Cooking the East European Way: Cucumber and Tomato Salad

It's been hot and muggy in Omaha, which is the sort of thing that makes the idea of turning on an oven and burners in the kitchen profoundly unappealing. Instead, I decided to make a Ukrainian salad, and a little research led me to something called "salat s ogurtsami i pomidorami," which literally means "salad with cucumbers and tomato."

There's more to it, of course. There's also pressed garlic, onion, and a dressing made of sour cream and mayonnaise. Oh, and the salad can be herbed as well, and a lot of recipes suggest dill, which is starting to seem like to go-to herb of choice for recipes from the former Soviet Union.

I feel a bit odd writing about this salad. I expected this project to be a voyage through the strangeness of a foreign palate, and, instead, this salad is extraordinarily familiar. I grew up eating something very like this, as did my girlfriend -- it's her go-to salad, and her diet is thoroughly Minnesotan. 

That being said, it's often not the main ingredients that make the meal, but the preparation and flavoring. We Minnesotans tend to just splash ranch dressing onto this sort of salad -- considering that ranch dressing contains garlic and dill, as well as a mayonnaise base, it's like we were trying for the Ukrainian recipe and just missed it.

And here's the difference: ranch is made with buttermilk, which has a tart sweetness. The Ukrainian dressing prefers sour cream, with its straightforward sourness, which is definitely one of the defining tastes in the Eastern European flavor profile. 

It is, I will allow, a subtle difference, but the Ukrainian dressing benefits from subtlety. I find that ranch dressing tends to overpower whatever it's put on, whereas the Ukrainian dressing allows the flavor of the cucumber and tomato to come to the fore.

Still, it's a bit like I sat down to make a Ukrainian breakfast and the results looked and tasted almost exactly like Cheerios. It's like I traveled to Kiev and the first thing I saw was a Paul Bunyan statue. It's like I signed up for an adventure packet and they sent me to my own apartment and told me to write a blog entry about Yiddish.