Ronnie Apteker on the ground in Ukraine: Dining through the war – Kyiv’s culinary resilience

As the Ukrainian conflict with Russia rages on, the global impact on food prices has become evident. Despite the turmoil, Kyiv’s dining scene thrives, reflecting the city’s resilience. Amid hypersonic missiles and air raid sirens, restaurants embrace QR menus and high-tech services. While questions of ethics arise, Kyiv’s people carry on, cherishing each meal and embracing life’s uncertainties.

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Eating during the war – warning – you will be hungry

By Ronnie Apteker

I am sure you have all noticed how the price of food has been going up and up and up. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has a lot to do with this. Ukraine is the 4th largest food producer in the world, and if Ukraine cannot deliver grain, for example, to different parts of the globe, then it means supply is suffering and prices will keep on rising. On the subject of food, and this goes against all the dumb stereotypes, the eating in Kyiv is just incredible. From the supermarkets to the restaurants. Dining out in Ukraine’s capital is quite an experience, even during the war. One of the things I love about Kyiv is going out to eat. From the creativity and design, to the often eccentric people you see out and about, to the amazing dishes that are served. 

A beautiful Ukrainian restaurant called Sho

We are busy with the final part of our documentary film project about Ukrainian identity and I am currently looking after a few South Africans film makers who travelled to Kyiv from JHB and taking them out to eat is a constant adventure. They are blown away. And of course, a hypersonic missile being shot down while you are walking to a restaurant does add an edge to the equation. Not normal and pretty scary, but this is the new reality here in Kyiv. The evil Russians continue to terrorize Ukraine with killer drones and missiles, so air raid sirens are a regular occurrence. And yet, with all of this, there are no victims here. Just free spirits that have learned to truly appreciate a meal with friends, and that are living life like each day could be the last. Perhaps there is a lessons here for the world. 

There are many restaurants that are cooking food for the military and everyone you meet is trying to help the country to win the war. The army here has everyone’s respect. If it wasn’t for the brave soldiers pushing the Russians out of the occupied territories then I would not be sitting here in beautiful Kyiv writing this article. You see quite a few soldiers around the city, and of course, in restaurants. You hear a lot of laughter in the city. I have always said that the sense of humour in Ukraine is way up there, and now, in the time of war, the laughter has not stopped. Yes, it is often a nervous laughter, but life goes on, and people eat out, and the quality of everything is as good as ever. 

A hip burger joint called OG

There is a high-tech element to restaurants over here. Since the pandemic the majority of menus have been replaced by QR codes. So using your phone to look at the menu  is the new norm. And wherever you go to eat there is free and fast WiFi. Most places also have power banks, so if your phone needs to be re-charged you can do it at the table. The service can sometimes be a bit frustrating – part of the Soviet hangover. But things are getting better year after year, Everyone is always enthsuastic and honesty is a given. Also, no one steals your bag if you go to the toilet to make a weewee. Of course, one has to be careful anywhere in the world. I would not leave my wallet lying around if I went to the toilet. But for sure, crime stories in Kyiv are not commonplace.

Everything has changed since the start of the war. Everyone has changed. I have changed. Some good, some bad. But for sure, change is everywhere. The restaurants we used to love to go to, that were always full, are not packed anymore. But they are all running and there is enough business (I hope) to keep them going. And there are many new restaurants that have opened up during the war. Some amazing and brilliant places. We are going to try go to a few of these new spots. I have asked why some of the leading restaurants are not full anymore. The city of Kyiv has returned to pre-war population size, and there are people everywhere. Yes, there are no tourists here in Kyiv now, but many of these spots were adored by locals. The answer I have heard from a few people is enlightened: if you were going to spend a hundred dollars, say, on a romantic meal for two at a cool restaurant then the mood now is to rather donate that money to the army. 

My favoruite eating spot in Kyiv : The Life of Wonderful People is the name

There are quite a few eating spots that have closed down, but this could have been the legacy of the pandemic. Most of my favourite restaurants are still up and running, but I don’t think anyone is making money. And yet, the places all look well maintained and every time we eat out the quality of everything is top notch. There does not seem to be any shortages of products in Ukraine. I know last year there were some periods when petrol was in short supply and of course, there were the electricity outages in the winter, but now, everything is back to normal. Well, in spirit that is, but in reality, a bomb could fall out of the sky at any moment.

It is summer now in Europe and outdoor street terraces are pretty busy in the city centre. Things look charming and lively and there is a buzz in the air. But of course, it is also all so fragile and unstable. This war is a nightmare and no one knows when it will end. We all believe Ukraine will win the war, but at what cost. While there are cool and trendy restaurants in Kyiv there are people in the East that don’t have the basics any more. And of course, there are soldiers fighting and dying, everyday. It does raise a question to which there is no easy answer. Is it ok to go out and eat at a cool restaurant here in the country’s capital? I mean, people are dying, and yet, there are busy restaurants serving up gorgeous food dishes. The answer seems to be here that life goes on, and there is no hypocrisy in any of this. I agree with this view, but again, it is a very difficult discussion and there is no clear answer. Must everyone be at home crying all day. They will all tell you, NO WAYS. The people here are living life, and they are all doing whatever they can to help the country. I believe that. That is my experience.

*South African internet pioneer and tech entrepreneur Ronnie Apteker lives (usually) in Ukraine with his wife and baby.

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