The table was already festively decked out when we arrived. A tiered cake platter with shiny foil wrapped candies on top, and hefty slices of buttered bread, sequinned with orange ikura (which coincidentally mean the same thing in Russian as it does in Japanese: salmon roe.) A cucumber and tomato salad in with dill and red bell peppers. A creamy mountain of potato salad with carrots, cucumbers, hard boiled egg . . . mmmm nobody does potato salad like the Russians and their brethren. At each place setting were three glasses: a wine glass, a beer glass and a shot glass. The place of honor on the Ukrainian table belonged to a small unassuming bowl of sour cream: it goes with everything. “Smatana,” said Serge. “It’s the Ukrainian word for sour cream.”
Welcome to a typical Ukrainian meal at Serge’s house when his parents are in town.
“Hey, ask Serge to have us for dinner when his parents are here” I told Joe half-jokingly. That’s how we inveigled an invitation. Serge immigrated the US about a decade ago, and his parents who still live there come over for two- or three- month visits almost yearly. Serge used tell us stories about how his parents found the food took a lot of getting used to here, even as they cook/eat in. The meat here didn’t taste the same, rabbits were next to impossible to find, and all the fish was from the sea, not freshwater – another difference. “Put it back,” Serge’s dad exclaimed in horror, when he saw Serge placing a $2 bundle of green onions in his shopping basket at the supermarket. Five dollars will buy you 40 pounds of beets over there. I was fascinated to hear this.
Armed with a bottle of champagne, and a box of Lindt chocolates, and two words of Ukrainian we found on the internet, “Vitayu” and “Diakyu” (Helllo and Thank you- it was too complicated to learn how to say “My name is …” we arrived at their doorstep at 5 PM.
Serge’s mom and dad didn’t speak English, but in the universal language of gestures and voice inflection, they made us very welcome to their home. Serge, who was going to have to do all the translating for us all joked that he was going to lose his voice.
“What would you like to drink?” We all drank red wine, except for his dad, who had beer. It wouldn’t too long though, before the well-chilled vodka was brought out. We had the first of many toasts.
Serge’s mom dished out huge soup-plates of red borscht – made with beets, cabbage, onion and chicken. It was a tasty meal in and of itself, with a dollop of smatana stirred in. “Oh my goodness,” I thought to myself. “If I finish this, I’ll be rather full, and it’ll be hard to eat the other things. But it’s probably too rude to ask if I can put some of this soup back in the pot.”
I was still finishing my soup when the chicken was carved. Baked with herbs on the skin, and apples in the cavity, Serge served Joe and I each two pieces of chicken. It turns out that in Ukrainian custom, you’re supposed to serve two pieces of whatever you’re serving. A heaping platter of chalupsy was brought out, prompting some rearrangement on the dining table to make room for it. Chopped chicken, carrots, onion and some chewy grain, wrapped with uniform precision in cabbage leaves, the spines of the leaves all oriented the same way on each bundle. More lashings of smatana. (It’s a really useful word to know, and an equally useful condiment.)
The grain in the chalupsy was buckwheat. “Did you tell your mom that the only time Americans eat buckwheat is in the form of pancakes?” Joe joked.
Serge’s dad perked up when the bottle of Grey Goose was opened. The vodka is supposed to help, to help stimulate your appetite and absorb more food. Serge poured some into his dad’s glass and Joe’s. “One of you has to be the designated driver,” which of course I elected. “And Joe, you have my permission not to drink the whole thing. Don’t try to out-drink my dad. Myself, I am a lightweight!”
The vodka ritual, which was repeated throughout the evening, was that you pour a round, and someone makes a toast. Then everyone drinks. If you’re not drinking vodka, you drink whatever you’re drinking, like wine. Serge’s dad was the one who most often initiated “Another round?” and thus was the one making the toasts, which generally ran to something along the lines of auspicious wishes, like good health, happiness, the joy of having gatherings with family and friends, etc. Once, I offered to make up a ‘khitai’ (Chinese) toast, “Gung Hei Fat Choy! Sun Tai Geen Hong! Long Ma Jing Sun!” which Serge duly translated to his parents “May you be prosperous! Good Health to you! Have the spirit and power of dragons and horses!” (I took all these sayings from Chinese New Year decorations!)
During his two months on this trip in California, Serge’s dad was studying to take the California driver’s test. The driver’s handbook and the test come in Russian versions, even if some of it was badly translated. He’d taken the written test twice and but didn’t pass. This in spite of having driven in Ukraine for 40 years! It turns out a lot of the MUTCD signs we have here in America that are word-oriented, and they were tripping him up. (In Asia and Europe, the signs are much more pictorial, rather than text.)
“Like they don’t have stop signs in Ukraine,” he explained.
I was flabbergasted. “What happens at intersections?”
“Well you have signalized intersections and unsignalized intersections”
“What happens at unsignalized intersections?”
“Whoever’s on the major road has the right of way over the one on the minor road?”
“What if you’re at an intersection where both roads are the same size?”
“Then there’s a sign that tells you which is the ‘major’ road.”
There are no stop signs at the Ukrainian dinner table for guests either. “Do you want more salad?” Serge translated for his mom, as she offered us more food. “More of this? More of that?” After a while, she bypassed the talking, and simply served us. Like Joe’s mom typically does, Serge’s mom had prepared enough food to feed four times as many people at the table. Maybe it’s a similarity amongst Ukrainians and Chinese: when you have guests, you have to have bountiful excess to offer them. Also like Joe’s mom, she didn’t eat that much herself. She undoubtedly worked really hard to prepare all that food, and sometimes that leaves you not feeling too hungry.
At first we were too polite to decline. After a while we figured out that if we didn’t eat everything clear off our plate, the refills wouldn’t come so fast and furiously. In any case, I was beginning to think that I had been very foolish in eating lunch at all, and much less having had a tall chai from Dana Street Cafe earlier that afternoon.
Helpfully, there were plates of thinly sliced kiwi and oranges, which you can have with your meal, which act as a digestive. A bottle of sparkling mineral water emerged. I never knew before that Perrier came in orange flavor, and it was very refreshing.
We were talking about poppy-seed rolls (which are very typical to their part of the world.) Serge went to his pantry and brought out a terra cotta bowl, which was unglazed inside, but painted with a pattern outside. Accompanying it was a wooden tool that was almost like a pestle – a round wooden ball on the end of the stick handle. “Guess what this is for? It’s for mashing poppy seeds with sugar for deserts” His dad demonstrated. “I couldn’t find this anywhere here, so my parents brought this over for me.”
Dinner wound down, and Serge and his mom bustled about preparing black tea, which is what Ukrainians customarily drink. Never had I looked more forward to tea!
Apple perogies were unveiled, with a gleam in his mom’s eye. They were deservedly her pride and joy. Stuffed as I was, these were delicious. The dough was fresh with a substantive chew, and a bright yeast flavor that I first mistook for egg. “The trick is that the milk for the dough has to be heated to 115 degrees Fahrenheit,” Serge translated for his mom. “It still doesn’t taste the same as at home. The ingredients are simply different. But the Strauss milk here is very good.”
The filling was straightforwardly simple, diced apples, cinnamon and a little sugar. To Joe and my Chinese palate, they weren’t too sweet, which is how we liked it. The filling of a typical American turnover has the fruit more syrupily coated. These perogies, which Serge’s mom packed for us to take home, tasted even better the next morning heated up for breakfast, since we weren’t eating them after being stuffed from dinner! (I had the some of the chalupsy for lunch. Since we didn’t have any smatana handy, I ladled some sauce from the shrimp vindaloo I made, tomatoey and spicy. It actually tasted better, but that’s because I like spicy food!)
There was also slices of cheese with crackers, and jam. Serge’s mom placed some caramels and chocolates on our plates for good measure.
We had brought over a photo-album of photos from our Silk Road trip, since I figured it would be something they could look at without the language barrier. We’d taken photos of shop signs in Kazakhstan, for shoe repair and pharmacies. It turns out that not all Cyrillic looking-letters are common to all languages: there were some words that the Ukrainians didn’t recognize. Serge’s mom came across a photo of the café sign in Xinjiang. “Kashgar Café. Western Chinese Food. English menu,” she read. Joe and I clapped our hands, “Wow!” His mom grinned. “Yeah,” said Serge proudly. “My mom doesn’t speak English, but she’s been learning to read it.”
Serge’s parents brought out their photos of day trips they’d been on here in California. Stanford, and Monterey Bay Aquarium. His dad looked really happy in the pictures by the sea. Having lived near seas and oceans for most of my life, I take it for granted, but I guess in Ukraine, is so far from any sea, it’s a strange and wonderful thing. There’s a large painting of a dramatic wave in Serge’s house. His dad must enjoy looking at it too.
Joe and I decided we would invite Serge and his parents over to dinner at our house, to reciprocate the hospitality. “Come over and we’ll cook you a Chinese meal and introduce you to Chinese food”. I’m actually looking forward to planning the menu, because it’ll have a couple of twists and challenges. I don’t think his parents have had much Chinese food or any other ‘exotic food’, and they are like what they are used to. Ukrainian food is a bit on the bland side. Chicken, beef, pork. Little or no shellfish-seafood. I am going to cheat and buy some things, because I don’t think we can make it from scratch. And we’ll format it to make it somewhat analagous to Ukrainian customs, based on what we’ve observed.
I’m thinking of these possibilities:
Tea eggs, sliced
Pickled daikon and carrots
Tofu soup with mushroom (maybe miso – go Japanese)
Pomelo salad, – Thai style. I may have to go easy on the fish sauce.
Steamed bell peppers stuffed with ground pork and Chinese sausage (or just steamed ground pork.)
Soy sauce chicken, or stir fried chicken with bok choy or mild curry chicken?
Beef with broccoli
Steamed fish with ginger and green onion.
Yang Chow Fried rice
Red bean paste buns (the baked ones, not the steamed ones) Or
Coconut custard with pumpkin, Thai style.
Fruit platter of persimmon, Chinese pears, kiwi
Cheese and crackers and jam.
Sugus candies (are they even made in Switzerland anymore?)
Tea – oolong or green.
Sake for shots
Sparkling Calistoga mineral water