Black Tea and Vodka Inspire the Ukrainian Palette

A Ukrainian proverb suggests that coffee should be dark as night and sweet like a woman, and while Starbucks tempts the world’s taste buds with elaborate concoctions of coffee, Ukrainians choose black tea or vodka. Consuming either drink for Ukrainians is as much a daily commitment to conversation as it is to culinary choice.

Ancient Silk Road caravans transported tea into the regions of Russia, Ukraine and the Trans-Caucus thousands of years ago and has long been enjoyed by aristocrats and peasants, Cossacks and clergy alike. Tea in Ukraine has a poignant contemporary history as well. During the Great Famine of the 1930s, many Ukrainians survived on tea by using cherry branches, pine needles, and twigs.

Served in a tall glass with a metal base and handle called a stekans, sweetened black tea is best complimented by small cakes, tortes, fruit, cheese and most particularly black bread. In business, offering tea to potential customers is an accepted part of the selling process, and in homes, tea is a gesture of welcome.

Vodka or horilka in Ukrainian, on the other hand, is the drink of pleasure. The colourless liquor, distilled from fermented grain, originates from the root meaning “to burn”. The origin of vodka is often credited to the Russians, yet, some historians suggest that it was actually the Ukrainian Cossacks who brewed the concoction during the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

Novices and experienced connoisseurs alike are advised to consume this spirit with some food, preferably of the salty variety like pickled cucumbers, mushrooms, or herring. According the old Ukrainian tradition, visitors arrived at a man’s house carrying a walking stick with a hollowed out hole on the top. If the visitor could drink a glass of vodka placed in the hole without touching the glass or spilling any liquid, he or she was sober enough to walk home. With an alcohol content ranging from 35 to 60 percent by volume and the Ukrainian penchant for toasting to well-spoken observations, joyful events, or the wish for better days, horilka may be dangerous for the uninitiated so travellers are advised to be careful in their reverie.