By Alysha Witwicki

“Are you hungry?”

The hellos, how are yous and welcomes can wait. When you step into the house of someone with Ukrainian heritage, this is how they greet you.

“We just want to feed you. Cooking is how we share our love,” says Vasyl Lemberskyy, who came to the U.S. from Kyiv, Ukraine, just months before Sept. 11, 2001. And sharing that love is something he does for his wife and daughter in a northern suburb of Milwaukee — as well as diners from all around the area.

Growing up in a poor family, Lemberskyy was hungry a lot growing up, which is why he started cooking. In fact, he says it’s something can’t not do.

As a pizza chef at Santino’s Little Italy, 352 E. Stewart St. in Bay View, and the opening chef for Transfer Pizzeria, he loves using fresh, local ingredients. It turns out that fresh and local are two of the characteristics that also make Ukrainian food so special.

“For us, everything is farm to table,” he says. “No matter what you eat, it’s going to be flavorful and fresh.”

Even as their home country is under siege from a Russian invasion, the Ukrainian community in Milwaukee continues its hospitable ways, with events such as after-church meals at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on the south side.

Ukrainian staples

When asked what Ukrainian foods are the most common, Ukrainian-Americans will mention borsch and varenyky, dumplings similar to pierogi.

Borsch, commonly called borscht in the U.S., is a hearty soup with beets, which give it its distinctive bright red color. It’s made with pork stock, potatoes and cabbage and includes a dollop of sour cream on top.

“We have so many varieties, and family to family it can be something different,” Lemberskyy says.

But one thing they have in common? No matter what makes a family’s borsch different, it’s difficult to find a recipe.

“No one uses recipes. You add this, and you add that. You just add it,” he says.

Nadiya Kavyuk of Franklin, who was born in Ukraine and moved to the U.S. in 2005, describes Ukrainians’ love of dumplings like this:

“We have a silly song about a guy who falls in love with a girl who knows how to make a delicious pierogi. Some other guy came and stole the girl, and that guy was crying, ‘You can keep the girl, but please return the pierogi!’ The final line is a warning for all boys to never trade love for pierogis!”

Kavyuk says the potato filling is her favorite, and sauerkraut is also common.

Lemberskyy recalls the fillings his grandmother used to stuff hers with: pork and beef with onion and garlic; potato with farm cheese and cabbage; and just plain cabbage.

“I would make the exact same pierogis as her, but what she made tasted different,” he says. “Everything she made tasted great because of the love she put into it.”

“Pierogis are food, but they’re more than food. People pray to the soldiers with pierogis and bring it to them. They put their whole heart into it,” Lemberskyy says.

He also shared that soldiers have been cooking borsch for themselves as the war in Ukraine rages on. Even in war, he said, they still have such a strong connection to their food and culture.

Ukrainian and Polish cuisines have a lot of similarities, said Illna Shpachuk of St. Francis, and she often shops at Polish grocery stores to get the Ukrainian items she needs — such as holodets, jelled meat they eat during holidays and celebrations. As in Ukraine, borsch is extremely popular in Poland, but there it’s white, she said. Pierogi are also a staple there.

Shpachuk has been in the U.S. for the past two years, but she and her husband eventually want to go back to Ukraine. One thing she misses is the food.

“It’s all fresh fruits and vegetables, soups and salads. Soups are so important to us. We eat them every day,” she said.

“Things taste different here, like the dairy and sour cream,” she said. “In the summer, we have lots of fresh strawberries and raspberries. Here, they taste totally different. They are more natural back home.”

“Even the leaves from the salads smell so good. You can feel the taste before it’s even in your mouth.”

All together now

One thing prevalent in Ukrainian culture is everyone getting in the kitchen to cook together.

“When my grandma cooks, my mother helps her. And growing up, my brother and I would help my mother,” Shpachuk said. “When someone comes over, we wait for everyone to get there before we cook in the kitchen. In Ukraine, it’s a lifestyle.”

Kavyuk recalls her grandmothers making sausages from scratch, other types of meat, and preparing foods with vegetables and berries.

“It was all so delicious,” she says. “When I make either meats or desserts, I think about them. They’re not here anymore, but they will always live in my heart through the food.”

Cooking food from their home country is also how Ukrainians keep their traditions alive while living in America.

Milania Stupnyckyj of Milwaukee long made the dinners for parishioners at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, 1025 S. 11th St. in Milwaukee, consisting of cabbage rolls, borsch, beef and paska, an Easter bread.

“This is what I used to eat when I was a little girl,” said Stupnyckyj, who came to the U.S. in 1958. “I’m glad that I can make things people like to eat.”

Kavyuk echoed the sentiment after making a meal for St. Michael’s parishioners after service one Sunday.

“It’s like in ‘Ratatouille’ when the food expert brought ratatouille to the back door when he came home,” she said. “That’s what it’s like eating Ukrainian food here. It reminds me of home.”

See Original Article at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel