After my one-day foray in Paris, I traveled on to Kyiv, Ukraine for a week of work and a weekend of gallivanting from restaurant to market to café with a close friend who came from Russia to visit.
I was struck by how much Kyiv reminded me of Russia: the same scent of frost and cigarettes in the air, the same blue aprons on the dour women who clean the churches, the same overpapered community bulletin boards like palimpsests of public life. Ukrainian may be the language of advertisements and radio programs (as decreed by law, it seems to me), but 80% of the talk I heard on the street was Russian. This would change if I traveled west, I was told, toward Lviv and what has become the center of “Ukrainity” (as one colleague aptly put it).
So as I ate my way around Kyiv, I was on the lookout for elements that stuck out as uniquely Ukrainian. There were a few, though I got the sense that I’d have to go into people’s homes and villages or be around for a holiday celebration for the differences to really emerge. For one, Ukrainians tend to eat more pork than Russians. In both countries, people make use of every part of the pig, from its hooves (for creating gelatin for aspics and stews) to its ears (chopped up and baked with mushrooms, cheese, and sour cream) to its fat (for frying and flavoring other dishes). But if I had to name one thing that stood out as definitive of Ukrainian food culture, it would be fatback.
Fatback is, self-evidently, the layer of fat under the skin on the pig’s back. It is known as salo here (pronounced SAH-lah), and is cured and salted or mixed with other spices to preserve it, much like Italian lardo. A Russian professor I had once described it as “bacon without the meat.” I’d eaten it in Russia, but never seen it in so many varied forms. It might be chopped into chunks and left with a thin layer of black pepper on one side to be eaten as a garnish with other foods, fried and sprinkled over vareniki (stuffed dumplings), or stirred into borscht for extra richness.
We attempted to decline when the waitress (dressed, as the waitstaff at seemingly every Ukrainian restaurant in Kyiv is, in traditional costume) tried to upsell the lard plate. (You can do things like that in Ukraine.) But she snared us by hinting that we’d never had salo like this before. I can’t pass up the opportunity to try something new, so five minutes later we were presented with a full dinner-sized plate piled with thinly sliced rolls of chilled yet still creamy salo, half of which had been rolled around a paste of garlic and spices and then sliced to leave marbling throughout.
We spread it on dense slices of dark rye bread, pleasantly tart and studded with coriander seeds. In Russia and Ukraine this Is known as “black bread,” which to Western ears unfortunately makes it sound like something they serve to inmates or prisoners of war. Far from it: there’s little I crave more when I return home from a former Soviet country. American rye is too soft and fluffy, the WonderBread cousin of the real thing. Ukrainian bread baskets come with white bread, too, but their more delicate flavor can’t stand up to the richness of the garlicky pork fat. I save them for soaking up soup (though I prefer the heftier rye for that, too).
So how do Ukrainians stay so slim if they’re eating all this lard? My friend told me that in this part of the world many people even consider it a diet food. I can’t explain it, but it does lend credence to my belief that we are probably better off eating a tub of lard (literally) over a period of weeks than regularly consuming a tub of low-fat ice cream in two sittings (which, by the way, does not exist in Ukraine).