Cover Sisters and founders of Dacha, Olena Smith (right) and Oksana Shevchuk (left). Illustration: Raphael Quiason/Tatler Asia

As the war in Ukraine crosses its one-month mark, Dacha's founders, sister Oksana Shevchuk and Olena Smith, are mounting a resistance from their restaurant kitchen

In the pre-dawn hours of 24 February 2022, Russian military convoys that had for months amassed ominously on the border with Ukraine finally made good on their threat, barrelling into the Eastern European country and marking a new age in the history of global geopolitics. 7,000 kilometres away, headlines of the what Russian president Vladimir Putin deemed a “special military operation” were just beginning to reach Hong Kong as restaurants were preparing for their lunch service—for one restaurant in particular, the news hit home in every sense of the word.

“Watching the news from afar, we felt paralysed,” recalls Oksana Shevchuk, co-owner of Ukrainian restaurant Dacha. “No, it was weirder than that. It felt like we were suspended in a thick jelly. It was a surreal feeling—we were sickened, helpless and not sure how to help.”

Suddenly, Dacha, a homey, unassuming venue in the heart of Central that Oksana opened in 2015 with younger sister Olena Smith to quell their cravings for the cuisine of their homeland, was thrust into the spotlight as a defacto embassy for Ukraine, which last terminated its honorary consulate back in 2007.

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Rumblings from Europe

Russia began its military build-up on the border in March 2021, significantly ramping up the number of units on standby from October 2021 onwards. Although the Kremlin justified the build-up as routine military training exercises and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky downplayed the threat of invasion ostensibly to prevent widespread panic, Western governments were warning with increasing urgency of the very real likelihood of a full-blown invasion and the possibility of the largest land conflict on European soil since World War II.

Despite the rising tensions at that time, the two sisters, along with their relatives and friends, did not believe that the war of words between Russia and the West would quickly turn hot. Yet, “in the month leading up to the war, we received many panicked messages from our friends and customers. It was lovely to feel their concern, but when it’s 20 messages of thoughts about your family, it throws you into the grip of anxiety and panic”, says Oksana.

“It’s difficult to explain what it feels like to be under the threat of invasion. It is in our genes as Ukrainians. It has been a part of our identity and culture. We had experienced it precisely eight years ago, starting with the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula in February 2014, [followed by] an illegal referendum. This was followed by war in the eastern part of Ukraine.”

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Memories of home

The sisters have been keeping in constant contact with their relatives and friends in Ukraine, who have refused to leave even in the face of deliberate Russian bombings of civilian population centres. “Our aunt Valya said to Olena at the end of our first conversation: ‘We are happy because we are at home, we are alive, and we can talk to you. But you have two children, and they need you, so don’t worry about us,’” Oksana shares. “It was typical selflessness but the most devastating thing to say.”

No less devastating are the images of Ukraine’s burning streets and pastoral landscapes torn apart by tank treads that are being disseminated to every corner of the globe, standing in stark contrast to Oksana’s recollections of her childhood in her home country. The sisters were born in the central Ukrainian city of Berdichev and grew up in a large and close-knit family—the kind “where we call our third cousin our sister”, says Oksana.

In 2005, the 22-year-old Olena moved halfway across the world to join her husband in Hong Kong, with Oksana making the same move three years later. Spotting a gap in the market for Slavic produce, they founded Xytorok, an online store selling everything from fresh sour cream, to cheeses, cakes and Russian pelmeni dumplings.

Dacha opened in 2015 with Oksana heading the kitchen and Olena manning the front-of-house; soon, the restaurant’s offerings of traditional Ukrainian and Russian delicacies—homemade kielbasa sausage, shuba salad (more memorably referred to as “herring under a fur coat”), cabbage rolls and chicken Kyiv—attracted a regular coterie of homesick Ukrainian and Russian expats, as well as local Hongkongers curious about the cuisine of this far-flung former Soviet state. The sisters themselves last visited Ukraine in 2019, prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Brave new world

As Russian forces advanced further into Ukrainian territory over the first few days of the war, the West acted swiftly, first to condemn, and later enacting sanctions on Russia and delivering financial aid and weaponry to the Ukrainian military to bolster their hugely outnumbered ranks. On a more grassroots level, however, something else was brewing.

In London, two food writers, Ukrainian expat Olia Hercules and Russian native Alissa Timoshkina, both directed their feelings of defiance into the #CookForUkraine hashtag of Instagram, building on their experience running #CookForSyria during the Russian incursion into the Syrian civil war, which subsequently raised over £1 million for UNICEF through supper clubs, bake sales and recipe books. In #CookForUkraine, they would do much the same, this time collating Ukrainian and Eastern European recipes and stories to support the Ukrainian war effort through community-based fundraisers.

On hearing about the growing online movement, Oksana and Olena felt “an intense influx of energy. We have decided to act by doing what we do best—cooking. By supporting the #cookforukraine movement, we were able to channel our energy into helping raise money for people in desperate need, both those who are fleeing their homes in Ukraine and also those who need life-saving support inside the country.”

The object of their efforts? Dacha’s signature medovik, a traditional honey cake that consists of 12 layers of honey, smetana sour cream, condensed milk and pastry. The sisters are baking the cake “around the clock and providing all the ingredients, time and passion towards this cause for free,” with all proceeds going directly towards UNICEF Ukraine, Red Cross Ukraine and various volunteers via their PayPal accounts, supporting children and families in the process.

Priced at HK$650 per cake, the fundraiser has long surpassed its initial goal, raising a sum of HK$166,000 in the space of 20 days, with one customer offering to pay HK$10,000 alone for a single cake. “We are speechless and delighted from the wave of love, solidarity and outpouring support from our customers,” she says, while urging more chefs to participate in the #CookForUkraine movement.

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Solidarity from afar

The reception of Dacha’s medovik cakes mirrors the united response of Hong Kong’s Ukrainian and Russian communities, with the Russian Business Club of Hong Kong urging its members to sign an anti-war petition addressed to the Russian Consulate. “[China marketing specialist and Russian native] Ashley Galina Dudarenok is leading the movement, despite prosecution possibly upon crossing the Russian border. Truly amazing to see the proof of humanity wins no matter where you have come from,” observes Oksana.

As the war in Ukraine crosses the one-month mark, Dacha has plans for many more fundraisers in the future, centred around food as a powerful medium for hope and resistance. For Oksana, this is a battle waged with a whisk in one hand and flour as ammunition, with stakes no less consequential than the survival of her culture and homeland. “Words can’t express how grateful we are for the spirit of solidarity and kindness. Let’s cook for peace, for freedom, for truth, for common sense, for rational thoughts and love!”

Dacha, 40 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2420 3555, reservations@dacha.com.hk


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