Ukrainians know how to enjoy summer. It’s a colorful, bountiful time of year, meant to be celebrated and devoured.
Eating the summer meals in Ukraine is a great way to get a crash course in culture and cuisine. Eating is something that unites people all across the world, no matter the relationship or language. The same is true in Ukraine, and though I didn’t speak either language, I was able to participate in a summer ritual of enjoying a fresh bounty with family and friends.
At almost every house we visited, a hearty spread of cured meats, cheeses, seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as some kind of bread, dumpling or dessert was laid out on a cloth covered table outside.
Most Ukrainian houses don’t have patios per se, but they do have ample yard space with a trellis used for growing Muscadine grapes. In high summer when it’s hot, grapevines everywhere become huge and covered in clusters of grapes, making it a great place to sit under to get away from the sun.
For summer meals in Ukraine, families and friends gather together and eat scrumptious lunches and dinners under the speckled shade of the grapevines.
The meal is laid out family style across the table. Plates of sliced cured sausages, cheeses, and bowls filled with fresh veggies and fruits. Sometimes there are prepared dishes like potato salad (different than the mayo-soaked American kind), or cold cucumber salad, but it’s also perfectly okay to snack on cherry tomatoes, grapes and other fruits throughout the meal.
It’s amazing to see tomatoes grown all around the world, and in Ukraine, they’re very much a favorite food. Tomatoes, like potatoes, are an Old World food, and not originally from Ukraine or anywhere in the Eastern Hemisphere. They’re one of my favorite foods, and any culture that loves eating lots of tomatoes has already won me over.
At each place setting is a small plate, about the size of a saucer. You’ll fill this up before the beginning of the meal, and then refill as you go.
Celebratory meals are always predicated with the customary three shots of vodka.
Russian vodka has a reputation of being a drink consumed during cold winters to keep warm, or by hardened mafia goons while they play games of knives and poker. Vodka is every man’s drink, and it’s a must during gatherings.
Vodka is consumed straight, as a shot, never sipped. It plays an important part of social rituals, but outside of that, isn’t consumed as much- unless you’re an alcoholic.
Ukrainians start the meal with a toast- and it’s very important to follow toast etiquette. You hold your glass of vodka high until the very end of the toast, declare “Na Zdrovia!” (like we say “cheers“), and make sure to touch glasses with each guest.
After the first shot, 2 more are required before eating. Don’t hold your glass up to be refilled, let it sit on the table.
Like many outsiders, I learned these rules by breaking them. While all of my hosts were friendly and obliging with my needs and language barrier, they made sure to quickly correct me when toasting. It’s an important social ritual, and foreigners aren’t allowed to seem unsociable just because they’re foreign.
After the customary 3 shots, it’s time to eat! Slowly, while chatting and catching up. For me, this meant trying to pace myself because I was unable to talk with only a few certain English-speakers. Sometimes I would get roped into a conversation with a translator. People wanting to know my opinion of Ukraine, or more about my life back home.
Mostly I ate my fill. While taking one too many tomatoes in between.