The first Ukrainian restaurant to open in the UAE has become a sanctuary for those displaced by war.
Although chefs and co-owners of Yoy — the latest restaurant to open at The Pointe on Palm Jumeirah — have lived in Dubai for eight years or so, 80 per cent of staff fled the war in Ukraine.
Most are waiting for peace to be restored before returning home, and until then have taken up kitchen jobs or waiting positions.
Vasylisa Frolova, a former television presenter, relocated to Dubai from Ukraine a year ago with her young family after the Russian invasion, while her mother fled the conflict for Germany.
The story of displaced families is a familiar thread among those who reluctantly left their homeland to seek solace elsewhere.
“We are the only Ukrainian restaurant in the UAE and also the Middle East,” said Ms Frolova.
“No one seems to know much about Ukrainian cuisine and culture, we want to help with that.
“It is not ordinary flavours and textures, the food is really special and different from Russian food.”
Borscht is a bestseller. The traditional Ukrainian beetroot soup has been given special Unesco status for its heritage value.
Another popular dish is vareniki, potato dumplings usually served with sour cream.
There are now about 25,000 Ukrainians in the UAE, many of who have relocated since the February 2022 invasion.
The diaspora has united to enjoy cultural performances and live entertainment evenings at the restaurant, the first of which attracted more than 150 people last Sunday evening.
“More people are coming to the UAE from Ukraine because of the war,” said Ms Frolova.
“It is the reason I am here. We must stay together and keep talking about our heritage and culture.
“I was a TV presenter in Ukraine, I lost my job and everything else because of the war.
It is important to give people a taste of home, she said.
Restaurateurs Georgy Pionov and Pavlo Moroz collected authentic and unique elements from their homeland for their restaurant, Yoy — meaning “wow” in Ukrainian.
Taste of home
Other popular dishes served up to hungry diners are Transcarpathian lamb, with a crust, slow-baked in a wood-fired oven, in keeping with an old recipe.
The restaurant has plenty of touches to remind people of home, such as a 13-metre-long table made of Ukrainian wood decorated with a giant, hand-woven stork’s nest.
Maryna Makarova, from Kharkiv, left with her older sister, Margarita, shortly after the conflict reached her city.
“When the war started, we were very scared,” said Ms Makarova, 28, who is a waitress at the restaurant.
“Our parents lived in a village near Kharkiv.
“In the first days of the war, there were problems with mobile communications and we could not call our relatives, so my sister and I went to be with them.
“The next day, Russian soldiers came to our village and we lived under occupation.
“We had no food, water, medicine. It was scary. So we lived like that for almost two months.”
Her parents’ apartment was destroyed by a Russian bomb, forcing the family to live in the basement of the building.
They remained there until the village was liberated by Ukrainian troops, allowing the sisters to return to Kharkiv.
The city has been under intense shelling throughout the conflict, and prompted the sisters to move to Dubai.
“We were looking for work and got offered a good job by a business we had known for a long time,” said Ms Makarova.
“It was the first Ukrainian restaurant to open in Dubai, so we were happy.
“We passed two interviews, learnt all the conditions and here we are.
The restaurant has given them a lifeline away from home, she said.
“We love Yoy because it is a part of Ukraine.
“Only Ukrainians work here, and many decor items are handmade and brought from Ukraine.
“Some guests who visit Yoy sometimes cry because they haven't seen their homeland for a long time.”