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Nathan Rott

Sushi restaurants are thriving in Ukraine, bringing jobs and a 'slice of normal life'

Soldiers visit Om-Nom-Nom, a sushi and pizza restaurant in Sloviansk, Ukraine. Sushi restaurants are popular in Ukraine and represent a sense of normalcy during war. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Roughly a 30-minute drive from the rubble-strewn hell-scape of Russian-occupied Bakhmut, in a brightly lit restaurant on a lightless street, a pair of Ukrainian soldiers are waiting for takeout. Sushi rolls. Sixty-four assorted pieces.

"We are living human beings," says one of the soldiers, an artilleryman who goes by the call-sign Traumat. "It's very important to be able to come back [from the front lines] and have something from our normal life."

"Such dinners unite us," he says.

Nearly anywhere you go in Ukraine — even in artillery-scarred front-line towns — the country's battered but vital consumer economy is still chugging along.

Sushi rolls with cream cheese, a popular ingredient in Ukrainian sushi, are served at Island Sushi in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

Through air raid sirens and missile strikes, people are still spending money at shopping malls, grocery stores and nail salons. Despite mass migrations of people, coffee shops, bars and sit-down restaurants are still staffed and crowded in cities big and small.

Of all the businesses still operating, though, the country's popular and almost ubiquitous sushi restaurants are perhaps the most improbable.

Dependent on imported ingredients like fresh fish, restaurants have had to navigate supply issues, border protests and power outages. Staffing shortages, long an issue in Ukraine's restaurant industry, have worsened as young people have fled or been conscripted.

Oleksander Lapshunkov manages the restaurant Island Sushi in Zaporizhzhia. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

"People could make films about how Ukrainian businesses adapted and survived through all of this," says Oleksander Lapshunkov, the manager of Island Sushi in Zaporizhzhia. "We have proved we can survive through anything."

Ukraine's economy is battered but unbeaten

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has thrashed the country's economy. In the first year after Russia's full-scale invasion, the United Nations estimated that Ukraine's economy contracted by more than 30%. Ukraine's finance ministry said it was the largest recession the country had experienced since it won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

2023 was better. Assisted by tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid, the economy stabilized, as businesses adapted to their wartime reality. In an opinion piece, Yulia Svyrydenko, Ukraine's economy minister, wrote that they're projecting 4.6% growth in 2024.

Island Sushi, in Zaporizhzhia, is about 20 miles from the trenches and minefields that now scar southern Ukraine. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

But questions about continued financial aid from the U.S. and European Union are raising concerns. Svyrydenko has said that Ukraine is making contingency plans to keep the economy running.

Keeping the consumer economy going and money changing hands is critical to Ukraine's longevity in a prolonged war. People need jobs. The government needs tax revenues. But it also provides civilians with a semblance of normal life.

"Being at a restaurant, sitting at a restaurant is almost like psychotherapy," says Olha Nasonova, a restaurant consultant in Kyiv and co-founder of the National Restaurant Association of Ukraine. "It's how we feel the normalcy of life when life is not normal around you."

Olha Nasonova, a restaurant consultant and co-founder of the National Restaurant Association of Ukraine, sits at a sushi restaurant in downtown Kyiv. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

Which brings us back to sushi. The Japanese delicacy rose to popularity in Ukraine following the end of the Soviet Union. The flavors, the presentation, the chopsticks were all viewed as exotic.

Sushi quickly became a dish that represented Ukraine's efforts to distance itself from its bland Soviet past, Nasanova said, popular on special occasions and holidays.

Importing ingredients has been a challenge

Today you'll find sushi restaurants in nearly every corner of Ukraine. Sometimes in great numbers.

Supplying them with fresh ingredients — particularly in the early months of Russia's full-scale invasion — has been a challenge.

Trucking companies, nervous about missile strikes and roadblocks, were hesitant for most of the first year to ship supplies. Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports continues to suffocate trade along the country's southern coast.

A food supply warehouse in Zaporizhzhia receives a delivery of fresh fish that will be sold to sushi restaurants. They also sell other sushi ingredients, including soy sauce, rice — and cream cheese, which is popular in Ukrainian sushi rolls. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

More recently, protests at the Polish border have dramatically slowed imports into Ukraine, costing the country's economy more than $150 million.

Serhiy Fedorchenko, the manager of a food supply business in Zaporizhzhia, says the protests haven't affected their ability to get fresh fish and other sushi ingredients like wasabi, seaweed and — for the Ukrainian sushi palate — cream cheese.

"The Japanese don't know what we put in our sushi," he jokes, nodding to stacked buckets of cream cheese in what they've dubbed the sushi corner of their warehouse. "But people like it, so it's good for business."

Serhiy Fedorchenko is the manager of a food supply warehouse in Zaporizhzhia. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

Power outages from Russia's targeted attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure have forced food suppliers and restaurants to invest in electrical generators. Policies have been put in place to let perishable foods like fish jump ahead in the long lines at the Polish border, Fedorchenko says.

"It's not normal but we've adapted," he says.

Adapting is what restaurant managers like Lapshunkov are trying to do, too. Hungry for employees, restaurants have been forced to raise salaries and create other incentives for people to work.

Sushi has become a dish that represents Ukraine's efforts to distance itself from its Soviet past. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

Business is good at Island Sushi, Lapshunkov says, partly because of the increased military presence in southern Ukraine. And partly because after nearly two years of war, civilians are hungry for a sense of normalcy.

"The philosophy of Ukrainians in general is to feed our guests, to feed ourselves. We like food," he says. "We are trying to provide people with a slice of normal life."

NPR's Hanna Palamarenko contributed reporting.

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