Lerane Khaybullayeva designed her restaurant in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to resemble her parents’ house and yard in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula which Russia has occupied since 2014. She called it the Crimean Yard, and she established the Museum of Crimean Memories there, inviting her friends and neighbors to bring something reminding them of Crimea:
Я могла би назвати його Музеєм Криму, але це звучало б пафосно і монументально. Музей кримських спогадів – це про ностальгію тих людей, які жили у Криму, були у Криму, або тільки мріють там побувати.
I could call it the Museum of Crimea, but it would sound pompous and monumental. The Museum of Crimean Memories is about the nostalgia of the people who lived in Crimea, visited Crimea, or only dreamed of visiting it.
The small restaurant serves Crimean Tatar cuisine, as well as that of a number of Crimean ethnic minorities, some of them nearly extinct. What Lerane does is less a business project than a years-long public educational and promotional campaign dedicated to Crimea and its indigenous people.
Might and misery
Like many other Crimean Tatars, Lerane left Crimea following the Russian occupation in 2014. And her story reflects thousands of others from this Ukrainian ethnic minority in nearly all other respects.
For centuries, the Crimean peninsula served as a final stop for dozens of ethnic communities and tribes of the Black Sea basin as well as those crossing the south of what is now Ukraine from east and west. Historically, it was a unique mix of dozens of ethnicities and cultures: Greek, Italian, Gothic, Turkic, Jewish, Romani (Roma), Eastern Slavic, and local groups. Today, Crimean Tatars are the largest remaining group in Crimea, apart from Ukrainians and Russians. They absorbed, transformed, and hence preserved what was still there of the peninsula’s indigenous cultures after autocratic experiments of the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
When Germany occupied Crimea in 1942, the ethnically diverse and mixed peninsula was a serious puzzle for the Nazi administration attempting to annihilate Jews and Roma in the region. In Crimea, they encountered Karaites and Krymchacks, two tiny minorities whose roots were Turkic but whose faith was Judaic, and the local Roma were heavily assimilated with the Tatars. The Nazis did not target Tatars, the Muslims who found themselves protected by the Third Reich’s attempts to find and keep allies among the European Muslims and in the Middle East.
After the re-establishment of the Soviet regime in Crimea in 1944, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population accusing them of collaboration with the Nazis. The Crimean Tatars were forced onto cattle trains and sent to the wildlands of eastern Russian provinces and Soviet republics in Central Asia, mostly in Uzbekistan. Many died along the road or soon after their arrival.
It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Crimean Tatars started returning. In Ukraine, the Crimean Tatars, who barely had any reason to grieve the USSR or love Russia, have been traditionally — and correctly — perceived as the strongest supporters of the sovereign Ukrainian state in Crimea. Thus, many had to flee when Russia annexed the peninsula once again in 2014. Many of those who decided to stay have faced political repression and violence. Some have been killed, and many have ended up in prisons.
Lerane Khaybullayeva was born in Uzbekistan. For her, cooking has been a family affair. Her family returned to Crimea in the 1990s. She left the peninsula in 2016 and found a new home in Irpin near Kyiv. She opened her first Crimean Yard there, offering visitors a mix of her family’s culinary traditions with what she learned later from other people and books.
In 2022, the Russian invasion uprooted Lerane again. In the first month of the invasion, Irpin became one of the places of the most fierce fighting as the Russian forces tried to rush through it into Kyiv, the capital. The Crimean Yard was destroyed by Russian artillery, and Lerane with her son had to leave once again, and her husband went to fight.
A heritage of exile
When I met Lerane in Lviv in mid-August 2023, it was several days before she opened the Crimean Yard there. She brought some Tatar pakhlava, a traditional sweet, and she told:
Турецька пахлава солодша. Ми заливаємо тісто сиропом, він стікає і тісто висихає. У турків пахлава запікається в сиропі, у кримських татар смажиться. У нас, кримських татар, небагато солодощів. Ми маємо пахлаву, кураб’є – це весільна страва, – і ельву, це ритуальна страва на похорон. Решта – це варення: з лілії, троянд, кизилу, абрикосу з грецьким оріхом, персикове, інжирне, молодих плодів грецького горіху, але останнє дуже поширене також у вірмен. Вірменську кухню я теж вважаю кримською, тому що вірмени теж жили в Криму.
The Turkish baklava is sweeter. We pour the syrup into the pastry, and it drips off, and the pastry dries. Then we fry it. The Turks bake the pastry in the syrup. We, Crimean Tatars, do not have a lot of sweets, or we lost the recipes. There is baklava, qurabiye, a wedding dish, and elva for funerals. The rest are jams — from lilies, roses, cornels, apricots with walnuts, peaches, figs, and crude walnuts, although it is also popular among Armenians. I consider Armenian cuisine also as Crimean, as Armenians lived in Crimea.
From the Crimean Tatar dishes, cheburek is the most famous in Ukraine, and Lerane is currently working on getting it recognized as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. She is also working on an online map of all the places in Ukraine offering cheburek. It is a very thin, fried dough filled with meat, but now, there are variations with potatoes, mushrooms, cheese, and more. These mass-market versions are also twice as big as the type the Crimean Tatars used to make. Yantiq is the same as cheburek, but it is baked instead of fried. Lerane suggests that the Tatars borrowed the latter from Italians as it is similar to the calzone.
Turkic communities everywhere used to have cattle breeding as one of their main occupations, and there is a lot of meat — mostly lamb meat — in Crimean Tatar traditional cuisine, as well as in what they adapted from other ethnic communities, like kobete — a meat, potato, and onion pie, presumably from Krymchacks, or samsa, from Uzbecks. They also have different recipes of plov, or pilyav, a dish of rice and meat: one originally Crimean Tatar, another, with more fat, Uzbeck. For those who visit Crimea, all this food is associated with roads and places popular among tourists where it has been commonly offered as a kind of local fast food.
In Kyiv, Odesa, and Lviv, big cities and popular tourist sites where the Crimean and Crimean Tatar restaurants and cafes emerged and gained huge popularity after 2014, the owners and chefs face obvious challenges, not only in adjusting to local preferences but also in getting some traditional products and ingredients because of the climate differences. Like others, Lerane Khaybullayeva had to find her way:
There is a fine fig crop in Transkarpathia. We have already started making jams but I can’t offer jam from lilies as they grow only in Crimea and the south of the Kherson region, which is also occupied. But there are grape leaves everywhere in Ukraine. And the entire Ukrainian land produces flour, oil, and meat. Glory to Ukraine.