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Ukrainian Christmas eve dinner and suggestions how to cook some dishes for it

 

In Ukraine, as in many other Christian countries, the Christmas Eve dinner was believed to have some special, mystical significance. The dishes served and even their number had some symbolical meaning.

 

Mariya VLAD describes the Christmas Eve dinner the way it used to be — and in many homes still is — prepared in Western Ukraine.

 

Traditionally, the Christmas Eve dinner in Ukraine was made up of twelve dishes, to symbolize the number of the Apostles. All the dishes had to be of the Lenten kind — no meat, but fish was allowed. Though there were some local differences in various parts of Ukraine, the Christmas Eve dinner was basically universal for all of Ukraine as far as the main dishes were concerned.

The central dish was kutya.

Mostly, it was made from wheat, but in some parts of Eastern and Central Ukraine, rice or buckwheat were used. In Prykarpattya, Western Ukraine, where wheat is not practically grown, a handful of wheat was always kept for the festive occasions.

I am from Western Ukraine, the Land of Hutsulshchyna, and I remember well the way the Christmas Eve dinner was prepared. My mother used about a kilo of wheat for the family of seven people. The wheat, from which we, the children, had picked all the little pieces of tiny stones, bad grains or whatever else that did not belong to the wheat (I hated this work and always asked my elder sister to do my portion of work) was left in warm water for the whole night before it was to be boiled.

The wheat was boiled in a big saucepan which could hold enough water to boil the wheat in — for one kilo of wheat she used four litres of water. When the wheat was cooked — it took about three to four hours for the water to evaporate and the grains to become soft — the saucepan with the cover on it was wrapped in thick towels for the wheat to become still softer.

Meanwhile, my father ground the poppy seeds with a sort of a wooden pestle. Doing it, he sat on the floor; instead of the mortar he used a makitra — a big earthen bowl. The well-ground poppy seeds produced some juice which looked like milk.

We, the children, shelled walnuts and then went kolyaduvaty (go round the village singing carols and asking for presents of candy and nuts). Mother placed the boiled rice into the makitra, added walnuts and honey. Two handfuls of poppy seeds and two handfuls of ground walnuts were used for one kilo of wheat. Then all of the ingredients were stirred to form one, more or less uniform mass — and the kutya was ready to be served. I found it to be very delicious. But not a little bit could be eaten until dinner — the day was to be spent in fasting.

Another must dish was uzvar — a soft drink made from dry fruit — apples, pares, and plums. It was also sweetened with honey.

Holubtsi, another traditional dish, was made like this: the stuffing made from corn or rice or buckwheat with some spices, chopped onions, carrots and mushrooms added and sprinkled with oil, was wrapped in big leaves of pickled cabbage or leaves of pickled beets (they were pickled together with apples in wooden barrels) and placed in a big pot with some oil on the bottom. Each layer of holubtsi rolls was separated from the next by bay leaves. Then water was poured in so that the topmost layer of the holubtsi rolls would be barely covered. The pot was placed into the hot oven and left to cook for a couple of hours.

Fresh water fish was boiled with bay leaf, carrots and parsley added, then the fish was removed from the stock and some gelatine and garlic were added. The meat of the fish was separated from the bones, the pieces of fish were laid into dishes, the stock was poured over them and then the dishes were taken out to turn into jelly in the cold.

Varenyky had various kinds of stuffing — cabbage, poppy seeds, jam, potatoes, apples, mushrooms, and even herring. The dough was made from flour, some warm water and a bit of oil; then it was rolled thin and flat and little pieces were cut out of the rolled dough. Each piece was filled with stuffing and then the ends were firmly pressed and squeezed together. Then the varenyky were boiled and served with sour cream.

My mother also cooked a dish which is not cooked any longer and which was made from beans and dry plums. There were some other dishes to bring their number to twelve. One of the dishes I liked in particular was a sort of a salad made of mushrooms and beets — both the dry mushrooms which were used for this salad and the beets were first boiled, then diced, sprinkled with oil and spices. Asparagus, pickled tomatoes, cucumbers and mushrooms were as much food as they were the decoration for the table. On the white tablecloth, uzvar, kutya and other dishes in earthen ware created a feast for the eyes as well as the joy for the palate. Candles added their own mysterious and festive touch. At each of the corners of the table cloves of garlic were placed — we followed this age-old tradition which was passed on to us by our grandparents. And under the tablecloth a layer of fragrant hay was evenly spread to provide a nice smell.

Have a good Christmas Eve dinner — and Merry Christmas to you!

And don’t forget to give something from your table to the destitute and handicapped so that they would pray for the salvation of the souls of the dead. n

 

Photos by Oleksiy ONISHCHUK

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