Break Bread and Celebrate Life in Ukraine

Bread, Peace, and Land, may once have been the rallying cry and slogan of the first Russian revolution, but in Ukraine where both Tsarist and Soviet rulers alike exploited the land and ruled the people with iron fists, wheat and bread have always been symbols of food, wealth, and most particularly independence for Ukrainians. Bread itself is an object of reverence. Indeed, the Ukrainian word for grain – zbizhzhia- is translated as the “totality of divinity”.

Bread is sacred and integrally connected to traditional folk customs and cultures. Paska, a traditional disk-shaped bread is decorated with Easter symbols like roses or crosses. Kalach bread is braided with three strands to represent the Holy Trinity and is most often served at Christmas and funerals. No significant event in the family can be celebrated or honored without bread. Prayers are said over bread to bring blessings to a marriage or a birth and are also central to funerals and wakes as a ritual to part with the dead.

Most importantly, bread is a sign of Ukrainian hospitality. Tradition dictates that guests are offered bread and a dish of salt on an embroidered ceremonial cloth called a rushnyk by their hosts with the greeting, “With this bread and salt we greet you. Welcome.” Protocol requires the guest to break off a small piece of bread, dip it in salt, and bow their head slightly in thanks, before eating. Bread represents hospitality and salt symbolizes a friendship that will never sour or be corrupted by time.

Aside from symbolism, bread is a staple in the Ukrainian cuisine. Bakeries usually sell out of their bread by early afternoon. Travelers may find street vendors selling bread with cheese or sausage however if a morning run to the bakery is not part of the itinerary. Traditional Ukrainian bread is black bread made with buckwheat and rye flour with a slight taste of vinegar. Black bread was the main staple of peasant diets long into the 20th century and is resurrected as a mainstay during times of national economic crisis even today.

As with so many other Ukrainian traditions, bread is imbued with meaning so be sure to have a piece on your travels!