Ukrainian food for Christmas - exploring Ukraine’s beloved dishes

From borsch to kolach, explore some of Ukraine's most popular dishes, their origins, and some of the traditions that many share over Christmas time.
Author Headshot
Tom Charman
Dec 22
3 mins
Dec 22
3 mins

The Christmas Eve supper in Ukraine is a very traditional affair made up of 12 different dishes - each dish signifying something special. Due to the orthodox calendar, Syvat Vechir (the Christmas Eve supper), is celebrated each year on the 6th-7th January, and pays homage to the 12 disciples of Christ in the form of 12 ‘lean’ dishes shared amongst the family. In fact, family is such a big part of this occasion, that older generations will often say that those who spend Christmas Eve outside the family circle will feel uncomfortable and lonely in the year that follows.

So with that said, we’ve highlighted 5 of those dishes, which are often enjoyed all year around in Ukraine, but hold a special place in every Ukrainians heart at Christmas time.

A bowl of beetroot soup, topped with sour cream and dill. A spoon is resting on top of the bowl, filled with a mouthful
Photo Credit: BBC News

Borsch (борщ)

We’ll kick things off with one of Ukraine’s most beloved dishes. Borsch, a dish that was added to UNESCO’s ‘list of intangible cultural heritage’ in mid-2022, is a traditional Ukrainian soup that dates back to at least the 16th century, though it’s believed that its history goes back much further. Borsch was created by Ukrainian peasants as a way to make their somewhat limited food rations go that bit further, and centuries ago was made simply with cabbage and beets. It’ll come as no surprise that as the years have passed, ingredients like carrots, beans and even meats like beef, pork and chicken have all found their way into this blood red soup, with the goal to create the most hearty, and warming soup in Ukraine. While it’s eaten all year around, Borsch is particularly popular during the colder months across the whole of Eastern Europe, and it’s one of the traditional dishes served as part of Syvat Vechir (Christmas Eve supper) in Ukraine. Find the full recipe here to make Borsch at home.

Pampushky bread rolls in a baking tin, fresh from the oven covered in garlic and parsley
Source: Jamie Geller /

Pampushky (пампушки)

If you ask me - no Borsch is complete without a side-serving of pampushky - small, round bread rolls fried in oil. Often likened to a ‘Ukrainian donut’, these versatile, fluffy balls of dough can be served savory or sweet, and like many Ukrainian dishes - you’ll often find them with a dollop of sour cream on top. Other than Ukraine, it’s not particularly clear where pampushky originated, but many believe that they were traditionally made with a yeasted dough, and fried with oil. Over time, chefs and cooks around the world have pimped their pampushky and taken them to new heights. Variations including garlic, herbs, spices and even sweet jellies have appeared across the whole of Eastern Europe for lots of culinary festivals that are devoted specifically to making pampushky. Talking of jellies - one of the traditional dishes that you’ll regularly find on the table for Syvat Vechir in Ukraine is cherry-filled, or jam-filled pampushky - the perfect dessert after a warm hearty meal. Find the full recipe here to make Pampushky at home.

Ukrainian verenyky dumplings with a cherry filling. Piled onto a bowl with chopped cherries and a mint garnish
Source: Timolina, Freepik

Varenyky (варе́ники)

Like borsch, varenyky are a national favorite of the Ukrainian people. And the love goes back centuries - at the end of the 19th century, popular Jewish poet Saul Chernikhivskyi loved the dish so much that he devoted a poem to these plump Ukrainian dumplings and named it ‘varenyky’. These moon-shaped dumplings, sometimes referred to as ‘pyrohy’ or later ‘pierogi’ in parts of eastern Europe and Russia, are thought to go back as far as pagan times, but over the centuries have been adapted to suit our changing demands and tastes. Like pampushky, today they’re served both sweet and savory, depending on what they’re filled with, and served with. But either way, you can expect to find a healthy portion of sour cream served alongside these delightful bites of joy. When it comes to Christmas time, varenyky are served traditionally with poppy seeds, to symbolize wealth and prosperity for the coming year. This likely dates back to when they’d be taken along to the fields, as Ukrainian peasants believed varenyky helped bring in a rich harvest. Find the full recipe here to make Varenyky at home.

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Holubtsi cabbage roll, stuffed with meat and served on a plate with tomato sauce

Holubtsi (голубці)

The origins of this dish are very difficult to nail down, with meat rolled in cabbage first being referenced in Aristophanes’ letters dating back to 425 B.C. And while many often attribute these cabbage rolls to Poland, or other eastern European countries, it’s actually most likely to be a dish that first originated in Turkey - Ukrainian holubtsi are most similar to dolma. Although the origins will likely never be known for sure, holubtsi today are a national treasure not just in Ukraine, but across the whole of eastern Europe. The holubtsi that we’ve known to come and love today are normally made by creating a rice-meat mix, and wrapping portions of this mix in a whole cabbage leaf. Then, once the corners are tucked and the meat is sealed, the holubtsi are stewed in a tomato sauce until the cabbage becomes tender. But when it comes to the Christmas Eve supper, things are a little bit different. As the Christmas table traditionally contains lean dishes, many Ukrainian spreads will instead mix potatoes, mushrooms, onions and carrots instead of meat. And like every good Ukrainian dish, holubtsi is best served with a big dollop of sour cream. Find the full recipe here to make Holubtsi at home.

kolach read braided and shaped into a donut shape, topped with poppy seeds

Kolach (колач)

The last dish I’m mentioning is a bread that has traditions across a host of Slavic countries, from Belarus all the way down to Moldova. Each country makes their bread slightly differently, but all are in agreement that no special occasion would be complete without a homemade kolach. In Ukraine, this rich, yeast-leavened dough is braided or twisted into a circular shape, and is often decorated with intricate patterns and symbols that have a symbolic meaning in Ukrainian culture. Each kolach represents a symbol of luck, prosperity and good bounty, and like borscht, pampushky, varenyky and holubtsi, it’s a bread that’s traditionally prepared and enjoyed as part of the Christmas Eve supper. In fact, for Christmas, traditionally three kolach of different sizes are stacked together to represent the trinity, with the circular shape symbolizing eternity, and a candle placed in the middle. And the bread itself is fluffy, light, and closely resembles an Ashkenazi challah bread. Find the full recipe here to make Kolach at home.

And with that, we reach the end. Feeling inspired to cook something a little different this Christmas or in the New Year? If you want to learn more about Ukrainian cooking and culture, pre-register for our program on Ukrainian cooking, which will be led by some of Ukraine’s best chefs.

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