Anyone who has been to Ukraine before has probably noticed the inclusion of a sushi menu at seemingly random restaurants. It seems weird to most that you would go to a pizza restaurant, and they also serve sushi. Or hit up a beer hall and along with beer snacks you can also get some Unagi rolls. When Cody, (from Cooking To Entertain), who is American, first went to Ukraine with me on vacation he was shocked at the prevalence of not just sushi restaurants, but the fact that even non-Japanese restaurants had a sushi chef. What’s the deal?
It’s said that sushi started to get popular in Ukraine in the mid-2000’s because it was seen as exotic and upscale. It is expensive for the average Ukrainian person, so going out for sushi was a good way to put up the facade that one is cultured and successful. It also is a meal consisting of fish and salt, two things that Ukrainians absolutely love.
I know that traditionally one should just lightly dip the fish in soy sauce before eating, but here in Ukraine it’s common to see people allowing the nigiri or maki to soak in a soy sauce bath. I guess our love of salt makes sense when you know that our oldest running company in Ukraine is a salt manufacturer.
This explains why sushi is popular in Ukraine, but why do seemingly random restaurants have a sushi menu? This stems from the fact that sushi is a high profit margin item that is easy to make. Now, before a Japanese person states that sushi is not easy to make I will make the distinction that Ukrainian sushi is not nearly authentic. It is sort of comparable to American versus mainland Chinese food.
Does this mean that Ukrainians do not like authentic sushi? Of course not. When Cody and I lived in Beijing we would take weekend trips to Japan if there was a good flight deal, and eat at some of the best sushi restaurants in the country. I love authentic sushi, but I also love Japanese-Ukrainian sushi.
I would say that sushi in Ukraine is about 20% authentic. If you order a nigiri you will get vinegared rice with fish. Is the fish super fresh? Well, it’s fresh enough for what we can get in Ukraine. Is the rice properly done? I would say very rarely.
I don’t doubt that they follow a proper Japanese recipe, but it definitely does not come out the same way. And I’ve never had a place put the wasabi in between the fish and rice like they do in Japan. I don’t say this to say that being inauthentic is bad, just different. We still go out for sushi a few times a month.
Even more commonplace than nigiri are the maki. These are the actual rolls of rice and fish wrapped in nori (seaweed) that are not as prestigious as the beautiful nigiri. However, in Ukraine almost all our maki are California rolls. That’s right, the rice is on the outside! Not to mention the fillings; While traditional maki zushi will be filled with fish and sometimes cucumber, radish, or other traditional ingredients, here in Ukraine they are filled with a plethora of things. From cream cheese to salmon eggs, pickled beetroot to mushrooms.
One of the strangest things is that recently Ukrainians have started to treat sushi like a snack. Going out for sushi in Ukraine is now less about posturing and showing that you can afford it (especially with the prevalence of cheap chain restaurants) and more about just getting something light that you know you will enjoy.
The reason so many places have a sushi menu in Ukraine is that they are cafes or lounges that try to offer something for everyone. Sure they have a sushi menu, they also have pizza and pasta, salads, kebabs and falafel, burgers and steak. These cafes and lounges are a way for groups of people to go out to eat together and everyone can get something they want.
It is also a light meal if you are hungry but don’t want to ruin your appetite for later. Sometimes I will go to a cafe with a friend for an afternoon beer and get sushi just so we have something to nibble on. Sushi has lost its identity as a fancy meal and is now just another international food Ukrainians enjoy like Thai takeaway or getting American burgers.
Philadelphia Roll. Full stop. Ask anyone what their favorite sushi is in Ukraine and 9/10 times you will hear back “Philadelphia Roll”. I know this isn’t even a type of roll that originated in Japan, yet we Ukrainians love it. The pleasant mixture of fatty salmon and cream cheese soaked in salty soy sauce is truthfully one of my favorite things. Authentic? No. But it hits all the check-marks for things Ukrainians like. Some sushi restaurants will even have a dozen different variations of Philadelphia rolls.
Last year we invited a Japanese friend to stay with us in Ukraine for a week and of course we had to get his opinion on our so called sushi. We took him to a trendy place in the city center and I could tell right from looking at the menu he didn’t expect much. We got a selection of rolls and nigiri and after the first piece he says, “Well, it’s not Japanese sushi…but…it’s not bad.”