Monday, 19 November 2012

Dumpling DNA: Introducing the "Varenyk"

It's time for me to admit that dumplings are part of my genetic make-up. I come from a long line of dumpling makers and eaters.

My folks, who now kick on into their 80s, were refugees to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Brooklyn, New York respectively after World War II. They came on old US troop carriers with only a leather trunk or two, no English, no money, many recent experiences of war-time tragedy, hopes of a better life - and Ukrainians' love of their national dish, the "varenyk"*.

The "varenyk" is about as big as one's palm and shaped like a half moon. It's got a substantial dough pastry and the basic filling is a potato and Farmer's cheese blend. They're generally served boiled and smothered in the following list of things that don't get the heart-tick of approval: butter, sour cream and fried onions.

Those who are even more health conscious (not), sometimes add "shkvarky" which is little cubes of fried speck.

And, the real health freaks (really, really not) also muck around with either pan-frying or even deep frying the "varenyk". I suspect though that's the point at which it becomes a hang-over cure rather than a culinary experience.

Depending on season, region, family inclination, wealth and taste, folks in the old country and now all the other countries such as US, Europe, Canada, South America and Australia where Ukes, as we call ourselves, are scattered will also make fillings from beef and pork, cabbage, cabbage and mushroom, and even blueberries and plums in summer. (And don't hold back on the sprinkled sugar on top for those fruit-based babies).

When Ukes from distant points of the diaspora meet each other, there's often discussion of where to locally hook-up with some "varenyky", and who's baba makes the best ones, and who's mate set the record for the most eaten in one sitting. (The most I've ever seen was 48 which probably amounts to around 20,000 k/calories or so!)

And people wonder why we're big people.

The "varenyk" is simple, substantial and, in its own way, stoic. Like the people who make it, it just kind of get's on with things regardless of the circumstances, be it wars at the worst of times or weddings at the best of times.

When I don't have "varenyky" for a while, I lose my longitudes and latitudes. Like many in the modern world, I have many identities that I inevitably need to cycle through, be it Australian, American, Ukrainian, Catholic, Buddhist-curious, husband, Tato (dad), ex-politico, ex-garbo, writer, long-suffering Mets fan, rugby league tragic etc. But the "varenyk" - perhaps for all its starch and stodginess - is the thing that anchors me on a sea of many ways to be, many things to present, many expectations to meet.

The "varenyk" is the dumpling that is less food for me and more part of my essential being. It doesn't just fill my stomach - and how - but soothes my soul. It takes me back to upstate family Christmases covered in snow, to a warm and high-piled waiting plate at my mother's dining room table after a long flight from Oz, to summer camps where we Americanised them by calling them "sliders", to walking around ancient churches with newly-met cousins in an old country of much pain and more promise....

The "varenyk" is my 47th chromosome. It makes me a bit different and I wouldn't give up that difference for the world.

* Poles make "pyrogi" which are very similar if not identical; Russians make "pelmeny" which are similar but smaller. "Pelmeny" are probably more akin to the Ukrainian and Polish "ushka" which means "ears" due to their shape (and is generally not a very appetising translation). Russians generally eat "pelmeny", which have a variety of fillings, in their own right, with dashes of vinegar and very regularly; Ukrainians and Poles tend to put mushroom-filled "ushka"in soup, such as beetroot "borscht", and sometimes only for major holidays.

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