfish is very common in Ukraine, every river has it. But Russia blew up one of our biggest dams in May. A ton of fish died, even more got poisoned, and we lost 70% of our fresh water supply. Now people are very careful about eating local fish.
You have some recipes from Georgia, the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, in your book. Why?
Georgian food is one of the most popular cuisines in Ukraine. You grow up eating it at affordable restaurants and street vendors sell it. I have recipes for khachapuri–a flatbread filled with cheese, eggs and butter, fried chicken livers with pomegranate molasses, and walnut/beet spread. Georgian walnut spreads are made with various vegetables or greens plus garlic and herbs. But the beet spread is my favorite.
You’re just back from Ukraine for your latest project. What was it like?
I returned from a 24-day trip to Ukraine in late September. My goal was to combine some volunteering and research for a second cookbook and a culinary series I want to produce next year, whose working title is Preserving Ukraine. I found what I was searching for–a true spirit of my brave and resilient Ukraine, which lives inside chefs who host pop-ups during sirens, bakers who deliver bread during shellings, volunteers who evacuate people from the most dangerous places.
What I saw was the renaissance of our gastronomic culture. I felt everything was changing-everyone was rejecting everything Russian, Ukrainian cuisine was suppressed for so long, some people almost forgot what it is. I went to experience new chefs to connect with, met bakers staying cheerful in Lviv–a city severely attacked a few times summer–who sometimes baked all night with no electricity, and tasted the fine dining scene. People I met didn’t understand how creative they are, but with my fresh eyes, I saw how incredible it was. When you’re struggling, it’s hard to see the beauty of your creation. I visited local bazaars in every city I went to, and saw the damage in my hometown, where my parents still live.
What memory lingers most from your trip?
I cooked a meal for our soldier defenders, while we heard bombing and sirens, in Druzhaivka, 45 km from Bakhmut. I decided to make them a feast, so I brought stuff from every corner of Ukraine to show I care about them and comfort them. Honey from Lviv, pickles from Kyiv, pickled green and fermented red tomatoes from Nadia (whose name means “hope”), sauerkraut and a spicy sauce called ajika that everyone adores, a sheep’s milk cheese called bryndza from west Ukraine, rye and sourdough bread. I made Crimean beef stew with chickpeas, tomatoes, cilantro, and white wine–no one goes to Crimea now since Russia annexed it-polenta with bryndza, and eggplant caviar from southern Ukraine. The main difference from Italian polenta is that in this traditional dish of an ethnic group in the Karpathian mountains you add a generous dollop of sour cream for extra richness, and don’t use Parmigiano-Reggiano. Eggplant caviar is made with red bell pepper, tomatoes and onion-don’t ask me why Slavic people like to call spreads made with vegetables like eggplants or squash “caviar,” there’s no caviar. It was a very special experience, but we could hear bombing and sirens. I thought, I need to keep cooking. I was not scared even once-I felt I was at home, and then came home. The soldiers gave me a Ukrainian flag, which everyone signed for me.
What kind of volunteering did you do in Ukraine?
Photographer Jason Perry and I drove an ambulance full of medical supplies for soldiers and civilians from Amsterdam to Lviv, by the Polish border. The ambulance was from a Dutch aid-to-Ukraine nonprofit, Stichting Zeilen van Vrijheid. It was Jason’s sixth visit to Ukraine-he worked with them before. The dinner for our soldiers was arranged through people he knew.
Wow. I’m almost lost for words. But I want to hear more about this spicy sauce everyone adores.
I enjoy making all types of hot sauces, but red ajika might be the one I like best-mildly spicy, it’s a cooked sauce made of red bell peppers, cayenne chile peppers, tomato, horseradish, garlic and apple cider vinegar. Green ajika is a raw sauce of jalapeno chiles, green bell peppers and cilantro, that I love with grilled meat and meat dumplings.
What’s the latest on your Preserving Ukraine project?
I wrote the proposal before my trip, but now it’s a little different based on what I saw, much deeper, more important and with photos to share. I’ll write about chefs and other people I met, little gems I found, foods I tasted. I’m in the process of signing with a publisher.
Sharon McDonnell is a travel, food, drink and profiles writer in San Francisco for print and online outlets. She's taken cooking classes in Morocco, Thailand, India, Malaysia, China, Italy, France and New Orleans. Read her work at https://sharonmcdonnell.contently.com.