Before coming to Ukraine, I was really worried about the food situation. As many of you know, I have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) which basically means that my body is extremely sensitive to food and I have to really watch what I eat. I also can’t eat dairy…which is a Ukrainian staple. But honestly, the food situation has gone pretty alright.
In general, I go shopping every one or two days. There are two main shops I go to, a cheaper one called ATB or a bigger one called Silpo. These are grocery store stables across Ukraine. Now that it is getting warmer, I also go to the outdoor market sometimes. Many Ukrainians do their shopping there, but it used to be difficult for me to communicate with the market babushkas (grandmas) and I found that when they heard my accent they liked to ‘up’ the price a bit. So, I stick to the grocery stores where I don’t have to talk to anyone.
I ALWAYS get the question from people at home and my students…about how I grocery shop. About two weeks ago, I had a student ask me if I had been to the grocery store. I responded sarcastically (of course): no, I hadn’t been to the grocery store, I just survive on things I send to my apartment from the United States. But it is a serious question and at the start (for about a week), I required that a person went with me to help with translation.
But grocery store patterns can be relatively easy to pick up. Think about it the next time you shop. You don’t really need the language you speak. You start to recognize different brands, you know what you need to buy, and you basically say the same things to the cashier (yes I need a bag, I am paying with cash, etc.) Once you have these patterns memorized…the grocery store is easy. So, grocery shopping has been the least of my worries. Actually, my first few weeks I would go to the grocery store after work…just for something to do. It was a good way to learn words quickly and in someways was the only thing I felt truly comfortable doing by myself!
When you enter most Ukrainian stores, they ask you to put your belongings in these lockers. I don’t do this all the time (you can have like a purse with you) but they don’t want you walking around the store with things you bought elsewhere. It is theft prevention. It is also nice because usually when I go to the store I have my heavy workbag, so it is one less thing to lug around with me.
Another odd thing for me at first was that at many stores, you have to weigh your own produce. This was so confusing to me and really difficult because the main store I go to has a keyboard to type in the name of the food…in Russian or Ukrainian…and with no pictures! It was hard…and multiple times I had a cranky cashier roll her eyes at me as she ran back to reweigh and price a food that I had wrongly identified. There have been times that I haven’t bought something produce wise because I couldn’t figure out the name of it. It was easier to put it down than to embarrass myself.
Unlike Americans, Ukrainians are not obsessed with ‘pretty’ produce. I often buy dirty, bruised, ugly, and sometimes vegetables that are beginning to go bad. This was especially popular in the winter when fresh local veggies were much more difficult to come by. Imports are not as regular where I am living in Ukraine as in the States. Vegetables that are imported are very, very expensive and there just isn’t a market for really expensive produce. So, especially this winter, I got used to the produce section having slim pickings sometimes. I might have planned on buying bananas but if they aren’t good or if they are gone, then I would be out of luck.
This is so different from the States where you can buy out of season produce pretty much anytime of the year. But, I have really come to appreciate seasonal vegetables! I have also become more creative with my cooking and my meal planning. It has been really fun recently as foods start to come into season because I am often pleasantly surprised when I go to the grocery store rather than in the winter when I would sometimes plan on buying something, but it wouldn’t be available.
Many Ukrainians pickle or freeze things during the summer for the winter. This was hard for me because I wasn’t here in the summer and because of my kitchen situation the first few months of being here. But true Ukrainians enjoy all sorts of things all year round and I love getting a taste for these things when I visit my ‘Ukrainian family’ in Oleksandriia.
Like most Europeans, Ukrainians are a lot less concerned about the temperature of foods like eggs and meat. And things concerned ‘unhygienic’ in the States are quite frequent here. Many foods like meat, eggs, flour, salt, noodles, bakery items and in some places even alcohol are self-serve. Meaning you just dig in and get what you want…sometimes with a glove but often with just your bare hand (sometimes there are scoops or tongs to help). But my favorite part of this is that you can buy smaller (or larger) portions of things. If I am traveling, I might only need two or three eggs and I can buy just two or three eggs. This helps the cooking for one thing.
Another thing any people don’t realize about Ukraine is that the water is not suitable to drink out of the tap. You can read more about why here, but because of that I have to buy all my drinking and cooking water. Every few days I find myself on a pilgrimage to the grocery store to buy a six-liter bottle of water. Depending on how much I drink that can last me for two to four days.
As far as what I eat and cook, I have found that I can cook pretty much all of my favorite things from home…except for tacos…tacos would be impossible without the packets of taco seasoning I lined my suitcase with. And I can’t find good salsa here. So next year, I plan on making some of my own in the fall. Another hard thing is milk alternatives, sometimes (like once a month or so) my grocery store will have soy or almond milk, but I often buy two or three boxes of it when I go to Kyiv. It is very expensive though, so I really ration when I can have my milk. Everything else I have found I can make or easily substitute. My new favorite substitute is honey in baked goods instead of brown sugar which is difficult to find here.
The last thing I would like to mention is the price. Simply put, to Americans food here is cheap. When I do the conversion, I am often paying a fraction of the cost of what I would pay in the States. Especially staple foods like onions, carrots, and potatoes, I can often buy like ½ pound for under a dollar. But it is important to know that compared to Ukrainian’s salaries food here is expensive…just like in the States. This flows over into the restaurant business as well. Eating out is really not a very common practice. Pre-made food is also not common and it is hard to find ‘quick’ meals. This has drastically reduced my dependency on easy to make meals. I have always loved cooking, but I think if I was in the States, I would find myself choosing quick options such as eating out or heating prepared food up over making my own. I have really learned in this last year that I am never too busy to make myself a nice meal. (But don’t let me fool you too much, I still eat out at a place that serves the best pizza without cheese and I drink coffee almost exclusively at local cafes.)
For the next blog, I am going to write about how I get around both in my local city and when I travel elsewhere in Ukraine! Let me know what questions you have about my traveling adventures or about my cooking and eating habits!