Nearly every time I show up at someone’s apartment with a dish I’ve made I have to qualify its somewhat misleading name with a list of substitutions. I couldn’t find this, so I used that; I don’t have a food processor so I blended it with my potato masher; I don’t have a pastry cutter so I cut it with my potato masher—you get the idea.
I’ve certainly got it a lot easier than many PCVs in Ukraine as I live in the oblast center, and if I look hard enough, or am willing to spend some dengy, I can find a lot of the stuff I’m used to back home. The ease of procurement has increased tenfold since a Cilpo opened in the 10th micro district sometime last year. I’d heard a lot about the wonders of Cilpo, but I avoided it for a few months, worried about the possibility of dipping even further into my American bank account every month.
I did eventually succumb to my curiosity, and when I stepped through the sliding glass doors of the Lavina shopping complex it’s housed in, I started crying. I do that a lot now, crying in public. Hope that new habit doesn’t come home with me. The whole place was shining, well lit, and huge. It was the closest I’d come to an American style mall in around a year. The selection, the wide aisles, the unusual produce! Lentils! Dried cranberries! Whole bean coffee! Bulk corn kernels! Broccoli! Spinach, occasionally! Lettuce, sometimes! I’ve even seen sweet potatoes there. Oh my god. Once—and only once—I even found Canadian maple syrup, the thin kind that you only need the tiniest drop of–the potent stuff. I was wandering around aimlessly when I noticed the glass bottle with a drawing of a lumberjack nestled on top of a toilet paper display.
Without thinking, I grabbed it and headed with the rest of my purchases to the endless row of checkout counters. Unfortunately, though Cilpo could give Walmart a run for their money in the number of registers race, they hardly ever have more than three open, and the disgruntled bleached blondes with gold teeth sitting beneath cigarette displays are as surly and unpleasant as any kacca lady in this otherwise hospitable country. When the little bottle was scanned, the price (which I’d neglected to give much thought to, deep in denial) was a little over 100 griven. Unfortunately I have no idea what the “I don’t want that anymore” policy is here in Ukraine, and though I’m not sure the lady staring at my red, perspiring face could have been any angrier at her lot, I was too embarrassed to stumble through the process in Russian with a bunch of people peering at me.
To give you some perspective, a griven is roughly 8 dollars. You may be wondering why I was rendered speechless by having to pay $12 for nice maple syrup; surely it’s not that big a deal. The short answer is: I get paid less than $200 a month. That bottle of maple syrup cost me only a couple dollars less than a 2nd class train ticket to kyiv. Still, it was delicious.
All this rambling is leading up to the big news that since sushi has become more popular here in Ukraine, dear old Cilpo has begun to carry a small selection of asian products. Of course, nothing consistent, where do you think I am? Sometimes you can find nori, pickled ginger, soba or udon noodles, and soy sauce has even gone down in price. I can buy a whole bottle for less than ten greevs if I keep my eyes peeled. Prices aren’t consistent, either.
I bought some soba and udon noodles for the first time the other week, and since then my life has changed. I get kind of stuck of certain dishes for weeks at a time—mostly because I make a big batch of something, and then eat it until it’s gone. In the beginning of the school year it was pseudo baked beans, then salad wraps, then a glorious approximation of breakfast burritos for every meal. Now it’s this wonderful dish, based off of Smitten Kitchen’s Spicy Soba Noodles with Shitakes.
But this is Ukraine! Shitake mushrooms? Ha! The beauty of this recipe is that you can clean out your fridge with it—put anything in a frying pan, add a little spice and soy sauce and you are well on your way. SK’s recipe calls for a lot of things I don’t have. I substitute Korean hot pepper paste with the Indian nuclear grade red chilli powder my mom sent me last year, and a big pinch of red pepper flakes. I skip out on the edamame, use powdered ginger for the real stuff (though I could find ginger, I didn’t want to make a separate trip) and while napa cabbage is certainly available, why would I pay 8 griven for it when I could buy a regular cabbage that will last three times as long for only 3? I also add some peppers and used up the last of the pickled eggplants my counterpart gave me (She told me to wait until winter, does she even know me?) and an egg for a bit of protein. Yes, this all serves to completely change the dish, but it is oh so good!
Soba/Udon Noodle Stir Fry
Makes 4 servings
1 bunch of soba or udon noodles
¼ cup sunflower oil
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1tablespoon ground ginger
5-6 mushrooms, sliced thickly
1 pepper, sliced thickly
½ onion, sliced thickly
3-4 green onions, chopped
2-3 slices of pickled eggplant, chopped
Three handfuls of thinly sliced cabbage
¼ cup soy sauce, or as much as you’re willing to part with
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Big pinch of red pepper flakes, or to taste
Heat sunflower oil in the wok you inherited from a volunteer who ETd, or a frying pan, over high heat. Chop or slice all of your veggie components.
Add soy sauce, brown sugar, and spices, and stir. Break an egg over the vegetables, and stir it in as well. As well as adding a bit of protein the egg serves to thicken the sauce a little.