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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Ukraine

WARNING: Ukraine is politically unstable, please read this travel warning before going!

Culinary Influences

Ukrainian food begins with their flag, which represents the blue sky and the yellow fields of grains. The plains in Ukraine also serve as drainage for the Carpathian Mountains and the Russian and Belarusian highlands, making their land very fertile and well-watered. It was this natural habitat that allowed for and encouraged the growth of barley, rye, and wheat. Plus the plains and fairly temperate climate allow the raising of animals, which provide meat and dairy.

Even today the Ukrainian diet is fairly straight forward, but flavorful as they combine these meats with breads and a growing, but still submissive base of vegetables, particularly mushrooms.

Although pork still reigns as king in Ukraine, the Muslim minority in the Crimean Peninsula refrains from pork and a few outside influences have crept in, but primarily as single dishes or ingredient interpretations like sauerkraut from cabbage. Also, with the help of the Soviets and World War II, westward expansion re-introduced some Carpathian Mountain traditions, such as their knowledge on dozens of ways to prepare and serve pork bacon as well as their smoked cheeses.

Staple Foods

Bread: with plenty of grains grown locally there are dozens of types of bread, one of which is served with most meals

Regional Variations & Specialties

Chicken Kyiv: breaded chicken breast stuffed with butter, onions, and parsley
Holubtsi: cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice, then slow cooked in a tomato sauce
Varnyky: dumplings filled with any combination of vegetables and meats then boiled and fried
West Ukraine: Hungarian goulash and Polish perogi are popular, especially in minority villages

Dining Etiquette

Ukrainian Food - Varenyky
Varenyky

Your Ukrainian host will most likely be overly concerned for your well-being and while that is nice for many, it is a nightmare for picky eaters and non-drinkers. You are expected to eat everything offered to you and to drink alcohol with meals; there are few ways around this.

Most Ukrainians will accept non-drinkers if it is due to their religious beliefs (although it is so uncommon in Ukraine they may believe your religion is strange and doesn't make any sense) or if you are on antibiotics, which have an adverse effect with alcohol. For picky eaters, if you don't enjoy something after you try it, your host will accept that (so long as you actually tried the dish), but will then give you different dishes so you don't leave hungry. The best path is to be polite and try it all; when you find a dish you enjoy, endlessly compliment the host and he or she will make sure you get more and may even stop offering you dishes that are less accommodating to your tastes.

While there is little doubt your host will be gracious, you must return the favor so bring a gift if dining at their residence. The Ukrainians make great cakes, which can be found in a number of stores and bringing a cake is the perfect gift, and almost expected in some areas as they may not have prepared dessert. If you plan ahead however, the best gift is a bottle of imported liquor, particularly from your home country. As you're expected to try everything, the Ukrainians gratefully welcome new liquors and cherish trying a new one.

Ukrainian Food - Bread
Bread

Before entering their house, remove your shoes and wait to shake hands until after you have completely crossed the door's threshold. Once seated there are a couple drinking reminders to be aware of. Before drinking alcohol, especially vodka, wait for a toast; the host will lead this ceremony and will say "za zdorovya" (to your health) which is your sign to drink. Whatever you do, don't finish your glass or it will be a very long night. Just take a small sip and follow others when they grab some bread or a non-alcoholic drink to chase the hard liquor. As the alcohol starts to hit you, so will the personal questions. Asking about how much money you make or your personal relationships are common and expected so be ready to confess your secrets, but asking them the same question in return are also accepted as there is no double standard.

If you're in Ukraine for business, dining rules are fairly standard on European standards. Wait to be seated and until everyone is served before beginning. Eat with your knife in your right hand, fork in the left and keep your hands in sight at all times.

Tipping is not common in Ukraine and after experiencing the standard poor service nearly everywhere you won't be inclined to tip anyway. The only exception to this rule is in nice restaurants catered to foreigners, particularly in Kyiv. Service in these locations substantially improves and tips are expected in the form of about 10% for a meal.

Drinks

While Ukraine boasts all the popular non-alcoholic beverages, such as coffee, tea, juices, milk, and soft drinks, the most unique non-alcoholic drink in Ukraine is kompot, which is a liquid flavored by various pickled fruits. As it can be flavored with any number or variety of fruits each has a distinct flavor.

The Ukrainians enjoy drinking alcohol and, while beer and vodka are the most popular drinks, samohon, a home-made alcohol is also popular. This drink is often flavored with honey and chili, but be careful if you consume this though since it is unregulated and can be dangerous. Many of the same flavored vodkas are available commercially as are other population alcoholic drinks, including many international brands.

The tap water in Ukraine should not be consumed because in many places it is not safe.

This page was last updated: March, 2013