Words: Mallory Legg
Ukraine, a country that we all now know the name of. A country we think of often and are reminded of constantly. A country withstanding colossal hardships, winning and losing battles. A country that we now think of for their war heros on the front lines. But before there was a country in the company of war heroes, before there were invasions and attacks, there was the second largest country in Europe, rich in history and vast, supporting some of the most diverse landscapes on the continent. A country with an immense depth of culture that has withstood centuries. With Ukraine weighing on our minds and hearts, it is only right to give spotlight to those who are working tirelessly fighting to keep its heritage and traditions alive whilst educating the world on the magnificence of their motherland.
The Story of Mriya
Yurii Kovryzhenko and Olga Tsybytovska
Photo: The Odessa Journal
It was February 24 when Yurii Kovryzhenko and his partner Olga Tsybytovska were in the UK fulfilling their roles as culinary ambassadors to Ukraine when tanks began to cross the border from Russia into their country. It was then that the two realized their short trip would shift into an indefinite stay. After holding countless charitable dinners following the invasion and raising around £400,000 for the war effort, the duo would decide to settle down and establish a Ukrainian neo bistro in Earls Court and name it Mriya, translating to ‘dream’.
The two would create a staff made up of refugees who joined them in London: lawyers, teachers, students, painters, anyone fleeing from tragedy. Together, they would all work collectively to establish a haven of education that would broadcast the history of Ukraine and promote an awareness and an appreciation for the rest of the world to understand. They now continue to use their Ukrainian oasis in the heart of London to tell their country's story through dishes and drinks.
Within Ukrainian cuisine, it is vegetables that play the most crucial part in defining the dishes. Now, there are thousands of national dishes that use distinctive combinations of ingredients and flavors that present unique experiences to the palette, but it is borscht that is the favorite food of the nation. With its deep purple beetroot color and ancient history, the traditional daily meal has long symbolized a national character of unity.
The Borscht served at Mriya is no exception. The recipe stands the test of time: beef stock, beet sour and sauteed vegetables. The dish is special, a masterpiece displaying the heart of Ukrainian cuisine, highlighted by its extravagance of color and comfort of taste.
Photo: Mriya Facebook
In my eyes, the most impressive dish that Mriya offers is the Holubtsi inspired dish. Traditionally, a Holubtsi is a cabbage stuffed generously with a mixture of ground meat, groats and vegetables then cooked in a tomato sauce. At Mriya, the team have chosen to take an alternative twist to the Ukrainian dish, enabling the chefs and team to encourage creativity whilst still committing to the heart of the recipes and the traditions.
Substituting the cabbage for two zucchini flowers and stuffing them with beef and buckwheat the dish is finished with the traditional dollop of sour cream. The hues of the plate should only invite jealousy from those who did not order the same. Luckily, there is no dull dish in the house. But this piece of art that Kovryzhenko and his team have time and time again placed on the tables of Mriya only proves the commitment that the team adopts to uphold the magic of their mother country's customs.
The Drinks of Mriya
Duck breast and Artania Red Beykush
Photo: Mriya Facebook
Food aside, the drinks list at Mriya is not one to pass up. Tsybytovska carefully crafts a menu that sources specific wines and ciders from regions of the country severely affected by the Russian bombings. Berryland cider, which are the only ciders on this list, is among one of the high caliber drinks on offer at Mriya. In fact, the last of its inventory was shipped off especially for the London restaurant as the city housing its warehouses, Irpin, faced complete destruction within the very first days of the attacks. It is a must try as supplies dwindle.
Another recurring name on the list: Beykush, belonging to another region of Ukraine, Mykolaiv, has been severely affected by the Russian altercation. Pair the 2020 Artania Red Beykush with the duck breast with apple and cherry sauce or the beef tongue steak, a dish which made my friend Anastasia throw her head back in excitement when I brought it up! Do not knock it till you try it. Due to the instability of these regions and the warehouses, wineries, distilleries and cider houses that they are home to, it is incredibly special to sit down at Mriya and sip on drinks that the world is at risk of losing.
The Ukrainian Dream
There is a lot I do not know about Ukraine, I have never been and, as a young American, it is not a country I ever truly learned about before the war. So, in meeting with a Ukrainian friend of mine, Anastasia (Staz) Ougrin, over a drink, she told me a little bit more about what it really means to be Ukrainian and the importance that tradition plays on the collective lives of the nation.
“We have always been a poor country in comparison to the rest of Europe, especially now,” she said, “so the food we put on the table is rooted in that. Vegetables won’t last you all of winter but fermented vegetables will. We’ll eat the parts of the animal that others might overlook.”
“What is happening is an awful thing. But it is an amazing chance to voice our story. This is all about morale, and Ukrainian morale is high. It is a testament to how much we can do through resilience, through speaking up and through coming together to support a nation.”
What Ukraine does have, I learned, is nearly a quarter of the world's most fertile soil (Chornozem), granting the country an incredible abundance of buckwheat, root vegetables, mushrooms, berries, and so forth: the food that the earth gives to Ukraine is a gift that cannot be taken away. “We use food as a means to celebrate. We have fought to be free for thousands of years: we are a burdened country and we are made to be close because of those burdens. We have always needed a sense of community and a sense of sharing to gain any real sense of stability,” she reflects. I listened as she told me the story of her great grandmother who lived in the same place for 100 years and yet lived in 7 different countries: “With so much back and forth, so much change… tradition is a powerful force that comes with being a proud and strong Ukrainian”.
When it comes to hardship, the nation of Ukraine is united by a commitment to ensure that their culture lives on with their country. Mriya lives by that commitment, by putting traditions on a table far from home to ensure that we all might taste the transcendence of the Ukrainian dream.