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Dumpling Wars

The Ukrainian blonde had the smell of trouble. She had perched herself, along with her mute friend, in a restaurant across from the famed South Melbourne Market. On arriving at the modish, glorious bit of real estate known as Tipsy Village, a Polish establishment famed for accented French cuisine, she shrieked: “Why do you have Ruskie dumplings on your menu?”

The Polish host, a man of butter mild manner and infinite tolerance, covered in stout glory, took it in his stride. “That is what they are called where I come from and that is what we serve,” Peter Barnatt stated with serene clarity. (Such wickedness! Such a radical disposition!) The blonde shrieking wonder continued to invest in the dumplings some satanic quality, as if each one had been a shell, soldier, a weapon massed and launched against her pristine homeland which she had, it seemed, abandoned. “We would just like coffees,” she demanded. His temper finally disturbed, the host insisted that, as the two were not intent on dining, might just as well leave.

In a luxurious huff, they exited. Such behaviour was fascinating for being irresolvable – no dining establishment worth its salt and cutlery should ever change that aspect of things. But for them, the issue had been decided, a prejudice firmed up and solid.

Names on the menu are a signature of a restaurant’s worth. Besides, dishes do not invade countries in tanks nor bomb cities. The episode was also strikingly, amusingly moronic. Food had been made out as somehow guilty, disgusting, revolting – all because of a name, an identity. The sin had moved in the dough, the mixture and the potatoes, dumplings with agency. The restaurateur was all the more guilty for hosting them.

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the gastro-culture war on serving dishes with a Russian name, be it with hint, flavour, or substance, has been total. Hatred of the Kremlin has become bigotry towards the dish. In Madrid, Sergiy Skorokhvatov, himself Ukrainian and an owner of a restaurant called Rasputin serving both Russian and Ukrainian cuisine, sensed trouble. He ventured into the thorny world of online discussions to clarify the nature of what he was serving, which was considered wise given what has happening to other restaurants serving Russian fare.

This method of insurance was not full proof. “I thought that changing things would help us, but then people started posting similar stuff about us – ‘Don’t go to Russian restaurants’ – and pictures of blown-up buildings in Ukraine.”

When politics ventures into the field of gastronomy, imbecility is sovereign, its crown heavy. The French restaurant chain Maison de la Poutine, specialising in the combination of chips, cheese curds and gravy (poutine, you might say), was harassed for having a name vaguely approximating to the Russian president. This was strikingly reminiscent of the semi-literate mob that vandalised the home of Dr Yvette Cloete, a specialist paediatrician who had been confused for being a paedophile.

All of this presents itself in rather darkly hilarious fashion. In Poland, the Ruskie pierogi have been given a battering and vanishing, reincarnated with new names, emerging from kitchens reborn and de-Russified. The idea of Ukrainian pierogi is all the rage. The cheese and potato-filled wonders have again come to commandeer such interest in the food wars. Those who buck the trend end up receiving tongue lashings from the virtuous. Never mind that the idea of ruskie has little to do with the modern state machine that is Russia than the geographic mash which featured Kievan Rus.

The mighty fine diplomats of the kitchen could point to other origins in a peaceful overture. The first dumplings of this sort were a Chinese invention, and Marco Polo was good enough to bring them across to Europe. In Poland, the Polish bishop Jacek Orodwąż is said to have been key in introducing the dumpling in the 13th century. Having had a snack of them in Kyiv, the taste was sufficiently delightful to convince him to bring the recipe back to the homeland. But it took till 1682 for the first known pierogi recipe to make its way into a cookbook – Poland’s oldest, in fact – known as the Compendium Ferculorum by Stanisław Czerniecki.

As with so many food varieties now celebrated in their various forms from the cheap mundane to the scandalously extortionate, the original pierogi came to be seen as a nourishing weapon against famine and starvation. It did what it had to. All else is refined exaggeration, with a sense, where needed, of aesthetic pleasure.

Unfortunately for those in the restaurant business, the patron can be an unpredictable sort. For many who enter the premises, the ego of the person who eventually sits down to the meal becomes sprightly, and bad behaviour comes to the fore. One acts as one would not at home. Bigotry sings darkly; prejudice hollers in a jarring register. “Care for another vodka?” the tolerant host can only say to such conduct. Then comes the priestly gobbet of wisdom: “It makes the fish you eat swim.”

The other side of this fraught equation is that the restaurant with fine service and conversational owners is a place of sheer pleasure, conciliation, understanding. Over food, bread broken, dessert consumed, the labels of hatred disappear into musings and mutterings, even if only momentary. Take the vodka; let the fish swim.


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  1. leefe

    I don’t care what you call them, you can have my pierogi only when you pry them from my cold, dead jaws.

  2. Douglas Pritchard

    My grand daughter travelled through Russia a short time back, and because she knows Pops well she brought back a mug with a picture of Putin bare-chested on horseback.
    My neighbour popped over for tea and bickies about a year ago so I used the mug. Well life can so easily be boring.
    I needed to prompt her to take a closer look at the Mug.
    And, bless my soul, you have never seen such spluttering and abuse. “I cant drink from that”.
    This was my chance to bring her up to date…………….
    As an aside, things got pretty shakey financially here after Washington told us to take a side in the conflict, and is it possible that Russia was an influence in our economy without us being aware?

  3. Kerri

    Poutine is famous in Canada!?!?!

  4. Canguro

    Ms Ukrainian Blondie sounds like she may have been hitting the Horilka, shrieking, demanding, huffing. And missing out on the fine dumplings…

    Hilarious really, how we’re able to seamlessly transit from criticism of a country’s behaviour to a rejection of its food… think Freedom Fries in the context of French opposition to America’s Iraq invasion in 2003, and how those righteous Yanks got so offended when the French told them to coller leur guerre dans le cul that they renamed the potato chips.

    In Harbin, that most Russian of Chinese cities, I had borscht soup in a Russian restaurant. And thought it was a Russian food. Now I find that in Ukraine it’s a dish considered according to UNESCO to be “part of the fabric of Ukrainian society, cultural heritage, identity and tradition.”

    In practice, the beet soup is prepared widely across Slavic countries but it seems only Ukraine claims it as theirs. Tipsy Village are having a bob each way, offering both Polish and Ukraine versions of the famed red delight. Blondie should have foregone the pierogi and opted for the borscht, to be washed down with another shot or two of Horilka. Far better than a theatrical exit in unrehearsed huff.

  5. Roswell

    It’s quite likely that I’m the only person who never knew what a Ruskie Dumpling is, and if I did, I wouldn’t have linked it to the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor would have I blamed the dish for it.

    I’ve never eaten Russian cuisine, btw. I saw a Russian restaurant in London but I was turned off entering by the thought that all the waiting staff were probably 200 kilogram weight lifters.

  6. Andrew Smith

    Another parallel etymological universe, underlaid by geopolitics, are meatballs: köfte, kofte, kofta, ćevapčići, mici etc. in the Balkans and Middle East; guess helped by Byzantine & Ottoman influence over centuries.

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