Ukrainian-Owned Café Serves Home Comforts In Trying Times | Culinary Backstreets
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It started with a resurfaced meme. A 1953 black-and-white photo of a Ukrainian-emigrant-owned restaurant in Washington, D.C., offering free borscht to celebrate Stalin’s death. Seeing it reposted now has reminded me of the culture war that simmered last year over the hearty, beetroot-heavy soup when celebrity Ukrainian chef Ievgen Klopotenko started a campaign to have UNESCO recognize it as a part of Ukraine’s cultural heritage – partly in response to a 2019 tweet published by a Russian government account that claimed “#Borsch is one of Russia’s most famous & beloved #dishes & a symbol of traditional cuisine.”

Borscht (also spelled borsch, though in the US it is more frequently spelled with a  “t” at the end, a transliteration from Yiddish) is a staple across the Slavic world, and the most-renowned Russian food writer and historian Vilyam Pokhlebkin, whose murder in 2000 still remains unsolved, was adamant that borscht’s origin is Ukrainian. Though the discussion around the history of borscht may seem trivial in light of current events, the politics of food very often does reflect greater cultural tensions, with the effects of imperialism, sovereignty and cultural identity running throughout.

After days of rage and helplessness following the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Twitter, I had a sudden craving for a bowl of comforting borscht and to hear from those spooning it out here in Tbilisi.

I sought out Illia Mishchenko after a Ukrainian friend told me he served up what was probably the most authentic and tasty Ukrainian borscht in town at his café, Lui Coffee, located on the main boulevard of Tbilisi’s upscale Vake district. The tip-off came as a surprise, as Lui Coffee’s stylish vibe didn’t seem the place for a rustic soup more suited to greasy spoons; especially given the house borscht is traditionally served with slices of cured pork fat called salo.

Like thousands of expats drawn to Georgia since the country’s 2003 Rose Revolution, Illia and his wife Uliana Shaportova’s decision to settle in Tbilisi was partly influenced by its geographical bounties and conveniences – “The mountains are less than 120 km away and the sea is less than a day’s drive…We don’t need visas…” he says.

Illia’s first introduction to Georgia was through his father, who served in the Soviet Army and befriended a fellow solder, an ethnic Azerbaijani from Georgia. As with millions of friendships forged across the former USSR, the two kept in touch long after the formation of their respective new republics.  In 2012, Illia’s father, a farmer on the outskirts of Kyiv, partnered with his army pal to start an apple orchard in Georgia’s Bolnisi district, and Illia moved in 2017 to manage the business full time. While the orchard partnership eventually soured, Illia and Uliana, both Kyiv locals who witnessed the boom of café culture back home since the Euromaidan revolution, noticed there was still a niche to fill in Tbilisi for good coffee places.

“It’s so easy to register a business here and there is no corruption – you can easily start a business without paying bribes… which was almost impossible in Kyiv,” Illia recalls. Despite ongoing reforms since Euromaidan that have continued with the 2019 election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president, Transparency International still ranked Ukraine as the second-most corrupt country in Europe after Russia, last year.

The couple started Lui Coffee in 2018 as a coffee shop focused on good coffee and a few pastries, but they soon realized they had to cater to a wider crowd. “Adding borscht to a coffee shop may seem like a crime to café snobs. But we had to focus on the returnability of people… We knew we had to serve food to survive economically,” Illia says. “And for us Ukrainians, borscht is everyday food. It’s our national dish, so I wanted it on our menu,” Uliana adds.

Although the café had a wide menu that includes chicken Kyiv, salads, avocado toast, paninis and other café staples, this might be the only place in Tbilisi where people can also tuck into green borscht, where spinach and a kind of sorrel called dock replaces the cabbages and beetroots of the classic version. Since introducing it, the soup – in all its different varieties – has become one of the café’s most popular items.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has touched the raw nerves of Georgia’s collective trauma of past wars with their northern neighbor, which led to the bloody cessation and occupation of two regions – Abkhazia in 1994 and South Ossetia in 2008 – by Russian troops. Emotions are tense and social media is a livewire as people vent, grieve, debate and ponder the unfolding human tragedy while also, more pragmatically coordinating relief and humanitarian support for Ukraine. Many Georgians are especially angry that their government refused to join international sanctions against Russia and have continuously taken to the streets in solidarity protests for Ukraine, spurring President Zelensky to famously thank Georgians in a tweet from besieged Kyiv.

After days of rage and helplessness following the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Twitter, I had a sudden craving for a bowl of comforting borscht and to hear from those spooning it out here in Tbilisi.

However, a growing number of Georgians have been worried about the uptick in the numbers of Russians arriving in Georgia since economic sanctions kicked in – with reports on social media that Georgian landlords are rejecting Russian guests on Airbnb – while Georgian authorities hesitate to close the border or rescind the one-year visa-free stay for Russians. An estimated 30,000 Russians have already crossed into Georgia since the breakout of the war. In these emotionally tense moments, Illia’s poise and rational calm stands out, even more so considering his aging father and grandparents have chosen to remain in their homes in besieged Kyiv. “There is a seduction to turn the situation into hell for everyone you see as the enemy,” Illia says. “But I don’t want to be involved in this sudden [renewed] hatred for Russians or Belarusians. It’s important to stay human.”

Illia recalls the time when his café was also criticized by locals in online reviews as being a haven for Russian speakers, back when most people were still oblivious to the distinction between Russians and Ukranians. He recounts an incident when an argument with an unhappy neighbour who complained about the smell of roasting chicken from the café’s kitchen ended with the taunt – “Go back to Russia!” Although touched by the recent overwhelming support for Ukrainians, he’s also wary of the mounting backlash against new Russian arrivals, afraid that sentiments could dangerously escalate. He still welcomes Russian regulars to his café.

A coping mechanism for Illia and Uliana has been to stay away from social media. The last post on Lui Coffee’s Facebook page announced a hiatus from the platform, with Illia’s Georgian and Ukrainian numbers published for anyone who needs his help. The café has to keep running – it’s now the family’s only means to send help back home and assist Ukrainians stuck here. Plus, its comforting borscht is now needed more than ever.

Note: Thousands of Georgian businesses, including many Ukrainian-owned ones as well as Georgian-owned Ukrainian-themed restaurants, are actively collecting and coordinating aid to Ukraine across Tbilisi while providing free food and, in some cases, shelter to Ukrainians stuck here. A few notable Ukrainian-owned businesses actively delivering aid include RadioCafé and Living Vino: Vegan Restaurant & Natural Wine Bar. Georgian-owned, Ukrainian-themed restaurants Teremok and IzbusHka are also donating a portion of their income to humanitarian aid for Ukraine while feeding stranded Ukrainians for free – great places to tuck into a bowl of solidarity borscht.

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