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A Ukrainian chef's borsch is an act of resistance

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Ukraine now, where people have mostly stayed calm amidst the threat of a Russian invasion. In fact, not just calm, many Ukrainians are defiant about asserting their national identity, even when it comes to food. NPR's Joanna Kakissis takes us now to meet a chef in Kyiv who wants to promote Ukrainian cuisine around the world and who is pushing to trademark the hearty beet stew called borsch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In promotional videos and Ukrainian branding campaigns, the face of borsch is Yevhen Klopotenko.

YEVHEN KLOPOTENKO: You said Ukrainian borsch face (laughter)? I Ukrainian borsch face. (Unintelligible).

KAKISSIS: Klopotenko is in his 30s, and he's hyperkinetic. We meet him at his restaurant devoted to Ukrainian food. He calls it 100 Years Back to the Future. The chef is wearing a Christmas sweater and holding a beet.

KLOPOTENKO: What unites Ukraine? Borsch. After their wedding, husband and wife discussing two things. One thing they discussing is, like, sex rules, and second thing is what the recipe of borsch going to be.

KAKISSIS: Klopotenko is leading the charge for UNESCO to recognize borsch as part of Ukraine's heritage. The Russian government, which asserts its own claim to borsch, is protesting.

KLOPOTENKO: Like, all the time, Russia want to fight us, to take our territory, to tell that we are small Russian. But if something is happening in Ukraine, we can be unite very fast.

KAKISSIS: Earlier this month, the chef joined a government effort to promote Ukrainian cuisine internationally and sever its association with Soviet Russia.

KLOPOTENKO: The Soviet Union had some system to control people - what they eat, you know? You understood quite well that you eat the same food, the same fried fish, the same potato puree, the same pickled onions.

KAKISSIS: He says authentic Ukrainian cuisine was buried under all that, so he and a team of researchers started digging into Ukrainian history, cookbooks and folklore. They found dishes like baba-sharpanyna, a traditional fish casserole. The dish is in one of the first modern works of Ukrainian literature, the "Eneida" by Ivan Kotlyarevsky.

ROSTYSLAV SEMKIV: It was a book about necessity of national spirit, of patriotism.

KAKISSIS: Rostyslav Semkiv is a literary scholar and publisher in Kyiv.

SEMKIV: We have these scenes of eating, drinking, and there are great lists of different foods and drinks that's kind of food archaeology.

(SOUNDBITE OF RESTURANT AMBIENCE)

KAKISSIS: At Yevhen Klopotenko's restaurant, a waitress named Kateryna brings out some of the lunch menu.

KATERYNA: Caviar with violet cabbage, fennel and a slice of apple with Ukrainian greens. Meat here is goose necks. And our Ukrainian borsch - in beet root you have sour cream, and you can mix the sour cream with borsch.

KAKISSIS: The borsch in an ancient-looking ceramic bowl, and, yes, the sour cream is to the side in a hollowed-out beet. Klopotenko chimes in with more menu items.

KLOPOTENKO: I have the combination of the carrot puree with the carrot seeds, beef tenderloin with herring - so beef and herring - the surf and turf. They found it in a book.

KAKISSIS: He's also got some unusual delicacies, like fermented bees. And he's got buckwheat, an indestructible grain that's become a staple during years of tension with Russia.

KLOPOTENKO: When your neighbor start to be crazy, you should go to shop and buy buckwheat. If you have a buckwheat, it means that you will not die.

KAKISSIS: He's got at least a two-year supply of buckwheat. He makes chamomile-scented bread with it. And despite the constant talk of war, his restaurant is as busy as ever.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'IMPERATRICE'S "SONATE PACIFIQUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.