Ukrainian Snapshot: 10 hours in Kiev, August 2012

Ah, the good old days of Aerosvit! New York-Kiev non-stop in a mere 10 hours, on a plane with nearly non-existent entertainment but at a reasonable price. I’ve used Kiev as a stopover on many trips, spending anywhere from a few hours to a few days there before heading on to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, or just some other part of Ukraine. Back in August 2012, I was there for about 10 hours, on my way to Tashkent…

Being roughly 4 times less busy than Moscow’s Sheremetyovo and 6 times less busy than New York’s JFK, Borispol was a reasonably efficient airport. A mere 30 minutes after landing, I had already cleared security and picked up my suitcase. Once I’d stashed said suitcase in the baggage room, I hopped in a taxi. Another 30 minutes and I was in central Kiev, cool as a cucumber and ready for lunch.

Kiev - Lesya Ukrainka Boulevard - Mafia Restaurant Continue reading

Ukrainian Snapshot: Privoz Market, Odessa, July 2013

Aaah, Odessa: the legendary Potemkin Stairs, the mail-order brides, the mafia… and the Privoz Market.

The Privoz was created in 1827, originally as a handful of horse-driven carts next to the older Stary bazaar. As more buildings were constructed, it slowly became the largest food market in Odessa, and it remains so. Don’t expect any neoclassical splendor like Saint-Petersburg’s Gostiny Dvor, however. Privoz nowadays is a chaotic, busy market that sells food, clothes, and everything else, in a maze of outdoor food stalls and covered halls that won’t impress you with their architecture.

What might surprise you, though, is the variety of food on display. Especially seafood.

Privoz Market Continue reading

Tashkent Adventures on MUNCHIES

Just published another article on MUNCHIES a couple days ago: “In Uzbekistan, A Bowl of Greasy Rice Will Make or Break Your Marriage”; or, “Where to eat in Tashkent, everything you need to know about plov, and what the hell is naryn?” (And so far, nobody has commented that if I’d bothered to learn two words of Russian or Uzbek, I wouldn’t mock the traditions of the good Uzbek peoples. Knock on wood.)

Some bonus material! Here is a picture of the plov in one of the giant kazans at the Central Asian Plov Center. Notice the puddle of aphrodisiac grease in the back of the kazan:

Tashkent - Central Asian Plov Centre - Wedding Plov

And for the anecdote…

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Everything You Need to Know about Khachapuri on MUNCHIES

MUNCHIES just published my article on khachapuri: “Georgia’s Cheese Bread Might Be Better Than Pizza”. It covers all the various types of cheese breads you can find in Georgia, from the classic Imeretian khachapuri to the much rarer khabizgini.

To help you orient yourself, I’ve created a map of all the Georgian regions that claim their own local variations of the dish. As you can see, they are pretty much all located in Western Georgia, which makes me wonder if there’s a connection with the historical division between the kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia in antiquity. That is, I wonder if cheese breads descend only from the former.

Khachapuri - Georgian Regions

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Ukrainian Snapshot: Vylkove, July 2013

Last summer, after touring Moldova, we crossed the border with Ukraine and headed towards Odessa. The goal wasn’t really Odessa itself, which I had already visited, but a remote village called Vylkove (Vilkovo, in Russian).

Vylkove takes its name from vilka, which means fork, on account of its location in the Danube Delta. Although the town is nicknamed “The Venice of Ukraine”, you’d have to be blind or seriously drunk to confuse the two. Don’t expect any sumptuous palace, carnival, or herds of tourists; Vylkove is just a little fishing village.

Entering Vylkove Continue reading

Ukrainian Snapshot: Odessa Airport, September 2005

Today I’m starting a new travel series: Ukrainian Snapshots. I’ve been to Ukraine many times over the past ten years. Back in the days before Aerosvit went bankrupt, the New York-Kiev direct flight was a convenient and reasonably affordable option whenever I planned to visit the former Soviet Union. Before the opening of its new terminal, Moscow’s notoriously disorganized Sheremetyevo did not have a transit zone and therefore required going through the masquerade of the visa process (until recently, your typical Russian embassy/consulate was a kind of cour des miracles where aspiring tourists proffered fake invitations, bogus travel insurance, variable amounts of money, and countless hours of their time to a grumpy and/or corrupt clerk, all to receive a piece of paper pompously called a visa). By contrast, Ukraine could be visited without a visa, and little Borispol is 30 minutes away from Kiev’s center (no contest with the 1-2 hours it takes to get from the airport to the city center in Moscow).

For this reason, and also because some of Ukraine’s less touristy destinations are more conveniently accessed from neighboring countries if you happen to already be visiting them, many of my trips to Ukraine were quite short; a couple days here and there. My last week-long trip actually goes back to summer 2006 (Crimea). So instead of presenting my Ukrainian travel stories in any particular order, I’ll focus each of my posts on a given place and point in time. As usual, don’t expect me to review many mainstream touristic curiosities — this is not a travel guide. I might also start another travel series in parallel. After all, with Ukraine International Airlines recently reviving the New York – Kiev route, there might very well be more snapshots to come in the future.

I’ll kick off this series with an anecdote: the Kiev-Odessa flight and the Tupolev 134. This may not have anything to do with food, but it sure qualifies as an adventure.

Plane to Odessa

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Moldovan Impressions: The Cognac

In my previous Moldovan Impressions, we explored the local culinary traditions, visited the wine cellars, and discovered the renegade republics. We will soon leave Moldova to move on to stories of neighboring Ukraine, but before that, a little digestive is in order.

In capitalist societies, class inequality has led to Cognac being the privilege of the rich (and hip hop culture). Countries that were not so long ago devoted to socialism have been quick to try to replicate the Western lifestyle, in their rush to establish market economies (and hip hop culture). Meanwhile, bourgeois distilleries have ensured their monopoly through an appellation contrôlée — a rather dubious one, when you think of it, for a beverage whose double distillation most certainly erases any trace of terroir.

In the Soviet Union, however, the Politburo and the proletariat shared the same luxuries throughout the Empire. If brandy production started in both the Caucasus and Bessarabia at the end of the 19th century, one can thank communism for the spirit’s true democratization. Indeed, in 1978, the Ministry of the Food Industry decreed that every Soviet Republic must produce its own ordinary “cognac”. In Moldova, one producer of both the aged brandy and the democratic version (called Белый Aист, “White Stork”), was Kvint, in Tiraspol.

Tiraspol - Kvint Factory Continue reading

Moldovan Impressions: The Breakaway Territories, Part 3

Tiraspol - Lenin StreetOur mock tourist guide of Transnistria continues! After the history and travel logistics sections, let’s talk about the attractions, the gastronomy, and the souvenirs.

I have to warn you: “pretty” isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking of Transnistria and its capital city, Tiraspol. And I dare anyone to name a Transnistrian national dish. Don’t expect to find much Soviet memorabilia for sale, either. There aren’t enough tourists for that. So, why visit?

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Moldovan Impressions: The Breakaway Territories, Part 2

9 November 1989: the Berlin Wall falls, marking the end of the division between the East and the West. Within a year, the Eastern Bloc ceases to exist.
27 August 1991: following the failed Soviet August Coup, Moldova, like most other republics in the USSR that haven’t done so yet, declares its independence.
8 December 1991: the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly meet to declare the Soviet Union dissolved.
25 December 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev publicly resigns as the President of the USSR, and that office ceases to exist.

The communist dream is over. Everywhere across the Empire, the red flag is taken down, statues of Lenin dismantled, the Hammer and Sickle emblems on buildings and monuments desecrated.

Well, almost everywhere.Transnistria - Entering Tiraspol

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