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A year of war in Ukraine: Borscht on the frontlines

Dmytro serves his fellow soldiers. Photo: Dmytro Lihmer.

Dmytro serves his fellow soldiers. Photo: Dmytro Lihmer.

Dmytro had been used to working in a kitchen – not the most extravagantly stocked kitchen, but one with all the modern equipment he needed to cook ribs, shrimp, steak, or any other kind of dish that would go well with beer.

He was a chef, and he was good at it.

His restaurant’s slogan was, “Take everything you can’t imagine living without, and we make the best of it.”

Dmytro had no military experience, but when war broke out, he volunteered. That’s when the slogan became his unique challenge.

The restaurant in Kyiv where Dmytro worked won a national award for excellence, earning the team a ceremonial copper frying pan. Photo: Dmytro Lihmer.

Over the past year, the fighting has taken place in different forms in different places all over Ukraine – from the cities in the East to the more remote, rural areas in Central and Southern Ukraine.

Dmytro and his fellow soldiers often have to walk for hours into the forests, carrying everything they’ll need in their backpacks. During these battles, they take only the most necessary things, which means minimal food, mostly small cans and bread, things that don’t require cooking. On these journeys, meals are mostly ready-to-eat packets, to be cooked in water heated in a hurry on a small camp stove.

A normal meal on the frontlines. Photo: Dmytro Lihmer.

How to improvise

From the start, Dmytro wanted his fellow soldiers to have homemade food, even or especially when they were in uncomfortable conditions, like living for days in the forest, waiting for whatever would come next.

Sometimes, Dmytro’s team is driven to the battle.

Traveling by car or truck carries risks, but it allows them to take things like meat and vegetables – perishable foods — with them.

In these situations, they often stay in the same place for several days, sometimes longer. This allows them to decide what to cook – to plan for food beyond the basics. And this is where Dmytro shines.

When they arrive at their position for these longer episodes of fighting, the team builds an improvised kitchen out of what they can find, things like bricks to make a “stove,” or if they can’t find bricks, they make a simple camp fire on the ground.

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As the war has gone on, Dmytro has invented some new dishes – a kind of brick-oven pizza, for one – but what he likes to do most is to cook traditional Ukrainian foods. Even in the forest, he tries as best he can to eat what he and his fellow soldiers would have eaten everyday back home, like mushroom soup, and, of course, borscht.

Borscht is one of the most well-known Ukrainian meals – a traditional, hearty soup with multiple layers of ingredients held together by a savory beet broth. To make borsht the traditional way, it takes hours to simmer all the ingredients properly.

But borscht during wartime is different.

A taste of home on the frontlines.

Dmytro serves his fellow soldiers.

Dmytro’s Borscht.

Ingredients (quantities vary):

2-3 bottles of fresh water

Sunflower oil

Pork, or whatever meat is available



Beet root



Tomato paste

One or two cans of beans

Dry garlic

Bay leaf




First, cut the meat, onion, potatoes into small cubes. Grate the carrots, cabbage, and beet root.

Then, put a little sunflower oil in the pot and heat as best you can on your improvised stove.

Once the oil is hot, lightly fry the meat and vegetables.

Next, pour two or three bottles of water into the pot and bring a boil.

If your stove is only bricks and firewood, this might take a while.

Add a little tomato paste and let boil for 10-15 minutes.

Add more water, as needed, then the salt and pepper to taste, along with dry garlic, if you have it.

Finally, light one bay leaf on fire and throw it immediately into the pot, then add the canned beans.

Stir until hot.


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