It’s hard to find a finer early-summer climate than Kyiv’s. The temperature hovers around 75 degrees and afternoon breezes toss the canopy of chestnut leaves. The days are long, workdays short and the supply of pork limitless.
Out of such favorable conditions a new English verb has emerged: To shashlyk.
Shashlyk, as a noun, is simple. It’s cubes of meat on a skewer cooked over fire and served outside. The meat can be marinated or not, served with sauce, dill and lavash (flat bread) or unadorned. It is almost always accompanied by a plate of summer tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and green onions.
Shashlyking, as a lifestyle, is also simple. It is the essential summer dining experience in Kyiv.
Purists argue that self-shashlyking is the most legitimate way to enjoy Kyiv’s summer. Ukrainians flock to the woods and islands around the city, backseats full of children and babushkas, trunks packed with firewood, skewers and vodka. Shirts come off, toes disappear in the warm sand and the sluggish Dnipro dissolves the week’s worries. Fires crackle from makeshift rings and columns of pork-scented smoke meander skyward through the trees.
But for the lazy, a place like Kafe Bogamil on Kyiv’s Turkhaniv Island offers paradise on a metal stick. Everyone is welcome beneath its umbrellas: locals and ex-pats; kids and dogs; oligarchs and proletariat. Bogamil isn’t the only place to shashlyk on the island, but it is certainly the best.
In much of ex-pat life, happiness is a function of lowered expectations. Satisfaction comes from appreciating what you get rather than getting what you want. Don’t come to the Island expecting variety, complexity or luxury. Sometimes the beer is warm, the service leisurely and the mosquitoes aggressive, so leave your high-maintenance friends at home.
Nevermind. Pay attention to the care with which the shashlyk master sprays the skewers with water to keep the meat moist; note how carefully he stacks wood in the fire to keep the heat even; marvel at his sense of timing, how he knows exactly when the fat has caramelized around the meat like the crust on crème brulee.
It may be the best pork you’ve ever eaten.
Perhaps the waitress will offer you raki (the freshwater crawdad, not the Turkish liquor) in addition to your shashlyk. Briefly consider the pros and cons of eating shellfish freshly harvested from the Dnipro, but don’t dwell on the decision. Drink a Slavutich from a clear plastic cup, then get another. Listen to the wind in the trees and absorb the sun.
Shashlyk as often as you can. Winter will be here soon enough.