"Mom, It's Borsch not Soup"
and Other Food Lessons I've Learned
from Our Ukranian Host Kids
Our family has hosted children five times from Ukraine. Each of these five times we have hosted the same brother and sister pair and the last two of these five times we added another host son to the mix. Besides hosting, we also traveled to Ukraine three times. I believe the food lessons I’ve learned and detail below are generalizable to most; however, I’d never go so far as to say they are God’s truth for all, so please keep that in mind. Our host children are from different parts of Ukraine with the sibling pair living in a small, rural village in the more southern part of Ukraine and our other host son living just outside the populated capital in the more northern part of the country. One host son is an incredibly picky eater, our host daughter is a more adventurous eater, and our other host son will try just about anything. Despite these differences, they share the following in common.
Borsch is not soup
My host kids have corrected me on more than one occasion when I have referred to borsch as soup. I never really understood my error until I read From Borsch to Burgers: A Cross-Cultural Memoir by Ruslana A. Westerlund. In her book she explains “borsch is not beet soup, and second, it’s not soup.” First, it isn’t beet soup because beets are only one of many ingredients. Second, she explains,“[t]he reason it’s not a soup is simple -- because it’s borsch. We don’t call chili, soup, right? It’s just chili. Like stew, bisque, broth, or vichyssoise, borsch is its own category.” While my host kids tried to impress this distinction upon me, I didn’t get it until Mrs. Westerlund put it in the context of chili. She also helped me understand why two of my three host kids always asked if I had added sugar when I made borsch. Apparently, if carrots are put in borsch they can make it too sweet and I’ve always added carrots. Next time I’ll omit the carrots and hopefully all three will find it satisfactory.
Soup is a staple, even if it’s Ramen
Soup is a weekly, if not daily staple in the Ukrainian diet. Moreover, since “all meals are interchangeable in Ukraine” and “there is no such thing as breakfast foods in Ukraine, like cereal and pancakes,” soup can even pass for breakfast. (From Borsch to Burgers: A Cross-Cultural Memoir by Ruslana A. Westerlund.) Our host kids eat soup for breakfast most mornings and their favorite (unless I’ve made borsch, not a soup, and we have leftovers) is Ramen. Yes, Ramen! Pre-hosting I had not eaten Ramen in YEARS, not since my college days. And now I suddenly found myself ordering cases of it. (One such order was changed by an Instacart shopper from two cases to two single packs because he thought surely I had made a mistake purchasing two cases...afterall who does that?! I do sir and now my kids are really disappointed because I don’t have enough for all three I thought after he tried to explain.) By no means is Ramen the healthiest of soup options but I do attempt to fortify it some by adding vegetables and meat when they allow. Until I visited Ukraine, I thought Ramen was probably just the closest thing to a homemade soup they typically eat. Turns out Ukraine has its own brands of Ramen that’s basically the same as we have in the U.S. and our host kids love it there too. So just consider it a little taste of home I guess.
When in doubt add ketchup and/or mayo
Ketchup is certainly a beloved condiment of the American pallet. It’s popular on burgers, hotdogs, french fries, potatoes, and even eggs. In fact one of my bio daughters uses it often and on many things; however, she pales in comparison to my host kids. They put it on just about everything: dumplings, noodles (in lieu of pasta sauce), sandwiches, bread slices, any and every kind of meat, fish, and even some vegetables, including of course potatoes. Mayo is used almost as much. I was admittedly a bit repulsed when my host son started squirting gobs of mayo on his slices of hard boiled egg but after trying one, I realized it is really basically just deconstructed egg salad and dare I say delicious. Sometimes a food calls for the best condiment of all, a combination of ketchup and mayo. Never underestimate the power of condiments to get kids to eat!
Potatoes are always pleasing
When in doubt, serve potatoes. Any type of potato will do. Our host kids prefer fried, sliced potatoes with onion but will eat all varieties (baked, mashed, roasted, french fried) as well as anything with potatoes as an ingredient (potato dumplings and potato pancakes are particular favorites). In the 20th century, potatoes became widely cultivated for food in Ukraine and are used to make first and second courses as well as side dishes for meat and fish. Ukraine is now the world’s number 5 producer of potatoes and potatoes are such a staple in the Ukrainian diet that they are referred to as the country’s “second bread.”
Yes, crab chips are a thing
During our first hosting, our host daughter was OBSESSED with chips. Chips of every kind: Doritos, Pringles, Cheetos, and nearly any flavor of potato chip including, BBQ, Sour Cream & Onion, Cheddar & Sour Cream, and Salt & Vinegar. But there was always one flavor missing...Crab! When she first asked for crab chips, I thought surely google translate had failed us. I had never heard of crab flavored chips and to be honest the mere thought made my stomach turn. Fast forward to our second trip to Ukraine when I tried them for the first time. I was extremely hesitant but I am a fairly adventurous eater so I couldn’t say no. The first taste was quite unexpectedly fishy but as I continued to eat more (let’s be real I ate half the bag), I developed an affinity for them. In fact, I like them so much that when our host son returned for winter hosting he brought me a couple bags as a gift for my birthday (which I had to hide from my host daughter). Having tried a few different brands now, I will say that I prefer the Lays Crab Chips to others. (Lays also sells Mushroom flavored and Caviar flavored chips in Ukraine although I have yet to try either one.) Our host kids are adamant that American chips are just not as good as Ukrainian chips and my host daughter should know since she’s probably tried nearly every kind both here and there.
Don’t turn your back on the fruits
The access to and variety of fruits in Ukraine is not what we are used to here in the U.S. I’ve noticed in my travels that berries are particularly hard to come by. For children living in internats (the Ukrainian word for orphanage) fresh fruits are often a delicacy; they are lucky to have an apple or a banana a couple times per week. This means during hosting periods, if you have fresh fruit in the house, be prepared for it to disappear as soon as you put it out. We have an open food policy at our home whereby kids can help themselves to snacks as they wish. (This helped immensely with our host daughter’s food hoarding tendencies. Because she knew food was available to her whenever she wanted it, her need to hoard food dissipated rather quickly.) I always have a big bowl of fruit on the center island and it’s not uncommon for it to be consumed very quickly. But I figure the abundance of fruit offsets the Ramen...maybe??
Hold the ice please
I live for ice cold drinks. My water must always have ice and I even drink iced coffee, A LOT of iced coffee. So imagine my dismay when my host kids turned down their noses at ice and even cold drinks! I quickly learned that they prefer most drinks at room temperature. How can this be? It turns out that Ukraine is similar to much of Europe in eliminating ice from their drinks and that the U.S. is the anomaly. I realized this pretty quickly during my first visit to Ukraine. I also asked my Ukrainian born friend about her preference for room temperature beverages and she told me that drinking cold beverages can lead to sore throats, cough, and illness, particularly in a colder climate, and moreover, that consuming room temperature beverages can help with digestion. My host kids have said similar things. While I haven’t researched the health benefits of one temperature water over the other, I have concluded that my fellow ice-loving Americans and I are the odd ones compared to the rest of the world.
Even the young drink tea
Related to my surprise regarding beverage temperature is the fact that my host kids enjoy drinking tea. Again, blame it on my ignorance of cultural practices outside of the U.S, but I had no idea my host kids (ages 10-14) would ask for tea, even coffee. One host son prefers it with breakfast each morning and the other prefers tea or coffee in the evening. In fact, when I visited him last in Ukraine he asked that I purchase a small hot water heater to replace his broken one so that he can make tea or coffee (and Ramen) when he desires. Ukraine is ranked 18th in the world for annual per capita tea consumption; the U.S. is ranked 34th. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing a pot of tea with your host kids.
And those my friends are some of the food lessons I’ve learned from my host kids. I hope you find this helpful. I’d also encourage you to read the book I mentioned above From Borsch to Burgers: A Cross-Cultural Memoir by Ruslana A. Westerlund as it provides both insightful and valuable information about cultural differences between Ukraine and the U.S., including a chapter on Ukrainian holidays. Mrs. Westerlund concludes her book with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A mind that is stretched by a new experience, can never go back to its old dimensions.” My mind has certainly been stretched by our first hosting and each subsequent hosting that has followed. It will never go back to its old dimensions, nor would I want it to - for the lessons learned have been so much more than those shared here about food.
Thank you Laurel for sharing your experiences and education for all of us!