Kathleen D. Bailey
EAST KINGSTON — A native of Ukraine, Oksana Karcha has been using her skills as a professional chef to raise funds for the people who live in the war-torn country under attack by Russia.
She said her “comfort food” sold at local farmers’ markets is making a difference in her home country. She recently heard from her friend Marianna, who is putting the funds she has donated to good use.
“She helped one family who moved from the city to a house in the country,” Karcha recalls, standing in her commercial kitchen in East Kingston. “They planted a garden, and they started to raise chickens. Marianna asked them, ‘What do you guys need?’ and they said, ‘Two bags of food for our chickens.'”
Karcha, who runs and operates Bucovina Cuisines, said her home country wants a hand up, not a hand-out. She held a special food sale in April where “every penny, every dollar” went to her homeland. She’s planning another one in June.
Karcha, who also does catering under the Bucovina banner, learned to cook from her mother and grandmother. It became her life’s work when she studied at the College of Culinary Cuisine in Glyboka, Ukraine.
“It has always been a dream of mine to own my own food business,” Karcha, 40, said. When she married Joe Oliveira, a family friend, and moved to the United States, she began to put that dream to work. She cooked at the former Zampa restaurant and the Holy Grail in Epping, and also at the Cochecho Country Club in Dover.
In recent years, she’s been cooking Ukrainian food in a rented commercial kitchen and selling her food at local farmers’ markets.
“I thought it would be a good idea to sell my type of cuisine because I didn’t see much variety at the markets,” Karcha said.
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At her food booth, she sells signature Ukrainian dishes such as borscht. Her favorite thing to make is her vegetable dumplings, which she learned at her grandmother’s side. Perhaps her customers’ favorite dish is her chicken cheese rolls, she said, which are also her husband’s top pick.
“It’s chicken breast stuffed with cream cheese and feta cheese, in a dough of flour and egg,” she said. “I sear it in a pan, then bake it in the oven. It flies out of the food stand.”
Compelled to help
Karcha said she has kept close ties with Ukraine. She said she was concerned for the future of the country in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and began its assault of the Donbas region. When Russia began its full invasion in February 2022, she felt a great deal of sadness.
“I went inside my head,” she said. “I was in shock. I cried for many days. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.”
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Karcha said she knew she had to do something.
With the help of a friend, Jean Eno of Greenland, Karcha approached the town of Exeter about allowing her to hold a food sale downtown, and the town was “super-helpful in making this happen.”
The April 24 event on Swasey Parkway sold out in three hours, and Karcha had three hours’ worth of profits to send back home. In addition to the food sales, she has raised funds through Facebook and forwarded them on to Ukrainian hospitals and schools that are hosting refugees.
Praying for her home country
Karcha said she believes in the power of prayer, and has gone on Facebook to request prayers for her country. She’s seen some of them answered, with the Russians pulling away from Kyiv, she said.
She continues to communicate with her friend Marianna, and to receive information about what the Ukrainians need.
Many of the refugees are stable now, Karcha said.
“They have food, they have clothing,” she said.
The next step, she said, will be to see what the soldiers need, and to send packages to the front lines.
“We will keep going,” said Karcha, who plans to continue raising funds through special food sales.
Karcha said she supports Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the way he’s handling the crisis.
“Our nation was so exhausted with these ‘liar’ politicians,” she said. “We needed a major change in this country.”
She’s proud of Zelenskyy for staying with his country and not trying to govern from afar.
“I can see by his manner that he is tired but will not give up. He has, by his sheer will, shown the world what the Ukrainian people are,” she added “He is the right person for this situation.”
Karcha is a regular at the Exeter Farmers Market on Thursdays from 2:30 to 6 p.m., and the Portsmouth Farmers Market, Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. For more information on the June benefit food sale, visit her Facebook page, Bucovina Cuisines, or the town of Exeter’s Facebook page.