January 11, 2018
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It’s Difficult to Talk About Soviet Food
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Long after the Soviet Union collapsed, its cuisine—from the kitchens of Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and beyond—is resurfacing in the United States. Tumultuous history in tow.

Like just about everyone else, I have been thinking a lot lately about Russia. This has to do with the election-fixing headlines, obviously, but also my sudden and alarming interest in genealogy that I can only assume comes from turning 30. My family is “from Russia”—which is to say someone, at some point, emigrated from a shtetl that was located within what would later be the Soviet Union. Which is to say that I feel some ancestral attachment to the country, and also that, with the exception of a potato-heavy childhood and a healthy appetite for gefilte fish, it is not particularly “mine.”

I was thinking about all this when I noticed what seemed to be a wavelet of Eastern European cookbooks being published this past fall: Olia Hercules’s Kaukasis, a “Culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan, & Beyond,” appeared in October, followed by Bonnie Frumkin Morales’s Kachka, which is subtitled “A Return to Russian Cooking.” (And both of those titles, it should be noted, were preceded in 2015 by Olga and Pavel Syutkin’s CCCP Cook Book.) Around the same time, an Uzbek restaurant opened on my block. I also found myself patronizing the New York outpost of Teremok, the Russian fast-casual blini chain, and later spotted a seasonal pelmeni kiosk in Bryant Park.

Was this all some sort of trend? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps the restaurants and cookbooks had been there all along, and I was only noticing now. That is the problem with trends. It is always possible you are just gazing at yourself.

Trends also have a way of glossing over and simplifying, and in her introduction to Kachka, a cookbook named after the Portland restaurant that she opened in 2014, Morales makes it clear that where Russian food is concerned, nothing is simple—or even, necessarily, Russian.

“THIS IS NOT A RUSSIAN COOKBOOK,” Morales writes, ignoring the caps-lock light. Her food is the food of the former Soviet Union. And that food, she continues, was “very much its own thing—both culturally and culinarily.”

This was by design: Defining the food of the budding empire was an intentional state project. If all food is political, then Soviet food was even more so. After the Revolution of 1917, “old-fashioned Russian food was deemed ideologically inappropriate,” explains Anya von Bremzen, whose Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking traces the history of both post-revolutionary Russia and her own family in meals. “And anyway, it used ingredients that were no longer available.”

The official replacement was a utopian vision of ecstatic multiculturalism. The Soviet culinary canon incorporated dishes from all over the empire: the area that is now Russia, but also Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan. “People dismiss it,” von Bremzen says, “but in a way, it was a very progressive cuisine.”

A recipe involving suckling pig wasn’t a meal idea, it was propaganda by pork.

It was all codified in the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food—or as von Bremzen calls it, “the totalitarian Joy of Cooking.” Curated by Stalin’s food commissar, Anastas Mikoyan, and first published in 1939 (and thereafter regularly revised to keep up with changing regimes), the book is grimly romantic, part actual cookbook, part socialist-realist fantasy. It does not, for example, mention drastic food shortages when it advocates a four-meal-a-day New Soviet diet. But it does offer tips for service. (“Each dish,” it advises, “should be delicious and have visual appeal.”) And that was the point.

“It was aspirational,” von Bremzen explains. “You almost weren’t supposed to make it.” A recipe involving suckling pig wasn’t a meal idea; it was propaganda by pork. But, von Bremzen points out, plenty of the recipes were accessible, or at least accessible with adaptations and subtractions and replacements, depending on what was available. Like mayonnaise and canned goods—symbols of industrial progress—extreme scarcity was a key tenet of the new national cuisine.

Cooking styles from different corners of the Soviet Union were cross-pollinating in real life, too, thanks in part to a ban on outside travel. If you were going to relocate (or flee), you were going to do it within the USSR. The Kachka chef recalls that her own grandfather developed a hunchback and was prescribed yearly pilgrimages to a health spa in Uzbekistan, returning to Belarus with ingredients in his suitcase: tkemali, a central Asian plum paste, and spices for adjika, a spicy red pepper sauce. In the ’50s, Hercules’s grandmother, starving in Siberia, fled to Tashkent, where she learned to make manti, Uzbek dumplings traditionally made from lamb. A decade later, when she moved to what is now Ukraine, she couldn’t get lamb; today, both she (still in Ukraine) and Hercules (in London) make their manti with pork.

Some of this cross-cultural exchange was even more brutal. “I mean, they literally moved whole peoples against their will from one part of the former Soviet Union to another and then replaced those people with ethnic Russians,” Morales says. The list of groups—ethnic Koreans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Azeris, Kurds—“transferred” to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia under Stalin is long. (The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food does not mention this, either.) There is a reason her restaurant is devoted to it, the cuisine of a country that no longer exists; you can taste it in dishes like vetchina, a hot-smoked pork loin with persimmon mustard, and golubsti, pork-stuffed sweet-and-sour cabbage rolls.

That said, the foods of the former Soviet Union have been a tough sell to Westerners. “The preconceptions are huge, actually, and probably our biggest challenge,” Morales says. People know borscht, cabbage, and bread lines—none of which are inaccurate—but not much else. When von Bremzen was shopping her first cookbook, the 1990 Please to the Table, publishers were skeptical. “Their response was kind of, ‘I’m not interested in carp or sour cream or shortages. Russia, at the time, had a very bad image,” she says. “Nobody wants ‘USSR’ in the title of a cookbook.” (Conveniently, a year after her book came out, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.)

A generation later, Hercules had similar problems. “Why would you want to write about Ukrainian food, and why would anyone want to eat it?” an editor asked her. He’d gone to a restaurant in the Czech Republic in the ’70s and it had been terrible, he told her, and Hercules agreed it almost certainly was. “But what if he’d had the opportunity to go to my grandmother’s house? He would have had a completely different experience,” she says. But he didn’t, and neither did most visitors: What foreigners had access to was restaurant food, and restaurant food was bad.

The Soviet Union “just didn’t have a developed restaurant culture,” says Glenn Mack, a food historian who started working in Russia in the ’80s and has been traveling back and forth ever since. “You go to the market, it’s one of the most amazing sensory experiences you could have,” he says. (That the vast majority of Russians could not actually afford these experiences is another issue entirely.) “You go to a state-run restaurant, though,” he says—one without access to black market ingredients—“and it’s one of the most frustrating and limited things that you can imagine.”

Meanwhile, Soviet immigrants like Morales’s parents, who came to the U.S. as part of a wave of Jewish refugees in the ’70s, were not necessarily falling over themselves to bring Soviet food culture with them. With few exceptions, people “basically just tried to get as far away from that as they possibly could,” Morales recalls. “Also, if you’re immigrating to a new country, you’re automatically going to try as hard as you can to assimilate.” The political history of U.S.-Russian relations didn’t help, either. “In the U.S. specifically, Russia’s always the enemy,” she says.

“‘Soviet’ is still a pejorative term. Nobody says, ‘Oh, I’m in the mood to eat something Soviet.’”

And then there is the issue of classification: To talk about “Soviet food” experiencing some kind of baby revival in the West is not quite right. “When you say Soviet food—well, there’s Russian food, and there’s Georgian food, and there’s the food of Azerbaijan. They’re really separate countries now,” von Bremzen says. At best, the classification is nostalgic. “I mean, I think ‘Soviet’ is still a pejorative term. Nobody says, ‘Oh, I’m in the mood to eat something Soviet.’” For Kachka, Morales ultimately settled on “Russian,” she writes, but with “a big, fat asterisk implied.”

Admittedly, it’s also difficult to generate much excitement for a cuisine invented and defined by politics. “Everything was grown, canned, sold, and marketed by the government,” Von Bremzen says. “By digesting the food, you digest[ed] the ideology along with it.”

“There was no soul in anything the Soviet government produced,” Hercules adds. “Because it was all state run, nobody cared about ingredients. It was all horrendous.”

But both in the West and in Russia, that’s not so true anymore. Even if the some of the recipes are not so dissimilar from what you’d find in the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, the philosophy has changed. Ingredients are abundant. The peas in Kachka’s Salat Olivier—a legendary showcase for the prized Soviet canned version—are fresh. And Morales’s elevated version of strawberry soup, a childhood favorite made from mashed berries mixed with sugar and sour cream, now involves sheep’s cheese mousse, roasted green strawberries, and green peppercorns.

And so despite its numerous obstacles, “Soviet” food—or Russian-food-with-an-asterisk—does seem to be gaining something like momentum in America. “It’s because it’s new and novel,” Mack says, noting that the country has only really been open to the West for the last quarter-century. Americans like new things, especially when they are not too spicy.

“I think if Russian food is having this moment,” says von Bremzen, who is not totally convinced, “it’s because of the New Nordic.” Meaning it’s a simple function of geography: the surrounding regions are booming, culinarily speaking, with Middle Eastern to the South and East, and Scandinavia to the North. It is also a matter of branding, von Bremzen adds, citing a generation of younger chefs—Hercules and Morales among them—who know “how to use the right words.” No one cares about pickles, she says, but everyone cares about “fermented blah-bity-blah with pickled ramps.” If there is one thing millennials love, it’s fermentation.

But it is also, as always, a matter of politics. “I feel only now we are kind of reviving what’s been lost and what’s been suppressed by the Soviets for so many years,” says Hercules, citing a return to artisanal techniques. “In the ’90s, people were just so busy kind of trying to survive that they didn’t really think about these things.”

“I think maybe you need to be one generation removed,” says von Bremzen. If you don’t have the firsthand political baggage of someone who actually came of age in the Soviet Union, then there’s “freedom to say, ‘Oh, that’s something really cool!’ As opposed to the previous generation saying, ‘Oh, there were long lines and deprivation.’”

This generational divide is perhaps best encapsulated by Herring Under a Fur Coat, an electric-pink Soviet classic, a triple threat of beets, herring, and mayonnaise. “It’s heavy, horrible, proletarian,” says von Bremzen. “It was something you had at bad weddings.”

At Kachka, Morales was understandably nervous about putting a dish with so much baggage on her menu. But it has become one of the restaurant’s trademarks—sensuous and vibrant and singularly photogenic. “Now,” she writes, “there would be riots if I ever took it off.”

The restaurant’s Herring Under a Fur Coat is not just a dish you order. “It photographs well,” von Bremzen says. “And the name is cool. You can see how it could become a hit, without the overtones of the past.” Millennials bring more than distance. They also bring Instagram.

Ingredients

  • 2 medium beets
  • 2 large or 3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 2 carrots, peeled
  • 2 fillets salted herring in oil (pickled herring can be substituted, but it’s sweeter and a bit less decadent—seek out the oil-packed stuff in your local Russian market if possible)
  • ¼ cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh dill, plus a few sprigs for garnish
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 large hard-boiled eggs
  • Kosher salt

This is the dish I was initially afraid to put on the menu at Kachka—with its beets-herring-mayo triple punch, perhaps it’s too Russian? But the combination of briny oil-cured herring, sweet beets, and grated potatoes (and, yes, that pink mayo) won people over—and now there would be riots if I ever took it off. It’s a stunning first course and, with the combination of fish, veg, and potatoes, can serve as an all-in-one lunch. Make sure you make this in a glass-sided dish (or a ring mold, if you’re feeling fancy) to show off the full layered effect.

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°F.
  2. Give the beets a quick scrub (but don’t peel), wrap them in foil, and bake until they’re fully tender so a knife slides easily through the center (about 1½ hours, depending upon size). Remove the beets from the oven, and as soon as they’re cool enough to handle, rub off the skins, using a paring knife or your hands. Let the peeled beets cool to room temperature.
  3. While the beets are roasting, place the potatoes and carrots in a saucepan, and add water to cover by 1 to 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat until it’s just high enough to maintain a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are tender when pierced with a knife, 5 to 10 minutes, depending upon size. The vegetables may not be done at the same time, so remove as needed—you want to be sure that the potato isn’t overcooked, lest it fall apart, but that the carrot is cooked until soft all the way through, with no resistance. Drain the cooked vegetables, and let them cool to room temperature.
  4. While the vegetables are cooking and cooling, make the herring mixture: Remove the herring fillets from their package, reserving the oil. Give a taste—if they’re too salty, soak until they’re to your taste. Dice the fillets into ¼-inch pieces. Place the diced herring in a small dish with the onion, dill, and 3 tablespoons of the oil the fillets were packed in (if you’re using pickled herring fillets, drain them first, soak them for ½ hour in cold water to draw down the pickled flavor, and add 3 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil). Mix to combine, and set aside.
  5. When the vegetables have cooled, peel the skin off the potatoes, and grate them on the large holes of a box grater. Rinse the grater, and grate the carrots into a separate pile. Rinse the grater again, and grate the beets, being careful to keep them from bleeding onto the other vegetables.
  6. In a small dish, mix the mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons of the grated beet, turning it a brilliant pink.
  7. To assemble, take a large clear glass bowl or pie plate, and lay down a layer of potatoes. Smooth with the back of your spoon to roughly even things out (but don’t tamp them down), and season with salt. Add the herring mixture. Smooth this layer as well, then add the carrots, and smooth them too. Add the grated beet—to avoid making a purple mess, place a mound of beets in the center, and then smooth outward. Season with salt, then top with the beet mayonnaise, smoothing out from the center as well.
  8. Remove the egg whites from the yolks, and, using the back of a spoon, press them through a sieve to garnish the top of the mixture (you can also finely chop the whites by hand instead, and sprinkle them on). Repeat with the yolks. Garnish with the reserved dill sprigs and serve. If you’re making the dish in advance, wait until serving to garnish with the egg and dill.
  9. If you want more of a showstopper, Herring Under a Fur Coat can be prepared in 4-inch ring molds: Place each ring mold on a plate, and then follow the instructions as given, using one-quarter of each mixture in each mold. When your individual herring towers have been constructed, gently slide the ring molds up and off. If you only have one ring mold and are reusing it, make sure to rinse and dry the mold between uses, so that you get nice clean stacks.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup high-heat oil (I use canola or peanut)
  • 2 ½ pounds bone-in beef short ribs
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 medium yellow onion, halved and sliced into thin half-moons
  • 2 large red beets, scrubbed thoroughly
  • 2 quarts beef stock (homemade if possible)
  • 2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾-inch dice
  • 1 carrot, peeled and grated on the large holes of a box grater
  • ½ cup smetana or European-style sour cream
  • 1 handful thinly sliced scallions
  • 1 handful coarsely chopped fresh dill Russian mustard
  • 1 loaf dark Russian or Lithuanian-style bread, for serving

If you open a Russian restaurant, be prepared to have borsch on the menu—people assume it’s part of the contract. And if you (like us) don’t want to have it on your menu year-round, be prepared for a lot of furrowed brows (by the way, “There’s more to Russia than borsch” is not always deemed an acceptable explanation). Also, be prepared for a lot of opinions about what makes for a good borsch. Then, be ready for those who are shocked that borsch has meat in it (aka Americans).

As everyone at Kachka can attest, borsch is a dish that people have quite a few strong feelings about. Like every good Russian, I learned to make borsch from my mom—and, with just a few tweaks, this recipe is pretty much hers. So, of course in my opinion, it’s the best version out there.

*Borsch does not have a “t” at the end—somehow the “t” got added on in German (as did a few other unnecessary consonants—borschtsch), so if you want to pass with the Brighton Beach babushkas, lose the “t.”

 

  1. Heat a large stockpot over high heat, and add the oil. While the pot is heating up, season the short ribs with salt on all sides. When the pot is hot, carefully add the short ribs, and brown to a nice dark sear on all sides (a few minutes per side), using tongs to flip (you may need to do this in batches). The sear on the bottom of the pot will give your soup flavor, so make sure it doesn’t burn—turn the heat down if needed. When the ribs are browned, remove them from the pot and set aside on a plate. Discard the excess grease from the pot.
  2. Reduce the heat to medium, and add the onion. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until caramelized (about 30 minutes), adjusting the heat as needed so that it doesn’t burn. When the onion has softened and browned, add the beets and beef stock.
  3. Bring up to a boil, then reduce the heat until it’s just high enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer until the beets are about half cooked—a knife will go in with some resistance—about 1 hour.
  4. When the beets are half cooked, carefully remove them from the pot with a ladle and set them aside in a bowl to cool—this may seem fussy, but it allows you to get the beet flavor in the pot early on without overcooking the beets themselves. Add the browned short ribs back to the pot, and cook at the gentlest simmer, uncovered, for 3 to 4 hours, or until short ribs are totally falling-apart fork-tender (and going longer won’t hurt). Taste about halfway through cooking, and add salt as needed.
  5. When the reserved beets are cool enough to handle, peel away the skin using a paring knife (if it doesn’t just rub off on its own), and coarsely grate them on the large holes of a box grater or in a food processor. When the short ribs have fully cooked, taste the soup, and add more salt as needed. Use a large slotted spoon to remove the short ribs. Add the potatoes, and continue to simmer until they are just cooked through, another 10 minutes or so. While the potatoes cook, pull the short rib meat off the bones, removing any bits of connective tissue. Discard the bones and connective tissue, and chop the meat into bite-sized chunks. When the potatoes are cooked, stir the meat back into the pot, along with the grated beets and carrots. Turn off the heat, and let cool— the pot will take a few hours to cool enough to go in the refrigerator, and the vegetables will cook in the residual heat. Refrigerate overnight.* The next day, discard the hardened fat from off the top. Reheat before serving.
  6. Ladle the borsch into bowls, and garnish with a dollop of smetana and sprinkling of scallions and dill. Serve with slices of dark bread and spicy mustard. If you want the full Russian approach, try stirring some of the spicy mustard directly into your soup—to me, it’s not borsch without this finishing touch.
  7. * If you want to serve the soup the same day it’s made, simply keep it simmering after adding in the beets and carrots. The borsch will be ready as soon as the beets are cooked through. Be careful not to let the soup cook any longer, or else you will drain the beets of all of their color and flavor.

Ingredients

  • 1 large cabbage, or 2 medium
  • Sauce
  • High-heat oil (I use sunflower oil)
  • 1 medium carrot, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced in thin half-moons
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup lingonberry jam (available at Russian markets, well-stocked grocery stores, and, surprisingly, IKEA—if you can’t find it, a tart cranberry sauce makes an okay substitute)
  • ½ cup water
  • Kosher salt
  • Meat Filling
  • ½ pound ground pork
  • ½ pound ground lamb
  • ½ pound ground beef
  • 2 cups cooked white rice
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Vegan Filling Variation
  • High-heat oil, (I use sunflower oil)
  • 2 yellow onions, sliced into thin half moons
  • 6-8 oyster mushrooms (also known as king trumpet), cut into a ½-inch dice (the stems are the most delicious part, so don’t trim them away!)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups cooked white rice
  • 1 handful coarsely chopped cilantro or parsley
  • Kosher salt
  • Assembly
  • High-heat oil (I use sunflower oil)
  • Smetana or European-style sour cream
  • 1 handful fresh dill, coarsely chopped

People have been known to cry over their bowls of golubtsi at Kachka, overcome by deep-seated memories of babushkas long passed, and families separated by oceans. The smell alone is a time machine—earthy, tangy, and transporting. It’s amazing that a humble cabbage roll could stir up so much emotion, and there isn’t a restaurant critic or food writer on this planet who could motivate me more. It’s these moments that keep me going on the toughest of days.

I couldn’t help tinkering just a bit, but these are pretty much just exactly what my mama makes. It’s not the most visually arresting dish, but I’m okay with that. These are never coming off the menu.

    Sauce

  1. Place the cabbage(s) in a stockpot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Cook at a rolling boil for 10 to 15 minutes until the leaves soften (larger = longer), then remove and allow to cool. Peel and discard the outermost leaves (they get a bit blitzed in cooking), then separate the remaining leaves, leaf by leaf if you’re left with something about the size of a baseball. With a paring knife, shave down any thick ribs, so that the leaves are pliable. Take the trimmed ribs and any too-small-to-stuff inner leaves, and slice them to the same thickness as your onions. Set aside.
  2. Make the sauce: Heat a large pot over a medium flame. Add enough oil to coat the bottom, then add the carrot, onion, garlic, and cabbage trim. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften and the onions turn translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and jam, along with the water. Increase the heat to bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce it until it’s just high enough to maintain a healthy simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to combine the flavors. Add salt to taste (you’ll have to be somewhat aggressive to counteract the sweetness). While the sauce is simmering, prepare the filling of your choosing.

Meat Filling

  1. Place the ground meats in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix until uniform, about 30 seconds. Add the rice and salt, and continue mixing to combine.

Vegan Filling Variation

  1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they fully soften and are just beginning to get golden, about 20 minutes, lowering the heat as needed so that they don’t color before becoming entirely translucent. Add the mushrooms and garlic, and sauté until the mushrooms are cooked through and beginning to get a bit of color, and the onions are fully caramelized, about 20 minutes more. Cool the pan to room temperature, add the rice and herbs, and season to taste.

Assembly

  1. Preheat your oven to 425°F. Grab the largest casserole dish/dutch oven/roasting pan you have, and lay down about one-third of the sauce on the bottom. Set aside.
  2. Take one of the precooked cabbage leaves on a clean work surface, and place about ⅓ cup of the filling in the center (the exact amount will depend upon the size of the leaf—you want to be able to form a neat little package). Roll up the cabbage leaf tightly around the filling, burrito style. When you’ve made 3 or 4 in the same fashion, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  3. When the skillet is hot, pour in enough oil to coat the bottom, and place the stuffed cabbage parcels in it, seam side down. Let them cook for a few minutes per side, until golden brown—this helps seal the bundles, and also imparts a delicious caramelized flavor, so don’t skimp! When browned, transfer them to your waiting sauce-lined dish. Repeat with the remaining cabbage and filling. If your dish isn’t large enough to hold all the rolls, you can pile some of them on top in a second layer.
  4. When you’ve finished filling and searing all of the cabbage rolls, pour the remaining sauce over the top. Cover the pan with a lid, then transfer to the oven. Bake for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 350°F and bake another 1 to 2 hours for vegan golubtsi, or another 3 hours for meat-filled golubtsi.
  5. Serve hot, garnished with a dollop of smetana and a sprinkling of fresh dill.

Lazy Variation (Un-stuffed Cabbage)

  1. If you’re not up for all of the filling and folding, golubtsi can also be made lenivo, the “lazy” way. There is a whole canon of classic dishes that have lazy versions (I love the self-awareness of owning your sloth). Simply make the sauce as above, but use half a head of fresh cabbage, shredded, instead of the trim. Make the meat filling as written, form it into 1½-inch-diameter meatballs, give them a quick sear on all sides in an oil-slicked pan over medium-high heat, then gently transfer them to the sauce, and continue simmering for another hour (longer doesn’t hurt).
  2. Lazy golubtsi are a natural fit for a meatball sub (a Super Bowl snack I’ve been known to make): Take a toasted hoagie bun and give it a swipe of adjika and a few saucy meatballs. Top with melty cheese, and stick the sandwiches under the broiler to melt.

Rachel Sugar

Rachel Sugar is a writer in New York.

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