I’m married to a Canadian of Ukrainian descent. There I was: Christmas Eve, Canada, 2016 – my first white Christmas! I was thinking I was going to insulate myself against the cold with some slow-roasted lamb with a generous helping of mashed potatoes and a smattering of vegetables. I’ve been to my fair share of Christmas dinners. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.
When I got to my husband’s grandparents’ house, I noticed a beautifully laid table with tiny little crystal… yogurt bowls?… in front of each place setting. This was my first introduction to the Ukrainian Christmas Eve tradition of the Twelve Meatless Dishes.
The fancy yogurt dishes were used to eat kutia (pronounced: koo-CHA), the traditional starting dish. Kutia is a kind of porridge-soup of cooked wheat and barley with poppy seeds, honey, and nuts mixed in. It is wildly sweet and has a unique grainy texture. I was told that it had special significance for the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one – my in-laws said that if you threw it onto the ceiling and it stuck, you would have a good year ahead (I didn’t know if they were joking).
Borscht is a vividly red beet soup that I was careful not to drip onto the pristine white tablecloth that was only used once a year. I remember eyeing it skeptically, but it turned out to be a warm, hearty soup that was filled with shaved beets, potatoes, beans, and carrots. It was very lean, but each of my in-laws recommended a healthy dose of sour cream to add to the thickness and the flavour.
My husband’s grandparents obviously knew the crowd and had made hundreds of perogies from scratch to be served on Christmas Eve. I had eaten perogies before, but I was still amazed by the batch in front of me. To those of you who have never had the pleasure, perogies are dumplings filled with potatoes, cheese, or even fruit (we had blueberry perogies for dessert!) They are usually served with sour cream, but these also came with caramelised onion, adding a whole new level of deliciousness!
I did not know that the singular of holubtsi is pronounced “holabitch”. They are kind of like Greek dolmades but different. These were cabbage leaves stuffed with rice infused with a variety of flavours and vegetables like tomatoes and beets. This one was a bit of a sleeper hit for me, as I inhaled at least a half dozen of them.
So, what meat do you have on Christmas Eve when you’re forbidden meats? Fish, of course. While the more traditional herring, pike, or carp would be served in the old country, when we were in Canada, we fried up something more local.
The Other 7
While the above five are the “heavy hitters” of the Twelve Meatless Dishes, the other seven were in no short supply. Some families may have different foods here and there, but these are some of the more common side-dish offerings that round out the twelve:
- Pyrizhky (cabbage buns)
- Mushroom soup
- Kolach (braided bread in three rings on top of each other to signify the Holy Trinity)
- Mushrooms and peas
- Dried fruit compote
- Mushrooms and gravy (if you can’t tell, mushrooms, beets, and cabbage are all pretty central)
- Beans (either on their own, in a salad, or mashed)
So while I would definitely stick to my lamb roast with all the trimmings as my Christmas Eve of choice, this was an infinitely more vegetarian-friendly option. And all was not lost as we had a scrumptious turkey the next day, and a holly jolly time was had by all.
Check out this Borscht recipe