The Ukrainian Dumpling

by Kara Greenwood

I feel the texture of the dough sink into the pads of my fingers as I press the edges and seal up the potato and onion filling. One by one, I cut out circular pieces of dough, scoop out the mashed potatoes and seal up the edges. After a few completed dumplings I notice I am developing a rhythm through my movements, creating a process that feels almost therapeutic by repetition. I am alone in my kitchen watching the television while I finish out the dumpling preparation. While for some this may feel tedious without a helping hand,  I find the handwork soothing as my mind drifts away from the constant thoughts of school, work, and life transitions. From a scientific perspective, I have heard the left side of the brain is associated with worry and anxiety while the right side of the brain is more visual and spacial. By stimulating the right side of the brain for at least thirty minutes, one will relieve themselves from any worry or anxious feeling harboring in the mind. While I usually find this mental relief through running, dancing, or any exercise, this is the one of the first moments where I realize cooking can act as a way to release from the other side of the brain.  I scooping, fold, press, roll, and place the dumplings into the bubbling pot. When I am fully aware of my movements and how my body feels in the moment with a nonjudgemental attitude, cooking no longer feels like a chore and rather a meditative activity.

This sensation of fully being present lasts for about a minute as my mind naturally drifts away from being in the moment. I am thinking of how food is so personal, intimate, and territorial for humans through time, place and communities. Food is extremely power in any situation as it can either bring us a sense of pleasure and happiness or deep fear and anxiety. The same basic need that we need to consume in order to survive can also cause death. The reason could be be lack of food, an allergy, or spoilage. With a nonduality mindset, I understand how the anxiety provoking aspect of food ties into the pleasurable side. However, I feel that the majority of my food memories are based around happiness and joy.  I found care, confidence and stability through meals even during large transitions in life filled with uncertainty or apprehension. As I reflect on my college education and the passions I had entering New York University, I find it really interesting thinking about my initial standpoint on food to my current standpoint. At the time, I was deeply passionate about studying nutrition and becoming a registered dietitian. However realized through studying nutrition and food studies coursework while living and eating in the city, I realized that there is so much more to food than the science of how we digest the nutrients. I concluded that for me on a personal note, food serves as a lens onto family, friends, happiness, self-identity, travel, environment, and education. After this mind wandering moment, I direct my thoughts back to the present and prepare to sample the freshly boiled pierogies.

I sink my fork through the heart of the filling and separate the dumpling into two. Mash potatoes ooze out as the fork prongs stick to the doughy outer surface. While I find onions to be overpowering in a lot of dishes, the onion in pierogi is the perfect touch to the mashed potatoes. It does not define the dish but gives it a nice accent when chewing through the mashed potatoes. Eating the pierogi on its own is a comforting combination of the warm dough and texture of the mashed potatoes with an accent of onion. With sour cream, a different taste combination is created through the coolness and creaminess combined with the warmth and chewy dumpling composition. When thinking about my taste profile, I usually find comfort and pleasure in eating pizza. The texture of the doughy or crispy crust with the cheese and tomato sauce is delightful and one of my favorite taste combinations. I can see how I find contentment in the doughy texture of the pierogi as both are starchy food served warm. Growing up the Northeast climate, warm foods are the most appealing on colder or snowy nights.  After learning about dumplings in this class, I began comparing the dough consistency of the pierogi dough to that of soup dumplings or gyoza. While both are quite similar, gyozas are usually filled with pork, chicken, shrimp or other meat fillings while pierogis are filled with cheese, berries, or in my case, mashed potatoes.

I feel that I have learned more about Ukrainian culture and more specifically the pierogi more in the past few years of living in New York than I have ever known. Although I am of Ukrainian descent, I did not grow up with my mother or grandmother cooking this meal, or a family speaking the language.  A large part of this is because my grandfather, the Ukrainian grandparent, never passed on the culture to my mom, aunt and uncle.  He spoke Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish yet he wanted his children to be American as it was encouraged to conform to the “American way of life” during this time. As a result, I thought by studying the pierogi artifact more closely I not only found out more about my neighborhood in New York City, which has a long history of Ukrainian immigration, but also more about my family ties which remain unknown in many aspects.

I find the dish itself comforting as the starch and potato combination served warm with sour cream is the perfect dish for a cold evening. However, the historical context behind the dish is actually the opposite of comforting. There is pleasure in tasting this artifact yet the the actual history can be frustrating to research as millions of ancestors lacked political freedom and there was little cultural interest in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. As a result, researching Ukrainian cuisine is challenging as many sources tend to group together Ukrainian dishes with Polish and Russian dishes. According to many sources, Eastern European meals are all lumped together regardless of the fact that they each have different heritages. People have collapsed Ukraine and Russia into one category because of the USSR. It seems that Ukrainian food is a misplaced culture because of the Cold War and the Russian periphery.With regards to religious tolerance, the Russification of Soviet Ukraine often suppressed the religious practices because Communist practices promoted atheism and discouraged any religious diversity. As a result of the contrast in religious beliefs, folk celebrations were banned because they were thought to encourage “Nationalist Separatism” which inhibited any festivities or folk traditions that tied into food and community in the Ukraine.

Religion is a big component to Ukrainian cuisine because the religious holidays often determined whether the people are fasting, feasting, or eating meat. Lent and Easter are examples of when Anglo-Saxon communities were abstinent and meatless dishes were often served during advent. Dough, dumplings, pancakes, and noodle combinations are the most common Ukrainian dishes that are versatile and can be made with or without meat.  I focus specifically on the Ukrainian soft dough dumpling or “Varenyky” filled with mashed potatoes and onions.

During Easter dinner, I told my grandmother that I was studying the Ukrainian Pierogi for a final project in my class. Her eyes flickered with excitement as she began to tell me new facts about our grandfather that I had not yet known.. When my great grandparents were travelling through Ellis Island into America, they decided to change the spelling of their name from “Schmizelskey” to “Smigelski” so English speaking people could pronounce the name. Additionally, when my grandfather married my grandmother, he thought about changing it to “Smith” until my grandmother refused and they kept Smigelski. I also learned that my grandfather was drafted into the New York Yankees yet his parents would not allow him to play for the team as he had to become a doctor instead.  With regards to cultural influences through cuisine, my grandfather’s diet consisted of mostly red meat, especially hot dogs “burnt to a crisp” and my grandmother refused to eat fish because that was all they ate growing up during the Great Depression. Here are great examples of Eastern Europeans wanting to break free from their culture deemed as communist but also losing their heritage in the process. Past experiences influenced the cultural practices as my grandfather was determined to be American and my grandmother refused to eat something that reminded her of difficult times.

Continuing with the notion of lumping together Eastern European countries and cuisines, there is often debate on whether the Ukraine, Poland, or Russia invented the pierogi and the others borrowed this dish from them. According to some Ukrainian cookbooks, Ukrainians borrowed sour broth, cabbage soup, and fish in pastry from Russians while the Russians borrowed cheese pastries, soft dough dumplings, and pork sausages from Ukraine.  Cookbooks can serve as museums of cultures and Festive Ukrainian Cooking notes that Ukrainians created the dumpling and the Russians followed. However, ethnographic research is challenging when tracing the origins of Ukrainian dishes before the Second World War and the Cold War.

In addition to researching the dumpling itself, I thought it would be helpful to understand where the main ingredients of the dish came from. In the pierogi, it is common to use leftover mashed potatoes to fill in the dumplings. The potato is a significant ingredient not only in the dish itself but in the context of the history of European cuisine. When beginning my research of the pierogi, I was curious how the potato made its way into Ukrainian dishes as it did not originate in Europe.  The potato is traced back to the Andes Mountains in South America during Pre-Columbian times where it was brought to Europe by Spanish Conquistadores around the mid sixteenth century. However, it was not until 1884 that the potato was brought to Belgium, followed by Scandinavia and Eastern European nations. Potatoes have an advantage to wheat, corn, and rice because they can thrive in high altitudes and arid climates. Another advantage is that one plant can produce over four pounds of potatoes. This versatile crop is rich in vitamin C, B6, Iron, Potassium, Zinc and the skin is rich in dietary fiber. Many Europeans were able to avoid scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin C through potato consumption since fruits were not commonly available in Europe during this era. The ability to withstand diverse climates while also providing adequate nutrition for civilizations explain why the potato became such a valuable crop in Europe.  However, unlike grains, they cannot be stored from year to year and therefore have to be eaten immediately. Although the crop is resilient, potatoes are still susceptible to crop failure through disease and severe weather conditions.

The pierogi made its way over to the United States through each wave of Ukrainians who immigrated through Ellis Island.  A large influx of Ukrainians settled in the Lower East Side and East Village of Manhattan which is also known as the “Ukrainian Village” or “Little Ukraine” that ranges from Houston to 14th street and Avenue A to Third Avenue.  The most well-known Ukrainian restaurant in New York is Veselka where they serve pierogis among other Ukrainian dishes. After moving to New York City,  Veselka was the first restaurant I ate at. At the time, I was unaware that I was Ukrainian, and had little knowledge of the restaurant itself. Now reflecting on that moment a few years ago, I feel that I was drawn to that place for a reason. While that specific reason remains ineffable, it is truly meaningful to look at a place like Veselka and have a much deeper connection now than I had the first time meeting the place.