That was the challenge of ordering dinner in Izmail, Ukraine, a small historic city on the Danube River near the border of Moldova. My husband and I had just arrived in Ukraine, travelling down a country road full of potholes, the creaky old bus zigging and zagging while the onboard television blared a popular music show, the performers singing a familiar Beatles tune, slightly altered, All You Need is Peace. After a day of travel, we were hungry.
In Izmail, the only restaurant that appeared to be open was on the main drag, a popular place full of well-dressed millennials sipping cocktails and raising a din of conversation, of which I understood not a word.
At the table beside us was a young couple on a date. Behind us, a group of clean cut young men (perhaps soldiers) with a bottle of vodka on the table between them. The dance floor was empty (the DJ arrived later) and, playing on a giant screen, music videos of beautiful models in tropical locales.
Our waiter didn't speak a word of English and neither did his menu. It looked Greek to me. Literally. Prior to Ukraine, we had travelled in Greece, where I became somewhat adept at reading Cyrillic letters. The Cyrillic alphabets of Greece and Ukraine are close enough that I opened the menu and began sounding out the offerings. But even though I could pronounce it, I had no idea what it meant.
You might be surprised to know that restaurants in Ukraine often don't serve Ukrainian food, or what we here on the prairies know and love as the foods of our Ukrainian ancestors. Vareniki, holubtsi, kutia, babka and borshch – these are familiar foods in Ukrainian homes, but when people go out to eat, they're happy to dine from the smorgasbord of the world. Ethnic restaurants are as familiar in Ukraine as anywhere.
Working my way through the menu, I suddenly came upon a word I understood: Карьонара. Carbonara. Below it was вологнесе or Bolognese. Italian!! Both were delicious.
In Odessa, we ate several meals in a sweet French bistro and in Kherson, we enjoyed grilled skewers of meat in an outdoor Georgian grill (that's the former Soviet republic of Georgia, not the U.S. state). In Kiev we ate paninis from vendor on the street.
The grilled meat was called шашлік, which I recognized instantly. It's shashlik, a familiar food among descendants of Russian and East Ukrainian immigrants, also known here on the Canadian prairies as shishliki. In the Old Country it's common to add lemon juice, but since lemons were impossible to find on the prairies more than a century ago, local versions tend not to use it.
Old timers will tell you a secret to making good shishliki is to mix it with your hands, so don't be afraid to put a little elbow grease into it.
Traditionally it's made with lamb, but pork and chicken are good, too.
2 lbs meat (1 kg), cut in 2 inch cubes
Salt and pepper
1 big onion, sliced
Put meat in a bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt (a good teaspoon) and pepper. With your hands, rub the seasoning into the meat. Mix in onion. Cover and refrigerate 3–7 days, turning the meat once a day. Thread meat onto skewers. Grill over hot coals or BBQ.
If you're feeding a crowd, use 50 lbs of meat, 20 lbs of onions, a generous 1/2 cup of salt and 1/4 cup of pepper.
(This article first appeared in Grainews.)