Getting to Know You: Alexandra Shyshkina
A series of Q&As with members of the vibrant Irish international community to share their cultural heritage, food memories and stories.
Alexandra (Sasha) Shyshkina is a food photographer living in Dublin. Her work can be found on www.shyshkina.com.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Born and raised in Ukraine to a family of teachers, I grew up in a rural community of 3,000 until I was 14, and went to a boarding school for my secondary school years. I am the older child out of two, so that meant that I “should have known better” and be a “good example” for my little brother. Like many siblings, we fought a lot, but only when the parents were around. We are besties now and share a lot of similar experiences through our journeys.
Maybe something that people would not know about the Ukrainian culture is Easter. In a nutshell, Easter is a commitment, because come 2 AM, your parents get you out of bed to go to church for the morning mass. Most of the orthodox churches are built in the shape of a cross, so all the people line up on the perimeter with their baskets and plenty of candles that they have lit up in memory of the gone ones.The pre-drone photographer Sasha thought it would be really cool to see it one day from above. Now, given the opportunity, I might have to take that challenge.
Back to the Easter tradition. At 5 AM, everyone is lined up around the church with their baskets full of food, including hard-boiled eggs, sausages, whatever early spring vegetables one may have (usually in my time it would have been radishes, cucumbers, green onions, which I will forever associate with the smell of the first real vitamins of the season), and of course, paska or sweet Easter bread with raisins, traditionally covered with sweetened beaten egg whites and sprinkles. Keep the fact that it is 5 AM and April in Ukraine. It is cold. When I was nine, I simply did not want to be there. Some people go inside the church to say their prayers, and the church smells of incense and BO. Eventually, the priest comes out with a bucket of blessed water and a brush and goes around the perimeter, spraying the food and everyone else to spread the blessing and symbolically turn food into the body of Christ. After that, you go home, wet, very much awake and freezing, and then the holiday starts with an early breakfast of the foods you brought from the church. It was only later that I realized the social significance of the event and why I don’t eat breakfast.
I moved to the US when I was twenty. After years in America, a baby, a degree in Photography and Design with specialty in product photography, I started freelancing. I had lots of adventures throughout my career, different projects, big and small, and suddenly I found myself entangled more and more in the food industry, specifically food photography. But I never learned to like Taco Bell.
Portland, Oregon considers itself a food city (although which city doesn’t nowadays?), so there were lots of fun people to meet, lots of good food to explore. My customer base grew from individual chefs all the way to organizations that work with deliveries, cookery classes and kitchen supplies. As did my collection of supporting props and backgrounds, which took over my garage and eventually the house.
Moving to Dublin was rather unexpected news and my husband’s work was the reason. However I dove into the food scene here right away, and it was exciting! I worked for a social media company that gave me a good understanding of all the going-ons and innovative businesses, food festivals, Christmas markets, etc. Of course, 2020 robbed all of us of so many experiences, but I’m looking forward to having further good times.
Do you cook?
Growing up on a farm, I had to start cooking early. It was either planting tomatoes, digging potatoes, or working the stove. The choice for me (stove) was very simple.
I watched my Mom cook for the family, and when the responsibility fell on my shoulders, I had to find the difference between “peel enough potatoes for the soup” and “we are expecting guests, how much salad do you think we need?” very quickly. This probably would explain why I am such a bad baker, for nothing in my kitchen is ever pre-measured and no recipe is ever the same, but it always works out.
My Mom is an excellent cook who is always on the lookout for new recipes; but during the early post-Soviet era and a huge economic recession, she also learned how to be very creative with only a few ingredients in the pantry. I think I got that from her: the less I have in my kitchen, the better the food. As they say, limitations are liberating.
Having traveled to many countries, I found lots of inspiration to bring into my own home, so not all of my food is strictly Ukrainian. Of course, once in a while I want that taste of home. When those moments come, I usually make a double batch so I can give treats to some of our friends because Ukrainian food can be pretty time-consuming, so I better make it worth my effort.
What is your favorite dish, and your favorite food memory? Likewise, what is your most traumatizing food experience? (Everybody has one!)
The one dish that for some reason cannot be topped for me, is fried fresh carp. Growing up by the river, it has become the staple of Ukraine cuisine, and nowhere in the world have I experienced anything like it. It’s clean, sweet, mild, and the ultimate taste of home for me. I also love a good tomato. Living in the north, it’s hard to find that juicy plumpness. I don’t need anything but some coarse salt and pepper; I could eat great tomatoes all day long.
I think the most traumatizing experience for me was the bitterballen (meat croquettes) in Amsterdam. It was such a mind-shift that I totally did not expect. I did not hate them, don’t get me wrong. They just did not look what they would taste like. It is more of a reason to go back and give them another try.
Where do you shop? Is there something you crave that you cannot get here?
I am an adventurous shopper, so I will find things to buy nearly anywhere!
For groceries, we as a family usually go to a one-stop grocery store to pick up the essentials. One of the benefits of living here is that certain products like dairy are consistently good. We do weekly shopping at Dunnes or Tesco for all the basics, and then go off the beaten path for some of the specials.
We have enjoyed going to a local butcher and talking to them about certain cuts and how to cook them. This practice has been dying in America, so having that human contact is refreshing. To get my seafood, I prefer to go as close to the source as possible, so some of the fishing villages have the freshest goodies for me. And then there are indulgences when we visit farmers’ markets or fairs. That’s when we will go out of our way to get warm bread, good jams, fresh mozzarella, good olive oil, etc., and pig out shamelessly.
There’s another kind of shopping, the “Sasha goes alone” kind. This is when I discover my “Narnia” by diving into random Asian stores, exploring the backs of the markets, finding a random Eastern-European shop, touching the ingredients I don’t know and trying to figure out how to use them, and having a bite of something I have not had before. That’s my idea of a secret mini-getaway. Don’t tell anyone.
I have found Ireland to be pretty accommodating as far as certain cravings. With the exception of tomatoes! . If you know where I can find good tomatoes, hit me up.
Are you excited about the cuisines of other cultures, and if so, which ones? Likewise, are there ingredients/dishes that have repulsed you?
I couldn’t call myself a picky eater, though there are some cuisines that stand out when given a choice. I would have to say that my food preferences have somewhat of an Asian incline, I enjoy a bowl of good Phở, I could eat sushi any day of the week, Thai food is a frequent enough request, and oh my goodness we discovered Spice Bags here, and one of them is a podcast. :)
I am also a big fan of anything pickled, salted, dried, snacky. Again, I found that those types of food are easily found in the Asian stores around town. One of the memories that comes to mind is when early in my college years, I had a Japanese friend who was an exchange student. We sat there for hours talking about some of the weirdest foods in our cultures, and found that there are lots of parallels despite the geographical distance. One of them is aspic. I know many may say “yuck”, but I just think it’s a misunderstood dish that suffers because of its texture. As you can gather, not much can repulse me. Maybe just eyeballs? But even those could look into (pun intended) and see myself out.
I do not care for chocolate. Sorry! For some reason people get really offended when I tell them that. I also do not like overly sweet things and prefer to hang out on the savoury side.
When I moved to the US, I really wanted to try Mexican food. It was not easily obtainable or affordable at that time even in Kyiv. And then the moment came!
I was disappointed. It may have been the wrong place or the wrong dish, but it took me years to come back to it. I like it now, but even still, when we go to our favorite restaurant in the US, I order the same thing over and over. Campechana.
But more than the most exquisite food, I like company. Even simple boiled potatoes are good enough for me if eaten with a group of good friends, and good laughs.
Alexandra's Quinoa-Stuffed Bell Peppers
There could be a recipe for this but I never looked it up.
This is definitely one of the winners in my family, and it’s very much foolproof. There's no measurements and you season everything to taste.
What you need:
Bell peppers - one per person
1 large onion
1 large carrot
1 celery stalk
Cook quinoa (I do mine with olive oil, lemon zest and a gentle squeeze on half a lemon for the juice and salt to taste)
Fry ground turkey (sub with cubed sauteed button mushrooms for vegetarian version, or use both)
Saute vegetables (for 4 people, I use 1 large onion, one large carrot, shredded, celery, minced)
Mix the filling and add your flavor boosters like garlic powder, pepper, herbs, anything else you like. Add ⅕ of shredded mozzarella to the mixture.
Halve and seed bell peppers and fill them with the mixture
Preheat the oven to 180C, and bake the filled halves for about 30 minutes. Pull the tray out, grate some parmesan over the halves and let them bake for another 10 minutes or until parmesan is toasty and creates a nice cheesy cap on top.