Milwaukee's Ukrainian community shows love through foods, culture – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Are you hungry?”
The hellos, how are yous and welcomes can wait. When you step into the house of someone with Ukrainian heritage, this is how they greet you.
“We just want to feed you. Cooking is how we share our love,” says Vasyl Lemberskyy, who came to the U.S. from Kyiv, Ukraine, just months before Sept. 11, 2001. And sharing that love is something he does for his wife and daughter in a northern suburb of Milwaukee — as well as diners from all around the area.
Growing up in a poor family, Lemberskyy was hungry a lot growing up, which is why he started cooking. In fact, he says it’s something can’t not do.
As a pizza chef at Santino’s Little Italy, 352 E. Stewart St. in Bay View, and the opening chef for Transfer Pizzeria, he loves using fresh, local ingredients.  It turns out that fresh and local are two of the characteristics that also make Ukrainian food so special.
“For us, everything is farm to table,” he says. “No matter what you eat, it’s going to be flavorful and fresh.”
Even as their home country is under siege from a Russian invasion, the Ukrainian community in Milwaukee continues its hospitable ways, with events such as after-church meals at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on the south side.
Related:‘These people care about each other.’ Dining at Ukrainian church leaves an unforgettable impression.  
When asked what Ukrainian foods are the most common, Ukrainian-Americans will mention borsch and varenyky, dumplings similar to pierogi.
Borsch, commonly called borscht in the U.S., is a hearty soup with beets, which give it its distinctive bright red color. It’s made with pork stock, potatoes and cabbage and includes a dollop of sour cream on top.
“We have so many varieties, and family to family it can be something different,” Lemberskyy says.
But one thing they have in common? No matter what makes a family’s borsch different, it’s difficult to find a recipe.
“No one uses recipes. You add this, and you add that. You just add it,” he says.
Nadiya Kavyuk of Franklin, who was born in Ukraine and moved to the U.S. in 2005,  describes Ukrainians’ love of dumplings like this:
“We have a silly song about a guy who falls in love with a girl who knows how to make a delicious pierogi. Some other guy came and stole the girl, and that guy was crying, ‘You can keep the girl, but please return the pierogi!’ The final line is a warning for all boys to never trade love for pierogis!”
Kavyuk says the potato filling is her favorite, and sauerkraut is also common.
Lemberskyy recalls the fillings his grandmother used to stuff hers with: pork and beef with onion and garlic; potato with farm cheese and cabbage; and just plain cabbage.
“I would make the exact same pierogis as her, but what she made tasted different,” he says. “Everything she made tasted great because of the love she put into it.”
“Pierogis are food, but they’re more than food. People pray to the soldiers with pierogis and bring it to them. They put their whole heart into it,” Lemberskyy says.
He also shared that soldiers have been cooking borsch for themselves as the war in Ukraine rages on. Even in war, he said, they still have such a strong connection to their food and culture.
Ukrainian and Polish cuisines have a lot of similarities, said Illna Shpachuk of St. Francis, and she often shops at Polish grocery stores to get the Ukrainian items she needs — such as holodets, jelled meat they eat during holidays and celebrations. As in Ukraine, borsch is extremely popular in Poland, but there it’s white, she said. Pierogi are also a staple there.
Shpachuk has been in the U.S. for the past two years, but she and her husband eventually want to go back to Ukraine. One thing she misses is the food.
“It’s all fresh fruits and vegetables, soups and salads. Soups are so important to us. We eat them every day,” she said.
“Things taste different here, like the dairy and sour cream,” she said. “In the summer, we have lots of fresh strawberries and raspberries. Here, they taste totally different. They are more natural back home.”
“Even the leaves from the salads smell so good. You can feel the taste before it’s even in your mouth.”
One thing prevalent in Ukrainian culture is everyone getting in the kitchen to cook together.
“When my grandma cooks, my mother helps her. And growing up, my brother and I would help my mother,” Shpachuk said. “When someone comes over, we wait for everyone to get there before we cook in the kitchen. In Ukraine, it’s a lifestyle.”
Kavyuk recalls her grandmothers making sausages from scratch, other types of meat, and preparing foods with vegetables and berries.
“It was all so delicious,” she says. “When I make either meats or desserts, I think about them. They’re not here anymore, but they will always live in my heart through the food.”
Cooking food from their home country is also how Ukrainians keep their traditions alive while living in America.
Milania Stupnyckyj of Milwaukee long made the dinners for parishioners at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, 1025 S. 11th St. in Milwaukee, consisting of cabbage rolls, borsch, beef and paska, an Easter bread.
“This is what I used to eat when I was a little girl,” said Stupnyckyj, who came to the U.S. in 1958. “I’m glad that I can make things people like to eat.”
Kavyuk echoed the sentiment after making a meal for St. Michael’s parishioners after service one Sunday.
“It’s like in ‘Ratatouille’ when the food expert brought ratatouille to the back door when he came home,” she said. “That’s what it’s like eating Ukrainian food here. It reminds me of home.”
Alysha Witwicki is a freelance writer living in Whitefish Bay. Contact her at
Vasyl Lemberskyy says most Ukrainian families don’t have a recipe written down for their borsch, but we created the measurements and instructions together to get it as close as possible.
Recipe tested by Alysha Witwicki
Makes 8 servings
For the broth:
2 pounds pork shoulder
10 cups water
3 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns
For the soup:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
2 small beets, peeled and shredded
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1½ tablespoons sugar
3-4 small red potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small cabbage, shredded (about 3 cups)
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh parsley, chopped fine, and sour cream for garnish
Ukrainian rye bread for serving
To make the broth, place the pork, water, bay leaves and peppercorns in a stock pot, bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 1½ to 2 hours.
Take out the meat, let cool and shred it, removing any bones or fat.
Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding any solids. Return the liquid to the stock pot and reserve until ready to use.
To make the soup, in a large pot, heat vegetable oil over medium heat and add onion; cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Next, add the carrots and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add beets, tomato paste, sugar and 1 cup of the reserved pork stock. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In the reserved stock pot of pork broth, add potatoes and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the beet, carrot, onion mixture to the broth and potato mixture; boil for 5 minutes.
Add the cabbage and reserved shredded pork and boil for an additional 5-10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Remove from heat and pour the soup into bowls. Top with sour cream and chopped parsley and serve it alongside a slice of Ukrainian rye bread.
This recipe is from Nadiya Kavyuk of Franklin, who is part of the Sisterhood of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Milwaukee. Each week, one of their 14 members  brings food and coffee for the parishioners after Sunday Mass. One dish Kavyuk brought was nalysnyky, a traditional Ukrainian crepe with assorted fillings. Although hers was filled with sauerkraut, carrot and onion and served with mushroom gravy, you can also fill them with meat, jam or poppy seeds with sugar to make it savory or sweet.
Recipe tested by Alysha Witwicki
Makes 6 servings
For the nalysnyky:
2 eggs
½ cup milk
3 tablespoons water
½ cup sifted flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 14-ounce can sauerkraut
Small onion, diced
½ cup grated carrots
2 tablespoons olive oil
Beat the eggs until light. Add the milk, water, flour and salt, and beat until smooth. Butter a small frying pan lightly and heat well. Pour a few tablespoons of the batter into the pan, just enough to give it a thin coating. Tilt the pan back and forth to spread the batter evenly. Cook the cake over moderate heat.
When lightly browned on the bottom and firm to the touch on top, remove the cake to a warm plate and keep warm.
Continue until all of the batter is used, buttering the pan lightly each time.
To make the filling, bring a small pot of water to boil. Drain the can of sauerkraut into a colander and rinse the kraut. Place the kraut into the pot and let it boil for five minutes. Drain it and rinse with cold water, squeezing any of the excess out.
In a frying pan, cook the sauerkraut with onions and carrots in oil on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Spread the cakes with filling and roll up. Arrange the rolled cakes in a buttered baking dish. Before serving, dot with butter and heat in a 300-degree oven for a few minutes.
For the mushroom gravy:
1 stick butter
10 ounces sliced button mushrooms
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon onion powder
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup heavy whipping cream
¼ cup flour
1-1½ cups water, divided
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter; add mushrooms and stir occasionally until softened, about 5 minutes. Add bay leaves, onion powder and salt and pepper to taste. Add heavy whipping cream and, stirring occasionally, let mixture come to a boil.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour with ½ cup water. Slowly whisk into mushroom mixture. If needed, add water (up to a cup) to thin sauce. Stirring frequently, continue cooking the gravy for about 5 minutes. Lower the heat to medium low and stir occasionally for another five minutes. Serve warm over nalysnyky.
Author Olia Hercules first tried this salad in southern Ukraine. It’s from her book “Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences From Every Corner of Ukraine” (2020, Weldon Owen International, $35). You can substitute or add any crunchy vegetable you have, such as carrots, cabbage, cucumber or lettuce.
Recipe tested by Alysha Witwicki
Makes 4 servings
1 red onion, peeled
3 celery ribs, sliced
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
3 tablespoons mild vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 15-ounce can of butter beans, drained
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Crusty bread for serving
Cut the onion in half, then slice it thinly, going with the grain rather than cutting across it. Put the sliced onion in a colander in the sink and pour some boiling water over it, then briefly refresh under cold running water and drain well. Add the onion to a bowl and add the celery and thyme.
In a small bowl, mix salt with vinegar until completely dissolved, then stir in the honey and black pepper to taste. Taste the dressing and adjust seasoning to taste.
Pour the dressing over the onions, celery and thyme and toss to coat everything well, then add the beans and mix well. Eat with a crusty piece of bread.