AUSTIN (KXAN) — When Russian attacks on Ukraine began Feb. 24, Austin resident Olga Koutseridi was in a state of shock. An immigrant whose familial roots lie in the eastern portion of Ukraine, she spent childhood summers in Mariupol, a city besieged by Russia and the epicenter of some of the worst destruction reported in the country.
For years, Koutseridi has documented her baking skills on Instagram, an outlet for her homesickness and yearning for traditional Ukrainian desserts and breads. After the initial shock wore off, Koutseridi leaned into this same outlet and launched baking fundraisers in benefit of Ukraine, featuring her staple burnt Basque cheesecake.
Thus far, she has raised more than $10,000 for humanitarian aid and relief efforts. Proceeds raised from June 5 through July 4 will benefit the local nonprofit Liberty Ukraine Foundation, which specializes in “fundraising for Ukrainian residents, servicemen and women, first aid workers, medical facilities treating casualties, and victims.” The group is spearheading fundraising to purchase medical and essential supplies for those on the ground in Ukraine.
Along with her fundraising efforts, Koutseridi has begun collecting Ukrainian family recipes as an act of cultural preservation.
“Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian identity is being erased — that’s part of the war effort. It’s genocide. They’re trying to cleanse the world of ‘Ukrainianness,'” she said. “[Preserving recipes] was like an act of resistance for people who are engaging and making these recipes in their home and giving a life to this culture outside of the spaces that now have been occupied.”
To date, Koutseridi has collected nearly 100 recipes in various stages of completeness. While some have supported her efforts, she said others have pointed to different areas where attention should be focused.
Koutseridi credited her friend and Ukrainian chef Olia Hercules for her work documenting regional Ukrainian cuisines through her cookbooks. Hercules’ collections cover much of the western portions of Ukraine, and Koutseridi said her hope is that her personal work can hone in on the eastern regions her family has called home.
While the war in Ukraine is the latest in a slew of Russian transgressions against the country, Koutseridi said Ukrainian ethnic communities have been under threat for decades, dating back to the Soviet era. This genocide isn’t new, but rather a more recent manifestation of these same attempts at a higher caliber, Koutseridi said.
As an immigrant watching the devastation from overseas, she said it comes with a unique and emotionally taxing vantage point.
“I tried to bury myself in work and specifically fundraising efforts just as a way to cope and to feel helpful and useful, because otherwise I felt completely powerless,” she said. “I also feel a lot of immigrant guilt in many ways. It’s kind of a complex topic, but I also feel like, I was able to get out.”
While Koutseridi said she left Ukraine before war broke out, she said she felt compelled to find ways to both help and fight for her city of Mariupol and her people. Members of her family, including her grandmother, an aunt and cousins, fled a month after the attacks began.
She said she respects some people’s hesitancy with the project, especially for those in active war zones or those who recently escaped. She also noted the need for other areas of cultural preservation, including linguistic protections for minority ethnic communities, such as her grandparents’ Ukrainian Greek villages.
Here in Austin, she commended the outpouring support from Texans who rallied and donated to Ukrainian preservation efforts. She noted the Facebook group “Austin TX Ukrainians” has been a profound resource for those not only looking to support Ukraine donation efforts, but to find a sense of community here in Austin.
As a trained cultural historian, she said there’s value in ensuring the everyday aspects of Ukrainian culture — music, art, food and language, among others — are protected. But as an immigrant and a baker, she said food has always been a source of comfort and an emotional connection to her homeland and her people. Her hope is this collection of recipes invokes those same sentiments for others.
“Ultimately, the project is to preserve the culture and for people to make these recipes to show that you can’t erase Ukrainian culture,” she said. “And for me, that’s just because food is kind of what I live and breathe.”