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Sushi in Ukraine: Life (and the consumer economy) continues through 2 years of war

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Twenty-five miles from the front lines in southern Ukraine, in the back of a restaurant where drawings of a mohawked Winston Churchill decorate a wall, a pair of cooks are preparing sushi rolls.

CLAIRE HARBAGE, BYLINE: It's like two rolls in one. Can you see that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This ying yang (ph).

HARBAGE: What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ying yang.

HARBAGE: Ying yang. Yeah, cool.

CHANG: Yes, even in some of Ukraine's furthest corners, NPR photographer Claire Harbage and correspondent Nathan Rott found fresh sushi. As they report, it's one example of Ukrainian resilience in an unending war.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: I know, I know. Sushi? But hear me out. Nearly anywhere you go in Ukraine, in small towns thrashed by nearly two years of fighting, in larger cities like here in Zaporizhzhia, you'll still find restaurants serving immaculate and, yes, delicious sushi.

OLEKSANDER LAPSHUNKOV: My favorite roll - classic Philadelphia, California.

ROTT: Oleksander Lapshunkov is the manager of Island Sushi, a small restaurant on a busy strip about 20 miles up the road from the trenches and minefields that now scar southern Ukraine.

LAPSHUNKOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "I myself am an internally displaced person," Lapshunkov says. "My family and I are from Polohy, which is now occupied. My home is bombed and destroyed."

The war has upended lives, battered businesses and thrashed the Ukrainian economy. Despite tens of billions of dollars in financial aid to the country, the United Nations estimates that Ukraine has lost 30% of its GDP since Russia's full-scale invasion began in 2022. And yet, anywhere you go in the country, cafes, pizza joints and restaurants like Lapshunkov's are still open, employing people and providing what they say is a much-needed sense of normalcy.

LAPSHUNKOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: People could make films, Lapshunkov says, about how Ukrainian business adapted and survived through all of this. Sushi, a dish that, in Ukraine, relies almost entirely on imported ingredients, is a good example of how some aspects of Ukraine's consumer economy continue to thrive.

SERHIY FEDORCHENKO: Soy sauce.

ROTT: Serhiy Fedorchenko is a good example. He's the manager of a food supply warehouse in Zaporizhzhia.

FEDORCHENKO: Wasabi.

ROTT: Ooh, wasabi.

FEDORCHENKO: Tempura.

ROTT: We're in what Fedorchenko calls the sushi corner of their warehouse, where workers are sealing boxes and stacking some ingredients that you normally wouldn't associate with sushi.

FEDORCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So you see all these buckets. Most of them, they are cream cheese.

ROTT: Everybody loves cream cheese here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

FEDORCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "Yeah, of course, the Japanese don't know what we put in our sushi," he says, "but it's what people like here, so it's good for business." Fedorchenko says business has stabilized over the last year. Food importers who were worried about shipping to southeast Ukraine earlier in the war are moving goods again.

(SOUNDBITE OF CART MOVING)

ROTT: And foods like fish that spoil quickly are given priority at the border crossings from Poland, allowing restaurants dependent on those foods to keep operating. Sushi's rise in Ukraine started after the fall of the Soviet Union, says Olha Nasonova, a restaurant consultant in Kyiv. It became a popular meal, she says, for special occasions, holidays, dates.

OLHA NASONOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "The whole way you eat it," she says, "the chopsticks - people couldn't believe it. It was all very exotic." Naturally, we're talking to Nasonova at a sushi restaurant, one of the first in Kyiv.

I mean, is it fair to say that sushi was kind of like an act of post-Soviet defiance, then?

NASONOVA: Yes, yes. (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: Nasonova says sushi is one of the dishes that symbolized Ukraine trying to distance itself from its Soviet past. And that defiance, she says, is still very much alive today. Despite air raid sirens, power outages and bombings of civilian areas, restaurants are still packed all over Ukraine.

NASONOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: Sitting down and eating at a restaurant is like psychotherapy, Nasonova says. It's a way to show that normal life continues. At a sushi and pizza restaurant in Sloviansk, a 30-minute drive from the rubble-strewn hellscape of Russian-occupied Bakhmut, a pair of soldiers from a Ukrainian artillery unit are ordering dinner.

What did you order?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

TRAUMAT: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: Two pizzas and a sushi roll set with 64 different pieces, says the soldier, who goes by the call sign Traumat. It's military policy for soldiers not to give their real names.

TRAUMAT: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "We like it because when the guys come back from their positions on the front lines," he says, "we need something from our everyday life - comfort food."

TRAUMAT: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: And, he says, they remind them of what life is like outside of war.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, southeast Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.