Early on a Saturday morning in the basement of a chiropractor’s office, a crew of nearly 20 people sits around two long tables, working on dough. By folding and pinching it, the helpers are turning trays of components into Ukrainian dumplings known as varenyky. Standing at another table nearby two others are devoted to prepping the dough. Using flour, a rolling pin, and cookie cutters, one volunteer rolls out the dough and then cuts it into circles, while another spoons potato filling onto each round.
A mix of pop music and layers of easy conversation fill the air. The dumpling-assembly scene is so productive that other volunteers are turned away; the basement canteen is already set with enough workers for the day.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, places like Veselka have seen a resurgence, with diners showing solidarity with Ukrainians by supporting Ukrainian-owned places of business. A fixture for roughly 50 years, Streecha, a subterranean cafeteria at 33 E. Seventh Street, near Second Avenue, is another neighborhood staple that’s seeing a revival, not just in terms of diners who visit, but volunteers who come to pitch in with food preparation.
More akin to eating at someone’s home than a formal restaurant, Streecha — run by volunteers and considered a hub for Ukrainian immigrants — serves a small menu of Ukrainian favorites. An extension of the nearby St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, the money Streecha makes from food orders serves as a fundraiser for it.
Dmytro Kovalenko, who left Ukraine for New York when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, has been running the kitchen ever since. He says Streecha strongly supports Ukrainian resistance against the Russians and now allocates a portion of its profits to the ongoing conflict. Over the past 10 months, it’s not just Ukrainians who have been stopping in to help or show support.
“We had long lines for a couple of weeks and could barely accommodate everyone,” he says.
Streecha invites anyone interested in helping to come by and spend a few hours learning to make varenyky on a first-come, first-serve basis. Kovalenko switched the appointed day to Saturday to pull in more volunteers, and the schedule change has been a success, drawing in a steady mix of regulars and newbies. On any given Saturday, crews of helpers shape, ready, and package about 3,000 varenyky, the amount needed for the week (That number has remained fairly constant before the war and after it started, Kovalenko says.)
When customers arrive at Streecha, they walk toward the back of the space to a table set up just in front of the kitchen where they place an order. It’s strictly cash only, and many diners tend to drop their change and spare dollars into a container as a tip.
The small menu of offerings includes borscht for $4, which comes with a slice of white bread for dipping, holubtsi (stuffed cabbage), and a daily special such as pork ribs with mashed potatoes or mushroom- and cheese-stuffed chicken. The moon-shaped, potato-filled varenyky are sold by the dozen or half-dozen, with some customers taking them in a plastic bag to heat up later.
For those who dine in, “we throw (the varenyky) in boiling water. Five minutes, done. We put onion and sour cream on it. That’s the classic way to serve it,” Kovalenko says.
For those choosing to stay for their meal, they sit down at one of the communal tables. A volunteer brings trays over minutes later, calling off names for some customers and knowing other orders by heart. They’re filled with plates of pillowy dumplings sweetened with caramelized onions or earthy bowls of borscht. Post-noshing, patrons bus their space and leave trays and plastic reusable bowls at a drop-off station on the way out, cafeteria style.
One regular volunteer over the last year, Baruch Lipkind, says he first heard of Streecha back in the 1980s when his family owned a nearby bakery that used to deliver bread there. More recently, since formally leaving the Hasidic community, he started spending Saturdays walking around the city looking for new culinary spots to try. “I came in here initially to eat — the food’s amazing,” Lipkind says. “Then I went on Instagram and saw that you could come in and make varenyky. It’s funny, I called up and asked, ‘How much do you charge for the classes?’ and they said, ‘Just show up.’”
He did and now, “it’s like my synagogue,” Lipkind jokes. Often he’ll show up on a Saturday bearing Jewish culinary gifts of potato kugel or challah to share with other volunteers. That motivation to bond with others and get to know more about Ukrainian tradition is the primary reason that New York University student Julia Li has been back to help on three occasions. Initially, she says she heard about Streecha on TikTok when a food influencer posted about his experience at the Ukrainian kitchen. Throughout its decades in operation, Steetcha attracted customers through word of mouth. Just like with Instagram, Streecha now has a TikTok account both for publicity and for supporting Ukrainians abroad. And as of late, it’s the way more locals are learning about its volunteer opportunities.
For Li, she says, “I wanted to know a different community and to understand their food culture as well. And then I found out that the people involved are really genuine and nice and you get to talk to a lot of people as you help out.”
Streecha is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.