Jan. 16, 2007 - Issue #587: Mermaid Tales
Khrystos Rodyvsya means never having to say you’re full
To Ukrainians, the most important dinner is the Holy Supper on Christmas Eve. I figured this out by the amount of time my mom spent in the kitchen and the amount of washing I had to do after it: 12 meatless dishes are served to represent the 12 apostles of Christ. (Just to confuse vegetarians, fish is included in the meal.)
The Holy Supper falls after Christmas in Canada, so if we didn’t eat enough during the holiday season, this meal filled us up until February.
When I discovered that Taste of Ukraine prepared their own Christmas dinner for $36, I reserved the last table in the restaurant. Unfortunately, our dinner guest came down with the flu, so my husband and I went solo.
We observed the traditional fast on the day we were to enjoy the feast. Most Ukrainians fast to remember the hardship Mary endured on her way to Bethlehem, but our reasons were much more practical. There would be a ridiculous amount of food served that evening, and it would be foolish to have anything else in our stomachs.
We entered the packed restaurant, and I glanced around, delighting in the decorative detail. Bright murals of sunflowers frescoed the walls, and white lights twinkled in the ceiling. Nesting dolls and brightly-coloured dishes poked out of shelves, while each table displayed an ornately-stitched tablecloth.
We were led back into another unique room containing a gallery filled with folkloric paintings. Taking our Coke ($2.25) and virgin margarita ($3.95) orders, our server assured us that the meal would start shortly.
I was impressed with the attention to detail in preparing the atmosphere for this most special evening. As per tradition, hay stalks were spread around the centrepiece of our table in memory of the Christ child in the manger. Braided bread (kolach), symbolizing prosperity, was the focal point of the table and boasted a single white candle stretching heavenwards. Our server lit the candle as she brought the first dish of the evening. Cooked wheat (kutchya), a symbol of family and fertility, is always the first indispensable dish. Its ancient origin starts the meal in a ceremonial manner. Often the oldest member of the family throws a spoonful of kutchya to the ceiling: the more kernels that stick, the more prosperity is expected in the coming year. Not wanting to be thrown out of the restaurant, my husband merely raised his spoon to me as he took the first bite. It was a sweet mix of honey, wheat and poppy seeds. The sample was large enough to whet our appetites for the upcoming dishes.
A short while later, the next two courses appeared. The slightly sweet kolach, light and gently sprinkled with poppy seeds, tasted fantastic. The only difference between this and those I grew up with was the shape. Typically, kolach is baked in a ring shape to represent eternity, and this one was baked in a loaf. However, the taste was as savoury as I remembered.
A thick bowl of borscht on the side was a tasty mélange of shredded beets, beans and parsley. In the centre of the bowl, two tiny ushka dumplings resembled little ears, from which their name is derived. These treats proved to be my favourites of the evening, stuffed with a delicate mushroom filling and bursting with flavour in my mouth.
Losing a bit of stamina, I sympathized with my husband’s sigh as we noted how many courses were left. Pickled herring, a beet vinaigrette and cod/salmon studynetz were the next trio to arrive. Out of a sense of obligation, I tried a piece of the fish. I’m not a huge fan of pickled herring. It tasted exactly as I remembered, and I gave the rest to my husband. The beet vinaigrette was borscht in a solid form: beets and beans were blended with a mild dressing to produce a pleasant salad. The cod/salmon studynetz was a new dish to me. The slightly salty combination of jellied salmon and cod was dotted with parsley for a surprisingly tasty and a refreshing pause before the richness in the upcoming dishes.
We had a break in our feast as Christmas carolers sang traditional Ukrainian songs. It was perfectly timed, as neither my husband nor I could think about another course. Soon enough, plates filled with varenyky (perogies), holubtsi (cabbage rolls), beans, mushrooms, sauerkraut and fish came rolling by.
For most full-blooded Ukrainians, no dish is more tempting than a well-filled varenyky. These were stuffed with tender potato and onion, then drizzled in butter and sautéed onions. I am ashamed to admit that I could only eat one. The holubtsi were agreeable—filled with rice and cooked with a tomato sauce—but I found them to be a little on the sticky side.
The beans were prepared traditionally, mashed with garlic, and I smiled at the strength of the dish. Vampires, be warned: I adore garlic and this particular dish will keep away anything evil. (Although I am sure that my husband was hoping for breath mints at the end of the meal.) The sauerkraut was disappointing; we both found it too acidic and left the remainder on our plates. I really enjoyed the aromatic mushrooms, bursting as they were with juices and herbs.
The pinnacle of the Holy Supper is the fish entrée. It is often prepared more elaborately on Christmas than on any other day. The fried sole offered by Taste of Ukraine was no exception. Carefully battered and tenderly baked, it left us both wishing that we had the appetite to enjoy it. Red-faced, we requested over half our main courses packaged, ordered a coffee ($1.95) and a cherry tea ($1.95) and waited for our food to digest.
The crowd, which had been preoccupied with eating, was now preoccupied with socializing. It was difficult to hear each other between the bursts of laughter and conversation at each table. The spirits were flowing as freely as the food.
Our tired server came with the uzvar (stewed fruit) as well as our beverages. The fruit was an energizing, earthy blend of apricots and prunes. Finally, a jovial plate filled with pampushky (doughnuts), makivnyk (poppy seed rolls) and khrustyky (Ukrainian dainties) appeared. As we sipped our beverages, we tried to make room for the rich pastries.
The pampushky were crammed with a flavourful but slightly tart prune filling. Equally heavy, the makivnyk were filled with poppy seeds and honey. I could barely sample a single light khrustyky sprinkled with icing sugar before I threw in the towel.
Beyond full, we rolled out of the taste of the Ukraine $100 lighter including tax and tip. Luckily for our stomachs and our wallets, Ukrainian Christmas comes only once a year. Khrystos Rodyvsya! V
Tuesday through Sunday to 10 pm
Taste of Ukraine
12210 Jasper Avenue
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