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The Soviet Diet Cookbook: exploring life, culture and history – one recipe at a time

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309 стр.
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16+
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978-5-0055-1758-6
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In loving memory of babushka Lena, who comes back to life every time I open this book.


I miss you.


          Elena Moiseevna Lapshina (Blumek)


                       20.09.32 – 03.03.21

Preface

The Soviet Diet Cookbook project began as a modified Russian version of “Julie and Julia” – a modern girl recreating the experience of cooking from a classic cookbook of another era and writing about it. But the experience differed from that of the “Julie and Julia” project almost from the start. For one thing, our “modern girl,” Anna Kharzeeva, would be exploring the recipes of her childhood and, more importantly, she would be doing so with the advice of her grandmother, Elena Moiseevna Blumek, who used the book as a young Soviet housewife, and with tips passed down from her great-grandmother, Mindl (Munya) Israilovna Maisil, who learned to get by with whatever was available during the shortages of the Russian Revolution and World War II.


What we hadn’t realized going in was that the Book of Healthy and Tasty Food, the book we dubbed “the Soviet diet cookbook,” was as much a propaganda tool as a collection of recipes. While Julia Child might have liked to create a revolution in the American diet via the Art of French Cooking, the purpose of the Book of Healthy and Tasty Food, or simply the Book, was to bring the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution to the Russian diet and help create a new Soviet woman. Among the Book’s modest goals were to free women from the drudgery of the kitchen, create a unified cuisine for the “friendship of peoples” and popularize mass-produced food. With this understanding, we expanded our approach to include an examination of how successful these aims had been at the level of the housewife cooking in the home.


The Book was the brainchild of Anastas Mikoyan, a prominent Soviet official who came up with the idea while serving as People’s Commissar for Internal and External Trade in the late 1920s. One of the first Soviet leaders to travel to the United States, he returned with ideas such as canned food and corn flakes, which fit in well with his plans for revolutionizing the lives of Soviet women by having them spend less time preparing meals.


Mikoyan also understood the importance of food in national culture and identity, and he recognized that creating a new country, the Soviet Union, out of 15 separate republics, would necessarily involve developing a unified food culture. The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food therefore includes recipes from Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as the republics of European Russia. A testament to the Book’s success is that many of the regional dishes included in it — plov from Uzbekistan, dolma from Armenia, Georgian kharcho — are today mainstays of Russian cafeterias and identified as part of “Russian cuisine” by foreign tourists.


The first edition of the Book of Healthy and Tasty Food appeared in 1939, but the revamped and expanded 1952 version was better known, and so it was this edition — which was also the one used by Elena Blumek — that we chose to cook from for the Soviet Diet Cookbook project. Since the publication of the 1952 edition, the book has been reprinted nearly every year (my own is a 1953 edition, still featuring the smiling face of Comrade Stalin) and has sold more than 8 million copies.


As it happens, we picked an ideal time to start cooking the Soviet way. We began discussing the project in Summer 2014 with a start date of Sept. 1. On Aug. 7, 2014, the Russian government banned the import of most fresh foods from Europe and the United States in retaliation for economic sanctions imposed by those countries over Russia’s involvement in an armed conflict that had erupted in neighboring Ukraine. Suddenly there had never been a better time to cook with limited, locally produced ingredients. And, for the first time in many years, modern Russian cooks, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, were forced to decide what to make based on what was available in the stores.


At the beginning of the project, we agreed that Anna would cook one meal from the Book per week in a rotation: breakfast, lunch, dinner and a “special project” — a recipe that would take more time and didn’t necessarily fit the description of a meal, such as pickles or jam. Although we debated grouping the recipes in chapters reflecting the rotation for this book, we instead chose to present the recipes in this book chronologically in the order they were cooked. We chose this approach because Anna’s experience with the Book of Healthy and Tasty Food and its methodology grows over time. Having said that, each text stands alone and can be enjoyed without having read any of the others.


In addition to Anna, her grandmother and great-grandmother, the experiences of a number of other Soviet housewives went into the Soviet Diet Cookbook, as we sought a more complete picture of cooking culture in the Soviet Union. Among the people Anna asked for their memories of Soviet cooking were Galina Vasileyvna, who shared her experiences with the foods of her young adulthood in a Soviet village; Aina Vladimirovna, who grew up partially in an orphanage after her parents were declared enemies of the people; and Valentina Mikhailovna, who was also a Muscovite.


Much thanks is also due to Anna’s husband, Sandy Higgs, who was open to having his meals co-opted once a week, as well as the entire multimedia team at Russia Beyond the Headlines, who sponsored and maintained this project, particularly Maria Azhnina, Yaroslav Cohen, Daria Donina, Elena Potapova, Vsevolod Pulya and Anna Sorokina.

Lara McCoy

Helsinki

2020

Acknowledgments


I am very grateful to Lara McCoy for bringing her daughters to my cooking class one snowy Sunday afternoon in Moscow eight years ago.


I am grateful she then asked me to come on this cooking adventure that made me discover so much about my family, my country and ultimately myself. I want to thank her for having this brilliant idea and for getting me to write my first ever lines about food and making me fall in love with writing. If it wasn’t for her, I would have never made turnips, ponchiki or gematogen strips (although I’m not sure I’m actually grateful for this). Thank you also for creating fun & catchy headlines for each meal.


This book wouldn’t have been possible without the stories from my babushka. Her brilliant, cutting, funny and very real recollections are what makes this book what it is. Her memory, ability to analyze, reminisce and make sense of things are truly inspirational to me.


I am grateful to my mum for feeding me corn flakes and buckwheat during the turbulent 90s, for sharing her memories and for saving the lemon cakes.


I am also very grateful to everyone else who contributed their stories, memories and recipes for the book: my babushka Svetlana Eliazarovna Kharzeeva, Galina Vassilyevna, Valya, Aina, Sasha, Marina Nikolaevna Lebedeva, Narine Mikaelyan, Engely Georgievich Bubelev, Caye Higgs, Nargiz Mukhitdinova, Oleg Valdman, Zviad Jojua, Anton Morozov, Sonia Rashidovna, Vlad Bykhanov


I am grateful to the team of RBTH for publishing my posts every week for two years and for putting up with my early photography attempts and teaching me how to improve them.


I am grateful to my husband for proofreading the first months’ blogs before I had the courage to send them to Lara unedited, for giving me tips along the way and mainly for patiently suffering through all the cooking failures and setting a record on how much Soviet food an Australian can endure.


I am also grateful to all the readers of the blog, everyone who has liked, shared and commented on it. I took some of the comments on board and learned something from all of them.

Anna Kharzeeva

Moscow

2020

Foreword: It’s not just a book, it’s a way of life


“Granny, you know, yesterday I ordered a food delivery and the guy brought it within 20 minutes! I was out of pasta and just ordered it on my phone, and it got here so quickly!” I am very excited about this new service that delivers food within 20 minutes or so, no minimum order, no delivery fee. My Australian friend said just the idea of it gave her goosebumps.


My grandmother, however, couldn’t look less interested. She lives on the 5th floor of a building with no elevator, and I thought she might be happy to have food delivered so quickly and easily. But she says she prefers to pick out her groceries herself.


A lot has changed since she was young. When she was my age, she had to procure each and every ingredient and carry it up the same five flights of stairs. As a young woman, her two-room apartment was home to herself, her daughter, her husband and her mother. Granny lived with her mother and their other family members until her mother died at the age of almost 105. For about 30 of those years, they shared an apartment – and one kitchen – with six other families.


Like practically every Soviet woman, she had a copy of the Book of Healthy and Tasty Food, although teaching at a school and sourcing ingredients didn’t leave much time for cooking.


The same Book of Healthy and Tasty Food still occupies a proud place on my grandmother’s bookcase, although when I pulled it out in summer 2014 to start the project of cooking my way through it — with my grandmother’s advice — it was quite dusty. I was very curious to see how this famous book stood the test of time. Will the recipes be something I want to eat? WIll its instructions for young housewives of the past still make sense today? What will Granny have to say about it?


It was a fascinating read. I was born in the Soviet Union — albeit only five years before it ceased to exist — and all my life I heard about the Book of Healthy and Tasty Food from my mother and grandmother, but never had really looked into it. As I learned during the course of the project, it was the foundation for the cooking I grew up with.


My grandmother’s table always involved a lot of soups – ones using fresh ingredients rather than fried ones, as many Russians do – porridges, baked pies (pirozhki) and vegetables, with the occasional serving of fried potatoes and sour cream. And dill and parsley were always on the table. Dessert was sponge cake with apples or cherries. Growing up, I never noticed that dessert was always the same – my Australian husband had to point it out to me.


The Book, as it was popularly known, and as I called it during the project, features more than 1,000 recipes and includes not only classic Russian dishes, but also Uzbek, Georgian and Ukrainian meals – after all, it was a book for the entire Soviet Union! During the course of the project, I made over 80 of these meals, trying my hand at Russian meals, “ethnic foods” from the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as recipes from the sections “for children” and “for illness.”


The Book of Healthy and Tasty food is not just a cookbook, though, and during the project, I learned more than how to make Soviet meals. The goal of the Book was to explain to every Soviet woman everything she needed to know about food. It’s a guide to understanding nutritional values of food, working out a meal plan, cooking and setting a table. The book is, like any Soviet state-run project, is as much a propaganda piece as it is a cookbook.


It’s clear that the authors of the book saw food primarily as a source of nutrition – they explain how food is key to good health, increasing work productivity and a longer life. The authors also say that the aim of the new socialist assembly lines, which produced many of these new ingredients, was to liberate women from the “hard and thankless” work of preparing meals.The enjoyment of food or its preparation was not a priority and yet, as I came to discover, the sourcing and preparation of food still required a great deal of time and effort.


This matched up with my grandmother’s experience as well.


“There used to be no food in shops,” Granny said. “There were ready-made food departments in restaurants where you could buy something. Each workplace had a cafeteria where the employees had lunch, and some places had a fridge with food that would get distributed among the workers. Around the holidays, we could pre-order food, but there wasn’t always enough, and when there wasn’t, there would be a lottery — the lucky ones would end up with grains, red caviar, tea, cookies and salami. There were ‘distribution points’ in special establishments like KGB or the Central Committee — my husband’s friend worked in the Central Committee and he was able to get him vobla [sun-dried fish]. We would wander around shops trying to find anything during work hours – our boss didn’t mind, in fact she said: if you find anything, get some for me, too!”


Over the course of this book, you’ll find me cooking 80 different meals and getting my grandmother’s opinion about each of them — and boy, does the woman have opinions!


Some recipes work well, while others just don’t (at least for me). For every dish I failed at (or failed me) I added a (better) version of the dish provided by my grandmother and her friends.


Come along on this journey as I get out my herring plates, fill up my avos’ka and prepare an edible fur coat. Confused? I’ll try to explain along the way as we explore that mysterious, difficult, bizarre yet fun period of time known as the Soviet Union one recipe at a time.


If you do dare to prepare some of these, let me know by tagging @anna.kharzeeva, and I will send you a medal — or not, depending on how it goes.

Buckle up, comrades, it will be a fun ride!

1. The Soviet breakfast of champions. Fried meat, boiled eggs, bread and cheese

My first Soviet meal really did sound easy and not too time consuming – just like the party line said it should be. According to the instructions, all you need to do is get some meat or fish, fry it, boil a couple of eggs, slice off a piece of bread and cheese and make some tea, coffee or get a glass of milk.


Still less time-consuming is the instruction to “get yogurt out of the fridge,” which is the level of sophistication I’m ready for on a workday morning.


In reality, the fun begins with “just getting some meat” – even now, getting decent meat, especially beef, in Moscow, is not an easy task.


From what I understand, the problem with finding good meat began with Stalin. The Soviet leader got rid of all the beef cattle and decided that dairy cows could be used for both milk and meat. The result was very tough beef that almost always needs tenderizing. Sometimes even slow cooking it doesn’t help – let alone getting a cut decent enough to fry a steak.


There are seven grocery stores within a 10-minute walk from my house, and as far as I know, not one has decent, affordable meat.


But this is nothing compared to Granny’s memories of getting meat during the Soviet times.


“Butchers used to be the richest people in the country. Having the acquaintance of a butcher was priceless,” Granny said. “Butchers used to sell all the meat to ‘their people’ before it hit the shelves – in fact, it was just bones you could find in the shops. My colleague’s mother-in-law was a grocery shop manager, and we used to go to her shop to get meat. But even the shop manager couldn’t be guaranteed a good cut – her success depended on the butcher’s mood.”


This made the carbs-and-protein breakfast completely inaccessible for the average person. Going to the trouble of finding decent meat would have been worth it for a special occasion – much like me going to the best market in town for a leg of lamb – but certainly not for your everyday breakfast.


Fish was more readily available, and there was a selection of red and black caviar, but my great-grandmother, who we called Munka, a single mother who lost her husband in World War II and juggled two part-time jobs in addition to her primary one as a schoolteacher, couldn’t afford the expensive types of fish, and certainly not the caviar.


It sounds like making this “perfect Soviet breakfast” was about as realistic or accessible as getting a leading role at the Bolshoi after a couple of dance classes.

I did eventually find some decent enough meat for this Soviet breakfast, and the meal was quite filling indeed. Yet it was completely weird to be having steak with tea first thing in the morning!


Granny says that in her house, breakfast was most often porridge – my grandfather loved semolina porridge with cherry jam – and lots of bread (again, with jam or salami) and sometimes eggs.


I think I prefer that over tough beef for breakfast, too.

2. A second breakfast.
Zapekanka (fruit & cottage cheese bake)

My second Soviet meal is an important one – the “second” breakfast. Everyone who went to a Soviet or Russian school or kindergarten will always remember it. It was often a zapekanka — anything grated and baked with an egg, accompanied by some bread and milk or tea. This is exactly how the Book describes second breakfast.


For this recipe, the advice in the Book was easy to follow.


The zapekanka I chose is called “zapekanka with fruit, vegetables and cottage cheese.” It sounded fascinatingly weird and not like any zapekanka I’ve ever had. It turns out that the vegetable part is just carrots. The other ingredients are apples, raisins, sugar, spinach and figs.


To me figs are an exotic ingredient and I was most surprised when Granny said: “Figs? Exotic? No… we had lots from Armenia and Azerbaijan – white, purple, whatever you wanted.”


I continued to be surprised when I made the meal and it turned out really nicely. All the ingredients work well together and make a “healthy and tasty” dish indeed.


The only thing I found confusing with this meal is the lack of specific instructions — for instance, after mixing the ingredients, you’re supposed to “bake.” At what temperature? For how long? How will you know it’s ready? This would not fly on any Internet cooking resource or blog, all of which have detailed instructions and often photos to show exactly what you should to do to get the dish to look right at every stage. The lack of instructions is especially confusing considering that the Book is meant to help ‘housewives’ who may not have any experience whatsoever in cooking.


I was also caught off-guard by the “35 grams of carrot” in the ingredient list. I held half a carrot in my hand trying to figure out if it was 15, 20 or 35 grams. If this was what was needed, I would have written “half a big carrot.” I figured that adding half a carrot would be the way to go anyway.


Adding “half an egg” was more challenging. I thought for a second, then went all radical and put in a whole egg. As for the baking itself – it took about 30 minutes on 200C, I kept checking for the zapekanka to cook through and stick together, and it worked out fine.


I do remember seeing kitchen scales in quite a few Soviet kitchens, so that might have been the way to go back in the day. Overall, I doubt the recipe would be called “user-friendly” by a modern marketing specialist.


The ingredient list could be a reflection of how zapekanka was made in early Soviet Russia, when there was “no food,” as Granny put it. You had to use and reuse all the ingredients on hand. Got some boiled rice from the day before and half an apple? Grate the apple, mix it with rice, add some sugar and an egg, and you’ve got yourself a zapekanka! At least, that’s what Munka used to do.


Potatoes, cabbage and pasta can all go into zapekanka. Almost no ingredient has managed to escape inclusion. I think that’s the reason I don’t get excited and starry-eyed when my grandmother invites me over to have zapekanka.


This is also why the recipe from the Book seems so far-fetched: not because the ingredients weren’t available, but because if they were good quality, they probably would have been used for something else.


Granny said that the Book’s zapekanka “looks pretty, tastes very good. It’s very light.” But, she added, “I wouldn’t make it for second breakfast every day – too much work with all the grating and frying!”


Recipe:


100g Apples (about 1);

20g Raisins (a handful);

20g Figs (about 2);

50g Cottage cheese (2 oz);

1 egg; 15g butter (1 Tbsp);

10g sugar (2 Tsp);

5g semolina (1 Tsp);

35g carrots (1/2 carrot);

25g spinach (1 bunch);

30g sour cream (1 oz).


1. Finely chop all vegetables and fruits.

2. Stew carrots with about 10 g water until cooked. Add chopped spinach and stew for 5 minutes, then add chopped apples and figs, 1/2 the egg and mix.

3. Strain cottage cheese, mix with semolina, sugar, the remaining egg and raisins.

4. Grease a baking dish.


5. Alternate layers of cottage cheese and fruit until all ingredients are gone.

6. Even out the top, spray with butter and bake

7. Serve sour cream.

3. After this lunch, who needs dinner. Stuffed eggplant, mushrooms in sour cream, creamed chicken soup and kompot

I remember when I took on this project hoping that all the meals I was going to make would be quick and easy. After all, one of the clearly stated reasons for creating the Book was to let women spend their time on self-education and family.


I guess the authors’ definition of “quick and easy” is different from mine — in part, no doubt, due to general laziness and the ease with which we are used to cooking these days.


The Book has recommended lists of lunch options for winter, spring, summer and fall. The Book’s introduction specifically notes that “you have to keep in mind the influence of the season.”


I chose an autumnal suggestion, as it was fall, and then a Sunday, since this was likely the only I would have time to make four — yes, four! — courses for lunch. I know that traditionally Sunday lunch in many countries was a big meal, but to me, it’s a sandwich, leftovers, or a brunch invitation from friends.


The Book instructs housewives: “before starting to make lunch, breakfast or dinner, one must estimate by what hour they should be ready, and count how long the meal will take to prepare.”


In contrast to my typical lunch, the Soviet lunch took just under two hours to make and included baked mushrooms with cheese, baked eggplant with vegetable stuffing, cream of chicken soup and the omnipresent apple kompot, which is a drink made out of fruit, berries or dried fruit, and served as juice, with some fruit at the bottom of the glass.


Here it also should be noted that my cooking time was no doubt helped by my well-equipped, enormous 9.5-square-meter kitchen. For comparison, Granny’s Soviet-era kitchen is about 4.5 square meters.


Nevertheless, in this space, she manages to cook for any number of people and also seat and feed three. The kitchen still feels palatial to her since until the 1960s she shared a kitchen with four other families in a communal apartment, a kommunalka.


“The house belonged to a merchant before the revolution,” Granny said, remembering the apartment where she lived for 27 years. “It had one-and-a-half floors, and each was turned into a separate kommunalka. There were five families in ours, including a former countess who lived in the entryway, sharing one kitchen, no fridge, one toilet and one sink. Before World War II, we used a primus stove [a kind of burner heated by compressed kerosene], and after the war we had gas stoves, which were fabulous. Our neighbor, an old lady from a village, would gasp each time she walked into the kitchen: ‘Thank you Comrade Stalin for providing us with gas!’ When we wanted to keep something cold, we would get a big bowl, fill it with cold water (the only kind there was), place a pot in it with a little bit of butter, or salami, or soup, or whatever, cover it with a cloth and put the ends of the cloth into the cold water.”


I don’t think the kind of lunch described in the book was a typical one for my grandmother. When I described the feast-like lunch to her, she said: “Wow! Amazing! We never had cream soups though – didn’t have the equipment to make them.”


Fortunately I did have the equipment to make everything and it all turned out more or less ok. I followed the Book’s recipes to the letter for the mushrooms and eggplant, and I was pleased with both of them.


The recipe for the cream of chicken soup comes from the “healthy” section of the book, which is recommended for people “malnourished after difficult diseases and surgeries.” It doesn’t specify that in the menu though, which is a shame. My recommendation: unless malnourished, don’t make it. The consistency is really strange, I don’t think chicken is meant to be turned into cream. It looks like it’s already been eaten and the flavor is pretty dull.


The recipe for kompot is also pretty standard. It’s still made frequently for schoolchildren in Russia, except that now, some moms sneak in some ginger and cinnamon to add a little extra flavor.


I enjoyed the mushrooms, eggplant and kompot, and felt like a proud Soviet housewife having made it all. But not enough to give up my regular Sunday brunch spot!


Recipes:


Stuffed eggplant:


Wash eggplants, take ends off, cut open (not to the bottom), and take seeds out with a teaspoon. After that, put eggplant into salted boiling water for five minutes, stuff with chopped vegetables or mushrooms. Put in a greased, oven-proof baking dish, cover with sour cream and bake approximately 1 hour.


Mushrooms in sour cream:


For 500 grams (about 1 lb) fresh mushrooms, use 1/2 cup sour cream, 120 grams (1/4 lb) cheese, 1 teaspoon flour, 2 tablespoons oil

Clean, wash and pour boiling water over mushrooms. Drain, chop up, salt and fry in oil. When almost fried, add a teaspoon of flour and mix, then add sour cream, boil, add grated cheese and bake.

Before serving, sprinkle mushrooms with parsley or dill. You can also bake pickled mushrooms. In this case, drain the marinade, wash and chop up the mushrooms and fry.

Continue as with fresh mushrooms.


Apple or pear kompot:


Peel apples, remove the core and cut into 6–8 pieces each. So that the apples don’t go brown, before boiling, put them into cold water with a little lemon juice. Put sugar and 2 cups hot water into a pot, then add the apples and boil on low heat for 10–15 minutes until apples are soft.


Creamed chicken soup:


100 grams chicken meat; 15 grams butter; 10 grams onion; 10 grams white root vegetables; 10 grams flour; 50 grams cream; 1/2 egg yolk; 750 grams water

Boil chicken until ready. Fry onions and root vegetables in oil with flour until yellow, add broth and boil 15–20 minutes, then strain.


Mince the chicken meat twice then add it to the broth. Mix well. Add cream mixed with egg yolk.

You can serve with white bread croutons or meat pies (pirozhki).

4. Real food and realistic expectations. Fried eggs with tomatoes and croutons

After working my way through Book of Healthy and Tasty food for a month, I was pretty familiar with most of its main myths. It’s clear that propaganda was as strong in the fields of soups and stews as it was in art, labor and politics.


The main surprise for me was the quantities of food a Soviet citizen was meant to procure and consume: starting with a protein-heavy breakfast of fried meat or fish with boiled eggs, bread, cheese and milk, tea or coffee. This was followed in just a few hours by a second breakfast consisting of a vegetable bake or sandwiches. Then after work was “lunch” or the main meal of the day, which involved an appetizer, soup and a main meal with fruit kompot or dessert.


After all that, you’re supposed to have dinner, about two hours before bed. This should consist of prostokvasha (a kind of dairy drink like buttermilk), and an omelet or a salad.


The Book also reminds housewives of the importance of a balanced and diverse selection of dishes: “One must vary the menu. A housewife has the habit of making 10–12 meals… that get repeated throughout the year. As a result, members of the family get monotonous food.”


Russian, and especially Soviet food, has never known much variety, but this was mostly the result of a lack of available ingredients, rather than a lack of desire to feed a family well.


My childhood memories of “monotonous food” are confirmed by my grandmother.


“There was no food. What we ate was very much the same, no variety whatsoever,” Granny said. “There wasn’t a cult of food, like there is now. Today I think of what I want to cook, then go to the shop and get the ingredients for it. Back in the Soviet times, I went to the shop to try and find anything, and then cooked with whatever I found. There was never a fuss about food – you just cooked and ate what you could find, that’s it.”


Then she added: “Don’t forget, the Book was an ad for the happy Soviet life. Sure, some recipes were realistic, but a big part of the Book is just for show.”


And what a show it is! The variety of recipes is truly endless. Time has worked in its favor, too. Now that you can get the ingredients, the Book of Healthy and Tasty Food can be ranked up there with some of the best cookbooks I’ve seen. Although it could be more user-friendly. Of the overall lack of instructions, I can only assume the authors thought: “Why write it all out if no one’s going to be able to make it anyway?”


For this “light” dinner, I chose to cook fried eggs with a side dish — a meal that didn’t really suffer from a lack of instructions. The meal was pretty simple and quick and, I must say, absolutely delicious! I cut up dark bread and fried it in a pan, and then added tomatoes, which I stewed for a bit before pouring the eggs on top. If you have a lot of “base” and add other vegetables, it will be a little bit like Israeli shakshuka, in which eggs are poached in a tomato base. I had never before thought to fry eggs right on top of tomatoes and fried dark bread, and that was clearly my loss. Eating breakfast for dinner makes sense, too, when you’ve had meat for breakfast.


Recipe:


To make fried eggs with a side dish you need to first fry pieces of dark bread, lard, ham, sausages, salami, zucchini etc..

Then put eggs on top, salt and keep on the stove for 1–2 minutes and then bake for 3–4 minutes. As soon as the egg white is the color of milk, serve it on the frying pan or a warm plate.

If you don’t have an oven, the frying pan with eggs should be covered with a lid or plate.

5. In praise of grechka. Buckwheat

My second Soviet breakfast was a meal with which I was very well acquainted. Every Russian kid I knew grew up on it, and I’m pretty certain all Russians have loved it at some point in their lives. It’s grechka, the ubiquitous buckwheat porridge that is served not only for breakfast but also appears as a side dish at lunch or dinner.


Buckwheat has to be sorted before cooking, and as a kid, I always had the task of picking out all the bad grains. I remember sitting at a table filled with uncooked buckwheat, talking to my mother, grandmother and brother while sifting through it — it was a bonding experience for every Soviet family.


There are many different ways of cooking buckwheat, and someone adept at a particular method will insist religiously that his or her is the only way. The Book seems to take this into consideration, suggesting several options for additions to buckwheat, including cooking it with butter, eggs, liver, mushrooms and onion or even brains.


After the buckwheat is fully cooked, you’re supposed to wrap it with blankets and leave it in a warm place for a few hours. My grandmother would often disappear into the bedroom before serving breakfast or lunch, where she would unwrap a pot of porridge that had been lovingly tucked in her bed. I remember as a child learning that it was important to check the bed for pots before settling in for a nap — it was a mistake you only made once.


In preparing my buckwheat porridge, I went for the simplest version: grechka with butter. It seems like all the ingredients for it should have easily been available in the Soviet era and yes, they were, but mainly in Moscow.


As a typical Muscovite, I tend to forget about the existence of the rest of Russia (of which I am not proud), but while my mother and grandmother are from Moscow, my dad is from Kursk, a city about 525 kilometers (325 miles) south of Moscow, reachable by overnight train.


His mother was born in Moscow, but was evacuated from the city during World War II and wasn’t able to move back, as it was very difficult to get permission to live in Moscow after the war.


The life of my dad’s parents in Kursk was quite different from that of my mom’s parents in Moscow. My Kursk grandparents couldn’t even get such basics as butter, sour cream or salami. So, my Moscow grandparents would go to the train station and bring a package of food to give to the train conductor, which the Kursk grandparents would collect on the other end.


Trains between Moscow and Kursk would leave around midnight and arrive early in the morning, so this transfer of goods naturally required quite an effort from both sides to put that piece of butter on their morning buckwheat porridge.


I can imagine my paternal grandfather on a dark winter morning taking the bus to the train station to pick up the food before going to the local university, where he taught medicine. He probably kept his butter in a fridge at work before he could take it home.


Overall, the distribution of food across the Soviet Union was appalling.


“There were tour buses full of people from other cities pretending to be interested in the Kremlin and Red Square,“Granny said. “They all came to Moscow to shop for food – salami, sausages, tea, everything. All the things they couldn’t get at home. We locals would always be annoyed at the out-of-towners snatching up the last piece of bone with a trace of meat on it in the shop.”


There was even a joke that U.S. President Jimmy Carter asked Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, “How do you distribute food in such a big country?” Brezhnev supposedly replied, “That’s easy. We just bring it all to Moscow and then the people come here and distribute it themselves.”


Another famous Soviet-era joke is about the forbidden books secretly reprinted at home – “samizdat” (which just means self-published in Russian). “Samizdat books would go around town pretty quickly. When you got your copy, you’d read it overnight,” Granny said. She remembers a friend calling her to say he had read the book and was ready to pass it on to her – but of course he couldn’t name the book, so instead he used the code word “grechka.” The conversation went something like: “Hi, so I ate the buckwheat and am now ready to give it to you.”


The grechka I made turned out nicely — although not as good as my grandmother’s: I didn’t have the time to let it steep in warm sheets. It does need a lot of butter, as otherwise it’s very dry. But it doesn’t need stirring — you can just put it in the pot with some water, close the lid and let it simmer on low heat for 15–20 minutes and use the time to read some forbidden (or not) literature.


Recipe:


Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add buckwheat and cook, stirring, until thick — about 15–20 minutes. When the porridge is thick, cover tightly with a lid and remove from heat. Let sit in a warm place 3–4 hours. Add butter before serving.

For 2 cups of uncooked buckwheat, use 3 cups of water, 1 teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons butter.


Granny’s method:


1 cup buckwheat

2–2.5 cups water (depending on how soft you want it)

30gr butter, or more to taste

Salt to taste


Sift out any bad grains by spreading the kernels evenly on a table. Heat kernels in a pan for 2–3 minutes, stirring to make sure they don’t burn. Add water, bring to boil and reduce to medium to low heat, salt and cover with a lid and leave for about 15 minutes or until all water is absorbed. Add butter. Wrap in your best blankets and leave for a few hours, or at least 30 minutes.

6. A Ukrainian dish no Russian will turn down. Borscht

The week after I made a Soviet classic — grechka — I decided to follow up with another all-time favorite: borscht. Although known as an iconic Russian dish and widely consumed and loved in Russia, borscht is actually Ukrainian — an interesting thing to point out given that I was cooking it about six months into the conflict in eastern Ukraine when tensions between Ukrainians and Russians were extremely high. The Book has two versions of the recipe: “borscht” and “Ukrainian borscht” — the latter distinguished by the inclusion of lard and garlic.


Part of the purpose of the Book was to create a unified cuisine for the Soviet Union, so it incorporated dishes from a number of the republics. I think it would be fair to say that Uzbekistan and Georgia were the main contributors (outside of Russia) to the Soviet diet. Uzbekistan added plov, a dish of rice and meat, and Georgia — shashliki (meat kebabs) and kharcho soup. Cafeterias also played an important role in popularizing these non-Russian dishes across the country, but in slightly “Russified” versions.


Granny remembers discovering the difference between the local recipe for a dish and the Russian one on a visit to Georgia.


“I liked kharcho, so when I went to Georgia I ordered it at a restaurant,” she said. “But when I took one spoonful, it felt like my mouth was on fire – I couldn’t swallow it. When the waiter realized what the problem was he said: ‘ahhh, from Moscow! Then go to the Intourist cafeteria – they have some Moscow-style kharcho without the pepper.’”


“Russifying” meals is still very big in Moscow, especially with regard to Asian food — our palettes are not used to hot spices. Foreigners always smile condescendingly when told to “beware, the dish is spicy,” as they know that it will have some flavor!


The version of borscht I grew up with definitely wasn’t Ukrainian, although my great-grandmother came from Kiev. Granny always put all the ingredients in fresh, not pre-fried, as is commonly done in Russia, which made her borscht quite different from all the others. To me there were always two types of borscht: the one at home, which I liked, and all the other ones I didn’t.


The recipe from the Book turned out close to Granny’s, although of course not as good! It’s definitely much closer to the homemade borscht I’m used to than what you might find in a restaurant. Since my grandmother’s recipe is clearly the best out there (ask any Russian and you will likely hear them say the same about their own grandmothers), I am happy to share it here, and you can compare it with the one from the Book.


I went past a Ukrainian restaurant recently and an employee out front handed me a flyer with both the Russian and Ukrainian flags on it, inviting people to be friends and eat borsch. Perhaps they were afraid people would stop going to Ukrainian restaurants, given the tensions between the two formerly close neighbors. But even if Russians do stop going to Ukrainian restaurants, I’m sure nothing can put Russians off borscht, and I for one am very grateful to Ukraine for it.


Recipe:


500 g meat

300 g beets

200 g fresh cabbage, shredded

200 g onions

2 tbsp tomato paste or 100 g tomatoes

1 tbsp vinegar

1 tbsp sugar


Boil the meat to make some broth.

Cut the beets, carrots, and onion into strips and add them to a soup pot along with some parsley.

Add tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and a little broth and a little fat (1–2 tbsp oil).

Close the lid and let the vegetables cook.

After 15–20 minutes, add the cabbage. Stir and let simmer another 15–20 minutes.

Add the broth to the vegetables along with some pepper, salt and vinegar to taste.

Serve with sour cream.

It’s possible to add potatoes, fresh tomatoes or sausage to the borscht. Cut these additions into cubes and add to the soup 5–10 minutes before serving.

Beet infusion can also be added. To make this, slice one beet; add the slices to a pot with a cup of broth; add a teaspoon of vinegar and cook on low for 10–15 minutes. Strain, then add to the borsch.


Granny’s borscht recipe:


(serves 6)

2 liters water (or meat broth)

4 medium potatoes (soak for 15–20mins prior to boiling) cut up into small cubes


1 stick celery – cut into 2 pieces and then cut in small bits or grate

Small onion (or half a medium onion), finely chopped

2 fist-sized beets – pre-boil in unsalted water for 40–50 minutes. After boiling, immerse in cold water for 3–4 mins. Grate into a dedicated bowl

4 leaves of cabbage. It is important to use whole leaves, then slice them very thinly.

3 hard-boiled eggs (reserve and add half an egg to the bowl before serving)

1 large carrot (soak for 15–20 mins prior to boiling) use largest holes to grate

Sugar – 1 tsp or a little more

½ or 1 can of green peas or 1 can red beans in their own juice

1–2 small tomatoes (better skinless) – cut up into small pieces

Salt – 1.5 or 2 tsp

Dill and parsley – 1 sprig of each to boil, to taste to serve

1 tsp apple vinegar

Sour cream to serve


1. Bring unsalted water to boil, add unpeeled beets and boil for 40–50min until soft.

2. Peel, cut up and grate all the vegetables. Boil 2 liters of water (or meat broth) in a pot, while the water is boiling, cut the potatoes in half and let them sit in cold water, then dice one and leave the other in halves.

3. When the water is boiling, put in the potatoes first and then the carrots and boil for 10–15min. Add a tablespoon of oil and a pinch of salt. Add the dill and parsley while potatoes are boiling and remove after 10–15min.

4. In 10–15 min add onion, celery stalk (grated or chopped) and tomatoes, add 1 or 2 full teaspoons of salt – boil for 5 min. Then add cabbage (it’s important to salt the water before adding the cabbage as it has to be put into salted water. Boil cabbage for 3–4 minutes.

5. Add green peas. After 3 min, add the beets and sugar. Turn off the heat and add a teaspoon of cider vinegar. Let sit for 15–20 min.

6. Serve with part of a boiled egg in each bowl and add sour cream to taste. If you are making meat borscht, distribute the meat evenly into the bowls as you serve.

7. Worshipping at the altar of the Uzbek food gods. Plov

Trying to make plov is like trying to copy Van Gogh — you know you’ll never get there and feel cheeky to be even trying, but the temptation is strong.


Plov is an Uzbek dish that traveled all around the Soviet Union and became popular everywhere. The difference between the plov in Uzbekistan and almost anywhere else is stark, though. In Uzbekistan, the locals treat food with all the seriousness and almost religious admiration it deserves.


There are rules to follow, and, if need be, sacrifices to be made. I once cooked plov and samsa (a type of filled pastry) with an Uzbek friend: we made our own phyllo dough, which needed a room with warm temperatures and no breezes.


When after four hours I begged my friend to open the window, for a second she stared me down as if I were a non-believer. I got the same look when I wondered if a slightly different type of rice to the one she used would work for plov. I learned to obey the rules and not ask questions, out of respect for the Uzbek food cult.


In the rest of the Soviet Union however, plov was treated like any other dish — if necessary, substitutions were made. And sometimes they were made even if they were not necessary. As a result, cafeterias served what my grandmother described as “rice porridge with fried meat, onions and carrots.”


The one place that served real plov was the Uzbekistan Restaurant — one of the oldest restaurants in Moscow. My grandmother says she and my grandfather used to go there a lot, as they did to many other Moscow eateries: “Restaurants were not that much more expensive than cafeterias, especially for lunch, so we used to go out all the time. After trying all the restaurants we decided Uzbekistan was the best. We couldn’t get enough of the Uzbek food.”


This was a rare occasion when I was envious of something in the Soviet era.


I felt jealous again when, some 50 years later, my husband taught the restaurant’s manager English and got free meals as well as being paid for the lessons. Although the Uzbekistan Restaurant still exists, its prices have very much adjusted to the capitalistic way of things. What was once everyone’s favorite is now a place only the better-off part of the population can enjoy. Vladimir Putin, Jack Nicholson and Mike Tyson all have dined there.


As for making plov at home, I thought what my grandmother made was real plov, until I made it myself and a friend told me it was “very nice….risotto.” She was right. The most important parts of plov are the spices and the meat, mostly lamb. There were no spices in the Soviet Union except for dill and parsley, and lamb, although available at markets, was too pricey. So plov was made with chicken instead of lamb and dill and parsley instead of cumin.


This time, when I made my “plov” from the Book (also with chicken, as decent lamb is still hard to come by), it turned out as nice risotto again, but I knew what I was up against. The Book’s recipe is similar to the one my grandmother uses, and it’s most certainly not plov. Real plov requires a special tall, thick pot called a kazan and a lot of dedication. You can check out my friend Nargiz Mukhitdinova’s recipe for real plov below.


Recipe:


400g lamb; 2–3 cups rice;

200g-300g carrots;

150g-200g onion;

200g fat or butter.


Cut the onion and carrots into thin strips. Cut the lamb into small cubes and fry in a large skillet or pot (preferably cast-iron) in fat. When it is cooked, add the onion, then the carrots and fry together with the meat. Then add to this mixture 4 cups water and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil.

Rinse the rice three or four times, then add to the pot with the meat and smooth over the top.

Close the lid tightly and cook for 25–30 minutes on very low heat.

Serve the plov in a dish with sides, with the lamb cubes on top. Sprinkle with sliced raw onions.


Nargiz’s Recipe:


Makes 8

500 grams long grain steamed rice(Mistral’ Yantar’)

500–600 grams carrot

500 grams beef or lamb filet

3 medium-sized onions

3 bulbs garlic

100 grams chickpeas

Handful of raisins

1 Tbsp cumin

100–125 mL oil

Salt to taste


A day before cooking the plov, cook the chickpeas, or buy pre-cooked canned chickpeas and rinse them.

Put the raisins into some warm water in a separate bowl when you start cooking.


1.Pour oil into the pan and heat it until it is very hot.

2.Cut up the meat into either small pieces or into 3–4 big ones. Put the meat into the pan and fry until it has a red crust; don’t stir it much.

3.Add onions, cut into rings or half rings. Fry until the onion gets red.

4.Add carrots, cut into strips. Don’t reduce the heat, fry until the carrots get softer.

5.Add cold water and put in chickpeas and whole garlic bulbs. Leave it for 30min without stirring; reduce the heat when the water boils.

6.Add salt, cumin, raisins and rice in one layer. There should be an inch of water on top of the rice, if there is not enough, add more water.

7. Make sure the rice cooks equally. Rotate the pot if you’re cooking on an electric stove. Move rice around with a big spoon, but don’t touch the meat and vegetables on the bottom.

8. Serve on a big plate with garlic and meat on top, add some spring onions.

8. A necessity for the Russian cook. Sour cabbage

When I started this project, I was prepared for a few errors along the way, and sour cabbage was the first serious one. This local take on sauerkraut is a suitable addition to any lunch or dinner. It is made throughout Russia mostly by older women who share their recipes as though they were the most exciting story ever. They belong to a kind of “cabbage club,” and I’ve witnessed a few of the meetings.


I had to stop my grandmother from using the exciting opportunity to tell me her version of the gripping tale. I have to follow the recipe in the Book, I told her. Much to her delight, I failed miserably. She laughed and told me to throw my cabbage out.


Now that the crisis is over I have to analyze where I went wrong. First, I couldn’t find a glass jar in any of the shops nearby. However, the Book says you can use a clay pot, and I had one at home. The recipe said to put pressure on the pot, so I got a jar of pickled ginger and put it on some little wooden slats to weigh it down. Then there was the birch stake I was supposed to impale the cabbage with – not one of the selection I had worked to stab the cabbage effectively. Granny said I had cut the cabbage too thickly, didn’t squeeze it enough, used too small a pot and didn’t have nearly enough pressure on top. She once again offered her own recipe. I promised to think about it.


I seem to be the first female in my family who can’t make sour cabbage. My great-grandmother apparently made it all the time. I remembered the story she told me about one occasion in her late teens:


“During the civil war, which lasted several years after the revolution, we lived in Kiev and the government changed eight times in a very short space of time. My family [parents and 6 siblings] had guests over — imagine how many people there were with each of us bringing a friend or two! We were playing games and missed the curfew, which meant everyone had to stay overnight. My mother was terrified as there was no food in the house. So my friend and I went to the basement and got some potatoes, some sour cabbage, pickles and pickled tomatoes out of wooden barrels, and set a beautiful table with just the four types of food. We still had beautiful plates and cutlery, so it looked very formal. I went into the living room and said ‘I’d like to invite everyone to the dining room.’ My mother looked terrified, as she knew there was no food in the house. Everyone was stunned at the dinner we’d scraped together.”


My great-grandmother would tell that story at almost every dinner. I always liked the idea of a fun atmosphere of so many young people playing games together, eating a simple dinner, then playing again until the curfew was lifted in the morning and they could go home. Pickled vegetables really can make any meal better, even during a civil war.


I was determined to get better at this, so I asked Granny for her recipe after all.


Recipe:


Sour cabbage can be made in wooden tubs. A small amount (5–10kg) can be pickled in glass jars or clay pots. Choose good heads of cabbage without green leaves, cut the heads into strips and mix with salt (250g of salt for 10kg of cabbage).

Cover the bottom of the cleaned tub with a tiny layer of rye flour, cover it with cabbage leaves and then put as many cabbage strips inside as possible. Cover the top with cabbage leaves. To add flavor and aroma, you can add carrots cut into circles, apples (the antonovka kind), cowberries and cranberries. Put a wooden circle on top of the tub and weigh it down with a clean stone. After several days, the cabbage will start to sour and a layer of foam will appear on the top.

The amount of foam will first increase and then disappear. When the foam is gone, the cabbage is ready.

During the souring process, poke the cabbage frequently with a clean birch stake to release gas. If it happens, that means that the cabbage is sour and ready. If mold or crystals appear on the top during the process, remove it carefully and continue souring.


Granny’s recipe:


3 kg cabbage

1 carrot

2 tablespoons rock salt

2 tablespoons sugar

6–7 liter enamel saucepan

Take the top leaves off the cabbage. Put some at the bottom of a saucepan and leave some to put on top. Slice up the rest of the cabbage leaves into fine strips, add the salt and sugar. Squeeze the cabbage, add it to the saucepan and push it down.

Cover with the remaining whole leaves, put a flat plate on the cabbage, and set a 3-liter glass jar of water on top of the plate. Add enough water into the cabbage to cover the plate.

After 24 hours, take the jar and plate off and poke through the cabbage with a knife to let the air out. Leave it open for 60–90 minutes. Replace the plate and jar. Continue this process once a day for 2 days. After 3 days, put the cabbage into smaller jars, close tightly and store in the refrigerator.

9. A circle of sunshine for a gray day. Pancakes with pumpkin puree

November was well and truly settling in when I made this recipe. It’s not the best time of year in Moscow — gray, cold, rainy, and the days get very short. For those affected by it, SAD (seasonal affective disorder) has spread its wings by now. SAD must be a recent phenomenon, because when someone is down, Granny says: “He/she has… it’s called… dep-res-sion!” Her look implies that Soviets only learned the term to talk about modern-day “softies” and certainly never had time for it themselves.


In Russian, the words for “recipe” and “prescription” are the same: “retsept.” Luckily there’s a pumpkin pancake recipe in the Book – in the “old recipes” section — as a prescription to cure that “softie” SADness. It looks like the perfect comfort food. It grabbed me when I saw it in summer, but I patiently waited till it was autumn and I could justify making a pumpkin recipe.


Pancakes have been around for a long time in Russia. Round, hot and golden, they remind us of the sun, and are therefore baked during Maslenitsa — the pagan holiday of welcoming spring, during which pancakes are consumed non-stop for a week. I get very keen on paganism that week. And then very keen on the gym the week after.


During Soviet times, Maslenitsa was still quietly celebrated in apartments, although not as widely as it is these days.


Granny remembers that “when we were evacuated” (which she often talks about, referring to the period in World War II when all Muscovites had to leave the capital for the countryside) they stopped at someone’s house at a village. The hostess made a bunch of wheat pancakes. “I still remember she served the pancakes with melted butter that was poured over the pancakes – it was delicious,” she said.


It seems like Russians consider themselves a cut above anyone else at consuming pancakes. I can just hear someone in a Russian town saying, “I’m not proud of much, but I sure know how to down a couple of dozen pancakes.” Chekhov wrote a short story called ‘Stupid Frenchman’, in which a Frenchman thought the Russian next to him was trying to commit suicide by eating too many pancakes, whereas the Russian was just having his normal appetizer.


Opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya wrote in her memoirs that when they had foreign guests over they never had much food to offer, but thank goodness those foreigners got full on three pancakes each. Needless to say, no Russian would ever be full on three pancakes — they might have their citizenship revoked!


I halved the book’s recipe as it looked like a huge batch (I put in 2 eggs instead of 3, as it’s pretty tough to get half an egg). I stewed the pumpkin and added some cinnamon and ground ginger to make it more interesting. Granny always adds a tablespoon of sunflower oil into the batter to avoid oiling the pan each time, and that’s what I did, too. It does take a while to wait for the batter to rise, and then each pancake takes 3–4 minutes to make, so it’s more of a brunch recipe, although a delicious one. Half the batch made 18 rather big pancakes, which went well both with melted cheese and jam or honey and plain yogurt!


To prove my Russian-ness by pancake consumption, I devoured my pumpkin pancakes in just a couple of sittings (minus the three my husband took to work). They aren’t like the Soviet food I’m used to — especially if you add some cinnamon — and in fact it isn’t a genuine Soviet recipe (as it comes from the “old recipe” section), but they make for a lovely addition to the Book and are sure to cure any autumn blues. Plus you can recycle the process in a few months for Maslenitsa!


Recipe:


Cook 1 kg pumpkin, peeled and cut into cubes, until soft. Press through a sieve to make puree. Pour pumpkin puree into 1 liter of milk and heat until it is the temperature of fresh milk. Into the milk-puree mix, add 15 g yeast and 3 eggs. Stir. Add 2–2 ½ cups flour until the dough is the right consistency. Put in a warm place and let sit for two hours. Then, add 1 tbsp oil, ½ cup sugar and a sprinkle of salt. Again sit in a warm place until it rises. Then, form and cook the pancakes.

10. Thanksgiving dinner on the Soviet diet. Fried turkey, mashed potatoes, baked apple with preserves, cranberry mousse

By the end of November, Russians are slowly getting excited about the biggest holiday of the year — New Year’s Eve. It’s the Soviet substitute for Christmas, which in Russian Orthodoxy is marked on Jan. 7 and not widely celebrated. In Moscow, New Year trees are being set up, people are starting to shop for presents and everyone is dreaming of the main dish on the New Year table — Olivier salad. No one is thinking about turkey and pumpkin pie.


I don’t think many Russians know much about Thanksgiving. They may be aware that it exists, but if you asked anyone on the street if the fourth Thursday in November is different from any other day in the United States, I doubt they would have an answer. I know I didn’t have an answer until about four years ago, when a Canadian/Australian couple invited my husband and me over for Thanksgiving dinner.


Now I remember, and if you ask me what’s special about this day in late November (or in October, in the case of Canadian Thanksgiving), I would say that it is special because there is turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie… and I don’t have to cook any of it! I love Thanksgiving dinner — my Australian friend Karen is a spectacular cook and I remember crawling out from under the dinner table and plopping myself on the sofa, wondering if I had indeed had enough — or could I maybe fit just one more heavenly slice in?


Since then I’ve been very lucky to get to go to two more Thanksgiving dinners with a bunch of Americans who were all away from home, gathered together in a Moscow apartment, and having a wonderful time.


This year I thought I’d give it a go myself. On the downside, I had to make my own dinner, but on the plus side, I found some recipes in the Book that worked really well. There was just one turkey recipe, so that choice was easy — the Book says that turkey should be served with baked apples, which is a great idea. I also used a cranberry sauce dessert recipe with less sugar and, of course, mashed potatoes. I didn’t have an American around to test it on, but my Australian husband and I thought it was an appropriate Soviet Thanksgiving dinner.


I asked Granny if she knew much about Thanksgiving and the food that’s usually served: “Thanksgiving? American Thanksgiving? I know of it, but don’t know anything about it. I think they eat turkey, a whole one. In the Soviet times I’d never even heard of turkey — we certainly never cooked it. It’s surprising there’s a turkey recipe in the book. As for mashed potatoes – I always loved them, and they are very handy as you can always use leftovers to make a zapekanka or patties.”


Making this dinner wasn’t nearly as time and energy-consuming as cooking a real American Thanksgiving dinner. To make the sauce, I crushed the berries and rubbed them through a sieve, then boiled them for about 15 minutes, adding a little bit of sugar and semolina as suggested. I didn’t follow the rest of the recipe, as I wasn’t after dessert, and it worked well. With the mashed potatoes, I just followed the recipe and they turned out nicely. My husband is the mashed potato expert in our family, and while he said the Soviet potatoes weren’t as good as his, they did the job.


As for the turkey, the book’s recipe seemed completely weird. I didn’t see the need to pour melted butter on the poor bird, or why I should boil the already-roasted turkey. So I just read the part for turkey fillet and fried it in a pan, which worked for me.


Baked apples are a common dessert at Granny’s and in many Russian kitchens. Granny pierces whole apples with a fork, adds a little water and bakes them until soft, for about 30 minutes, which is what I did, ignoring the part about adding jam, as I wanted them as a savoury side.


I know Granny would love to try a real Thanksgiving dinner — she enjoys cowberry sauce with meat, and now that the Soviet Union no longer exists, hopefully she’ll have the chance to!


Recipes:


Cranberry mousse with semolina:


Place the washed, sorted-out cranberries into a pan and crush them with a wooden pestle, adding a third of a cup of boiled water and sieving them through gauze. The juice should be kept cool.

For one cup of cranberries, use one cup of sugar and three tablespoons of semolina

The crushed berries should be boiled for five minutes in three cups of water, strained and the mix should then be used to cook the semolina. Pour and stir the semolina gradually into the boiling mix.

After 20 minutes of slow boiling, pour in the sugar, let the mass boil and remove from the burner. Pour the juice into the cooked mass and whip it until obtaining a thick foam. When the mass has increased twice in volume, pour it into containers and place them in a cold spot. The cranberry mousse can be served with cold milk.


Mashed potatoes:


Boil the peeled and washed potatoes, drain the water and keep the pan with the potatoes on a small flame or in the oven so that the remaining water evaporates.

For one kilogram of potatoes, use one cup of milk and two tablespoons of butter

Afterwards, without letting the potatoes cool, rub them through a sieve or crush them with a wooden pestle, add the butter and salt and, while stirring, gradually add the hot milk. Mashed potatoes are served individually or as a side dish to ham, tongue, cutlets, sausages and other meat dishes.


Fried turkey:


Salt the prepared turkey on all sides, place it on a pan with its back up, pour on the melted butter, add half a cup of water and let it bake in a medium-heated oven. While baking, use a spoon to pour the juice formed around it onto the turkey and turn it so that it browns on all sides (the turkey needs to be baked anywhere from one to two and a half hours, depending on its size).

When finished baking, remove the turkey, pour out the fat, add a cup of meat broth or water, boil and sieve.

When the turkey is not prepared in its entirety but in halves, the parts must be fried after the baking process. The turkey must be served on a warm platter divided into two halves, which should then be divided into 4–8 pieces. Pour the juice over the turkey and decorate it with parsley shoots or salad leaves. Baked apples or fried potatoes can be served on the side. Serve the green salad, cucumbers and marinated fruits and berries separately.


Baked apples with preserves:


Wash the apples with cold water, remove their cores (without cutting through them), prick the peels, fill the apples with preserves and place them on a pan or tray. Pour 2–3 tablespoons of water and place the pan in an oven with medium temperature for 15–20 minutes. As soon as the apples become soft, they must be removed, cooled and placed onto a platter or plate. Then pour the syrup formed in the pan onto the apples

For 10 apples – half a cup of preserves

For the stuffing it is best to use wild strawberry, strawberry, blackcurrant or cherry (without pits) preserves. Add crushed crackers, cookie crumbs, crushed almonds or finely chopped walnuts to the preserves selected for the stuffing.

Baked apples with sugar are prepared in the same way as apples with preserves, with the only exception being that instead of the preserves, the apples are stuffed with sugar.

11. Soviet comfort food. Sausages and stewed cabbage

I couldn’t move further into this project without acknowledging the meal that is so Soviet that it should have been banned by the new government in 1991 — sausages. Not the organic, turkey-with-a-bunch-of-herbs type, where you all but get the bird’s name on the label. No, the sausages I mean are the brown-gray ones, with names like “delicious,” or “milky,” or just the name of the manufacturer, like “ostankinskiye.”


Nothing about these sausage packages would give any indication of what’s actually in the sausage. I think the producers are trying to distract you from the very fact that the ingredients are… well, you don’t want to know what they are.


It doesn’t take long to distract the sausage-buyer though — “Ah, it’s so easy to deceive me!..I’m grateful to be deceived!” in the words of Russia’s most famous poet, Alexander Pushkin.


Foodies, skip the next line, or go eat a turkey sausage, because you’re not going to like this: I, too, occasionally close my eyes and buy a packet of sausages, bring them home, cook them, and then eat and enjoy them, too.


When I was a kid, Granny would sometimes make sausages with stewed cabbage. She’d cut up the sausages and distribute them among the cabbage in the faint hope that we might accidentally eat some cabbage, too. We were no fools, though, and never did.


After digging and consuming all the delicious sausage bits, we would spread the cabbage thinly on the plate and, content with the immaculate execution of this “cunning plan,” would put our heads on our arms and say in a low voice, slowly: “bol’she ne mogu!” (I can’t eat any more!). Then Granny would try and convince us to have some of the cabbage, we would make puppy eyes and look all cute, and she would eventually give in.


This time though, I have to make and eat not just the sausage, but the cabbage, too, as that’s what the recipe calls for. Worse still, I have to somehow feed it to my husband. I fear failure.


I tried to make the stewed cabbage more fun by adding spices, but it’s beyond help. It hasn’t gotten any better with (my) age. Luckily though, the cabbage shrunk a lot during cooking so the sausage/cabbage ratio worked in his favor, and I got away with it.


Granny has a very similar view on sausages:


“Sometimes I would come into the cafeteria and think to myself: ‘I feel like some sausages,’ so I’d buy two, some white bread and as soon as I finished eating I would feel disgusted and didn’t eat them again for a couple of months — then I would do the same thing again. Today there is a choice of bad sausages, but back then there was only one type. Also, I didn’t buy sausages for you in Moscow — only in Estonia in summer as they were really good there.”


We also discovered that the Soviet sausages didn’t have any MSG in them. What’s the point of junk food without MSG in it, I ask? That would be the one ingredient I would look for on the sausage cover the next time I buy them — in a year or so.


Recipes:


Stewed cabbage:


1 kg cabbage; 2 onions;

2 tablespoons tomato paste;

1 tablespoon vinegar;

1 tablespoon sugar;

1 tablespoon flour;

3 tablespoons butter;

salt and pepper to taste.

Shred cabbage and put in a saucepan with a tablespoon of butter and ½ cup water or broth. Cover and let simmer 40 minutes. In the meantime, slice the onions and brown them in another tablespoon of butter. After the cabbage has cooked 40 minutes, add onions, tomato paste, vinegar, sugar, salt, petter and 1 bay leaf. Simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Melt the last tablespoon of butter in a skillet and add flour until it is toasted. Add cabbage to the toasted flour, and bring to a boil.

Sauerkraut can be used in place of fresh cabbage, but in this case, you do not need to add vinegar when cooking it.


Sausages:


There are several different ways to prepare sausages. They can be boiled in lightly salted water and served with mustard or grated horseradish.

They can also be fried with tomatoes. To do this, cut the sausages crosswise into 3–4 pieces, fry them in a pan with butter for 2–3 minutes, then add tomatoes that have been thinly sliced and sprinkled with salt and pepper and fry for two more minutes. Grated garlic can be added as well, and the fresh tomatoes can be replaced with canned tomatoes or tomato paste.

Sausages can also be taken out of their skins, sliced and then fried.

12. The special treat nobody makes at home. Rombaba pastry

Growing up, we didn’t have a huge selection of sweet pastries. There were bagels, marzipan, sugar puffs and a couple more, all available at any kiosk that sold baked goods. But there was one type of pastry that rose above all the others, largely thanks to its name — hats off to the Soviet marketing team — romovaya baba, or “rum mama.”


Both parts of the name were intriguing. The rum obviously sounded wonderfully naughty and exotic – all I knew about it was that pirates drank it while singing “yo ho ho,” and that I would never be allowed to have it. “Baba” just seemed a bit odd, but sounded good, and all together it places “rombaba” in a special place in pastry world, as unreachable to a ’90s kid as the Spice Girls.


As time went by and I grew up, I tried rombaba and from what I can remember quite liked it — it was something I’d have at a cafeteria every now and again. I never saw anyone make it. My mother and grandmother certainly never did, so for me it has always been a store-bought treat.


Granny confirmed my memories: “I never baked it and I don’t know anyone who did. In fact, we didn’t bake much at home at all — imagine baking in a kitchen shared between five to seven families! We only had a small table in it, and it wasn’t nearly enough to prepare the dough. That’s why many people fried their pirozhki instead of baking them. It was only under Khrushchev that people started getting their own apartments, which allowed for more baking.”


She also remembered that “rombabas were everywhere — in every cafeteria and bread shop. I don’t suppose they used real rum in it, as it wasn’t something anyone ever had at home. For alcohol there was vodka and Georgian wine – Stalin loved his kindzmarauli [a sweet Georgian red wine], and Soviet champagne for special occasions.”


I really can’t imagine making rombaba in the kitchen of a communal apartment. You end up using just about every bowl and utensil you own, and the clean-up is worthy of a “subbotnik” — a communal neighborhood spring cleaning.


Although I made half a recipe, it was a huge portion, so I asked my husband to take some into the office with him — thank God for offices where people will eat just about anything! He was given a mission to find out what people thought of the rombabas I made: if they were like what they remembered.


The homemade rombabas weren’t quite like what I remember, and I don’t think it’s just the rum messing with my memory. The results: 4 of the 5 participants said they weren’t like they remembered, but one said the rombaba tasted exactly as she recalled. Further research showed that she was the only one who had ever tried homemade rombabas.


That’s it, Granny… I’ve had enough of your “no one else baked it at home” tales. And, since you’ve had your own kitchen for the last 50 years, there truly is no excuse not to try this recipe.


Making the yeast dough wasn’t that hard, and I just followed the Book’s instructions. As for the sauce, I ended up with a lot of it, and my “babas” were soaked in it much more than the store-bought ones. The sauce is really delicious though, so I guess soaking the pastries thoroughly is not a bad idea — if you’re going to eat them then and there, that is. I don’t think they would keep very well that way.


I may not mess about with the lay of the land any more, however. I’ll buy my rombabas from the shop and pour a Bacardi to go with it. Rum has very much made it to Russian parties and homes by now and has replaced Stalin’s preferred Georgian tipple. These days, “Dear Leader” would have to stay sober. Or maybe not, as the home of rum is none other than communist Cuba.


Recipe:


Dissolve yeast in 1 cup of warm milk. Add three cups of flour and knead into a stiff dough. Roll into a ball. Make 5 or 6 shallow cuts in the ball and place the dough into a pan filled with 2–2 ½ liters warm water. Cover with a lid and set in a warm place for 40–50 minutes.

For the cakes:

1 kg flour; 2 cups milk;

7 eggs; 1 ¼ cups sugar;

300 grams butter; ¾ tsp salt;

200 grams raisins; ½ tsp vanilla;

50 grams yeast.

For the sauce

½ cup sugar; 1 ¾ cups water;

4–6 spoonfuls of rum, wine or other liquor.


When the dough increases in volume by 50%, remove it from the water with a slotted spoon. Separate the eggs. Add egg yolks to sugar and mix until there is no white showing. Whip egg whites into a froth. Add to the dough ball the second cup of warm milk, salt, vanilla and egg yolks mixed with sugar. Mix well.

Add the remaining flour and knead the dough. After that, add the butter to the dough and knead very well. The dough should not be too thick. Again cover and put in a warm place. When the dough again increases in volume by 50 percent, add the raisins, stir and pour the batter into the prepared mold.

Cover and put in a warm place to rise. When the dough has risen to 3/4 the height of the molds, then gently, not shaking, put it in a cool oven, approximately 45–60 minutes.

During baking, the mold must be rotated with great caution, as even a slight push can cause the dough to fall. When the rombabas are ready, (readiness is determined in the same manner as in cakes). Remove from the mold and put on a dish. When cool, pour the syrup over them, carefully turning on a platter so they are soaked in the syrup soaked from all sides. Then, put them on a separate dish to dry. Put on another dish, covered with a paper towel, to serve

13. The breakfast all Russians love to hate. Mannaya kasha (semolina porridge)

This week, my breakfast meal was mannaya kasha or semolina porridge, affectionately known as manka. This is the breakfast that Soviet people really had every day, unlike the one described in the Book.


These days, however, I would never serve it for breakfast if I wanted people to speak to me again. Not that everyone hates it, but your chances of at least half the people in the room having a reaction of: “anything but this, I can’t believe this is happening to me” when served this meal are very high.


The reason for such a reaction is that manka has always been considered the best breakfast meal for kids, and it is served everywhere — at home, in preschool, at school, at the office cafeteria… It’s a milky gooey mass on a plate that, if not quite cooked right, or not very hot, turns quickly into… a milky gooey mass that is slightly less edible. It is a real life nightmare for many.


In a famous short story, “All Secrets Become Known,” a boy has to eat his manka or he won’t be allowed to go to the Kremlin. He hates the stuff and pours it out the window and straight on to someone’s hat. I still remember the drawing in the book with the porridge coming off a tall skinny man’s hat, nose and coat. I know many people who would say that’s exactly where it belongs.


Lucky for me, I actually like manka. Granny will make it for me on the odd occasion and I’m always happy to have it. I even ordered it at a restaurant recently! I loved watching people’s reaction when I told them what I ate. I think I narrowly avoided being put in a mental institution.


Even though I have manka every now and again, up to this point, I’ve been able to avoid making it for myself, as I know it’s not easy to keep it from forming lumps and/or burning. I was really focused and trying very hard, yet my porridge didn’t turn out perfectly — it was a little bit burnt, and had a few lumps in it. I ate it anyway.


Granny says she was surprised when in a kind of home economics class she conducted at school, a pupil was making manka with cold water. He put the dry manka in the proportion of 2 tablespoons per 1 cup water into cold water and then slowly brought it to a boil. He explained that this way there were fewer lumps. Granny took his advice to heart and makes manka that way to this day.


I also feel grateful to manka, since I recently found out it helped my parents survive. They were both born in 1963, a year in which, according to Granny, “all the food suddenly disappeared from shops.” “There were no grains,” she said. “When your mom was little, I was surprised to find a packet of manka in the shop, and when I took it home, I saw that it had worms and bugs in it. Turned out it was the ‘strategic reserves’ that had been made a while ago and had gone bad.”


My dad’s mother says that when she was pregnant with my father and living in Kursk, she had even less food than there was in Moscow. She would be given some manka as well as some other foods at a special office for women who were pregnant or had young children, and that was a huge help.


It seems to me that unlike we young modern Russians, the Soviet adults stayed loyal to their childhood savior.


“There were carrot, cabbage and beet rissoles with manka for sale in the ‘gastronomy’ sections of restaurants and cafes,” Granny remembers. “They were all very popular.”


Granny’s friend Galina Vasileyvna also shared this story about the ubiquity of manka in the Soviet diet:


“When ‘ptichye moloko’ (bird’s milk) cake first appeared, it would be sold at the Praga Restaurant. It was so popular that you had to put in a pre-order and then wait your turn. Those who didn’t want to wait developed a recipe for it that could be made at home. In it, they replaced the soufflé with manka porridge. The recipe went around the whole country, traveling from city to city.”


I will continue to stay loyal to the meal that kept me, my parents and grandparents full in the mornings — the porridge, not the cake. That would be my Soviet nightmare.


Recipe:


¾ cup milk; 3 teaspoons semolina; ½ teaspoon sugar; 1 teaspoon butter.

Add ¼ cup water to the milk and bring to a boil. When the liquid is boiling, slowly add the semolina, stirring constantly.

Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and cook on low heat 10–15 minutes. Put the butter on top of the porridge before serving.


Granny’s method:


2 heaped tablespoons semolina

1 cup milk or water, or half of each

Sugar to taste

Pinch of salt

Place the semolina into cold water in a pot, slowly bring to boil, add salt and sugar, reduce heat and stir constantly until it thickens up. Serve with jam.

14. Happy Soviet New Year’s eve. Olivier salad, biskvit

New Year’s Eve is a huge deal in Russia. It was made into the main holiday of the year during the Soviet era, since it wasn’t possible to celebrate a religious holiday like Christmas in an atheist state. As a result, New Year’s Eve is both an occasion to spend time with family and have a party with friends.


Most young Russians spend New Year’s Eve like this: From 9pm-midnight, you stuff yourself with the tastiest dishes your mother and grandmother can make. Then, as soon as you watch the broadcast of the president making his speech at 11:55, and hear the bells in the Kremlin tower strike 12, you’ll be out the door with three bottles of champagne up your sleeve. After a very civilized night out, you come home and collapse into bed at 5am, but don’t fall asleep until 9, since the fireworks go on until sun-up, which in midwinter is about 9am.


You spend the next three days finishing off everything that wasn’t eaten on Dec. 31. Good thing Russians get the first 10 days of January off from work!


New Year’s Eve dinner always includes Olivier salad; white bread with tiny canned fish known as shproty; an abundance of mandarins or oranges; the beet salad called vinaigrette; herring “under a fur coat” of carrots, potatoes, beets and onions; pickles; and a bottle or two of Soviet champagne. For dessert, in my family there would be “biskvit” — the only type of cake ever to be made in my family. Ever.


The best effort was always made for the most special night of the year, although the results of that effort depended on the era and financial ability.


“My mother said that growing up, I ate one orange,” Granny told me, remembering New Year’s Eves of her childhood. “She went to the Torgsin [a special store that accepted payment only in hard currency, not rubles] and exchanged a silver spoon for one orange.”


I ask here if that was a damn good orange – one worth family silver – but she can’t remember. I pretend I’m not upset and think of ordering a silver orange to use up my rubles before their value decreases further, given that this particular winter the ruble collapsed as a result of Western sanctions on Russia and the conflict in Ukraine.


As for vinaigrette, Granny remembers that when they lived “in evacuation” during World War II, her mother would make vinaigrette, and the people in the village they were evacuated to told her that they “had all the ingredients available, but they only serve this sort of food to pigs.”


The same villagers seemed keen to learn to make biskvit, though. During the war years, presents for soldiers at the front were collected in every town, and my great-grandmother made biskvit for the collection. Apparently everyone was very interested in the cake. At least according to the legend. I’ve noticed over time that most stories involving my great-grandmother feature everyone being stunned and amazed by the things she does!


I made the Soviet biskvit for a friend’s New Year’s Eve party, and it was a complete failure. I made it at my friend’s apartment and there was no mixer to use, so I whipped the dough by hand, which was clearly not enough. As a result, the cake turned out more like a flat omelette. I didn’t tell Granny, knowing she would just laugh, but I thought it would be a good chance to write her recipe down.


I was very surprised, shocked even, that the book didn’t have a recipe for Olivier salad, considering the outsized role it plays in the Russian diet. I would mock its presence at every New Year’s table, until the mocking turned into a tradition. I now must have it every year. In part it’s a joke, in part it’s just a really tasty salad. The past two years, I got my husband to barbeque some chicken to include in it, and made my own mayo, and, well, I’m salivating as I write this.


Olivier salad is one of the “noble” dishes, like beef stroganoff, vinaigrette or guryev porridge, that was Soviet-ized and put on every Soviet table with bologna substituting for the pre-revolutionary willow grouse meat. A quick search online shows a lot of theories, full of mystery and historical knowledge about Olivier and a lot of “I am right, you are wrong” comments that show Russians are still very passionate about this dish.


Trying to solve the mystery of Olivier, I started asking Granny questions.

“Did you always have Olivier?”

“We had vinaigrette and one other salad. We didn’t name the other salad anything.”

“So you had Olivier but didn’t call it that?”

“I don’t remember exactly when Olivier appeared, but everyone made salads to their own taste. The book you’re using, it’s from 1953, when there couldn’t be any foreign names. The salad must have become popular later.”

“But vinaigrette and beef stroganoff are not exactly Russian names.”

“They had long become Russian words by then. And, anyway, looking for logic in our country is laughable and useless.”


Whatever the explanation, Olivier salad will always have a place on my New Year’s table, along with biskvit, but Granny’s version — not the Soviet one!


Recipes:


Olivier salad:


4 medium carrots

4 eggs

6 medium potatoes

5–6 pickled cucumbers

1 can green peas

1.5 chicken breasts

2–3 Tbsp mayonnaise


Boil potatoes, carrots and chicken. Allow to cool. Cut up ingredients into cubes, add mayonnaise.


biskvit:


100 grams wheat flour;

100 grams potato flour;

1 cup sugar;

10 eggs;

¼ tsp vanilla


Separate the egg whites from the yolks. Put the whites in a cool place. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until you can no longer see any white. You can add vanilla here. Then add the flour. Stir. Whip the egg whites into a solid foam. Mix them into the dough gently.


Pour the dough into a springform pan that has been lightly greased and floured. Fill the form ¾ full. Put in the oven at the average temperature for baking. Bake until the cake breaks free easily from the mold. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Cut the cake in two (or into more pieces) and spread jam between the layers. The top of the cake can be covered with glaze and decorated with more jam, berries, candied fruit or nuts. Cut into thin slices with a sharp knife.


Granny’s biskvit:


5–6 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 cup mix of flour and cocoa or ground coffee


Mix 5 big or 6 small eggs with a cup of sugar using an electric mixer. Slowly add 1 cup of flour and cocoa, ground coffee or anything else you’d like to add. You can make half a batch with cocoa, and half plain and combine them in a baking mold. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, first at 180C and then at 160. Leave until almost cool in the oven with a slightly open oven door.

15. The Caucasian answer to long winter nights. Bouzbash (lamb soup)

There are a lot of Soviet meals I’ve eaten but have never cooked, and there are a few Soviet meals I know well and have prepared, but this time I’m up against a meal I’ve not only never made or tried — I’ve barely even heard of it.


It’s bouzbash from the Caucasus country of Azerbaijan: lamb soup with apples, peas, potatoes and tomato sauce. Part of me wonders if perhaps there’s a good reason why I haven’t crossed paths with this Soviet delight. But another part of me has a lot of faith in the cuisine of the Caucasus, which is generally spicy and exciting.


The bouzbash turned out fine — not delicious, but edible — and it seems to me that the recipe could be somewhat improved. I found a recipe online that suggests adding chickpeas instead of green peas and tomatoes instead of tomato puree. They sound like worthy adjustments.


One of the problems with the bouzbash, as with all lamb-based meals, is that it’s hard to get decent lamb in Moscow.


As for the other ingredients, they are easily available, except for uncooked peas. I was excited about going old school and boiling the peas, but was hit by reality: you can’t find uncooked peas anymore — they just come in cans.


It was a very different situation in the days when my grandmother was young: “During World War II, we kids would heat up the peas on a hot frying pan on an oven so they would get easier to chew. We would carry them around in our pockets and snack on them as if they were sunflower seeds or nuts. This was on top of lots of peas we were getting in soups and porridges, too. We had peas during the war, and nothing else,” Granny said.


Granny’s friend Valentina Mikhailovna also remembered that her mother knew a pre-Revolutionary recipe for pea kissel (a kind of drink) served with hemp oil. They also made rye pirogi with a filling of onions and peas.


As for lamb, in those days, you could find it at the kind of markets we would call a farmer’s market today. Granny called them “an island of capitalism, where you could find almost anything and haggle over the price. You could also buy as much as you wanted, unlike in shops where there could be a ‘1 unit per person’ limit, like in the 1960s and 1970s, when food was in short supply.”


I’m glad I discovered this lamb meal, and, although we don’t have a huge amount of lamb to choose from, it will certainly go over well on a cold winter night, especially when everyone’s recovering from the New Year celebrations.


Recipe:


For 500 grams of lamb — one cup of split peas, 500 grams of potatoes, two apples, two onions, two tablespoons of tomato puree and butter.

Cut or chop up the washed lamb into 30-40-gram pieces. Place them into a pot, fill it with water so that the water covers the lamb, salt it and cover the pot with a lid. Simmer on a low heat, removing the froth.

In a separate pot, boil the washed and sorted out peas in 2–3 cups of cold water and simmer on a low heat. After about 1–1.5 hours, place the boiled pieces of lamb into the pot with the peas, removing the small bones.

Afterwards, add the strained broth, the finely chopped and fried onion, the sliced potatoes and apples, the tomato puree, salt, pepper and, covering the pot with a lid, stew for 20–25 minutes.

16. The tasty solution for leftover cottage cheese. Tvorozhniki/syrniki

This breakfast is dedicated to tvorog — a type of cottage cheese or curd that is very widely used in Russia. It is eaten for breakfast, used in desserts and stuffed into dumplings and pies.


Tvorog attracts a lot of respect in Russia. Being able to intelligently discuss the best ways of eating it, how to choose the best type and knowing how to prepare it will all get you a raise of the eyebrows and an approving nod of the head. Which is why I’m surprised that one of the most popular breakfast options made with tvorog is known as “syrniki” — literally, cheese things — as opposed to “tvorozhniki” — cottage-cheese things. I was pleased to find out that the Book calls them “tvorozhniki,” although it obviously didn’t catch on among the wider public.


Usually considered too good a product to be used in cooking, tvorog is often eaten by itself with sour cream and jam, so I suspect syrniki might have been invented as a means to use up tvorog that was already too old to be consumed uncooked. Nothing — let alone food — gets thrown out much in Russia. This cultural tendency definitely comes from the older generation who had to hold on to everything they had, whether it was old dairy products or candy wrappers.


Granny tells me that there was a joke in Soviet times referring to the “throwing out” of food — the verb used for “to throw out” and “to deliver to the shop in limited quantities to sell” was the same — vykinut’. In the joke, a foreigner and a Russian are standing by a store, and the Russian says: “look, they delivered some food!” to which the foreigner replies: “Yes, we throw out food of this sort, too.”


It seems like there was plenty of irony and general understanding that the way things were in the Soviet Union was far from perfect. For instance, all packaged foods had to have an official sticker known as a GOST sticker, which indicated that the food was made according to state standards. And the very best of each type of food would get an additional stamp shaped like a hexagon saying “znak kachestva” (assurance of quality). Factories would compete for this stamp, and considered it a big deal to have one of those on their cheese, tvorog, chocolate or tea.


The people, however, seemed far less excited about it. Among the general public, “znak kachestva” sarcastically became known as “we couldn’t do better if we tried.” I asked Granny if she would choose tvorog or other foods based on the hexagon stamp. She said she never did — she just bought whatever was available and affordable. If there was more than one type, then she’d choose by the region it came from. “Like now I choose dairy from New Zealand or France,” she said, before remembering about the ban on the import of many foreign foods that was issued in August 2014. “…Well, I did, when it was still there. Now I go for Belarusian products.”


I think I chose the wrong type of tvorog for my syrniki, as they turned out rubbery. The right type of cottage cheese should be quite wet and high in fat. My friend Vlad made some for me recently and he said about a pound of tvorog, 1 egg and 4 tablespoons flour is the right proportion. His tvorozhniki were perfect, so I’ll stick to his recipe from now on. See his recipe below.


The challenge now is to resist the temptation to throw my tvorozhniki out and maybe find a way to re-cook them (something Granny would certainly do), and not to blame my poor choice on the absence of a hexagon stamp!


Recipe:


500 grams tvorog (cottage cheese);

½ cup sour cream; 1 egg;

2 tbsp butter; 2 tbsp sugar;

½ cup flour; ¼ tsp vanilla

Put the cottage cheese through a meat grinder or rub through a sieve. Add to a deep dish or pan. Put in ¼ cup sifted flour, sugar, salt, vanilla and egg. Mix well.

Put on a floured table and roll the mixture into a thick log.

Cut it crosswise into 10 equal-size cakes. Roll each cake in the remaining flour. Put into a heated pan coated with butter and fry on both sides until golden brown.

Top with powdered sugar, jam, or sour cream.


Vlad Bykhanov’s syrniki/tvorozhniki:


500gr cottage cheese

1 egg +1 egg yolk if the cottage cheese is dry

4 full tablespoons of flour + some more to cover in before frying

Salt and sugar to taste

6 teaspoons sour cream + more to serve


Form balls and roll them in flour, fry on an oiled pan on medium heat, turning frequently.

Turn heat off and top each syrnik with a teaspoon of sour cream and cover with a lid. The sour cream will make them more fluffy.

17. An expression of the Russian love for cabbage. Shchi

I think it’s no secret to anyone that Russians love our cabbage, although this is not necessarily by choice. I mean, it’s not like we had a nice spread of vegetables to choose from growing in the Russian soil. Many Russian dishes feature cabbage, and soup is no exception. Shchi, or cabbage soup, is probably the second most popular soup in Russia after borscht, although it is a lot less exciting.


I grew up with Granny’s shchi, which consisted of cabbage and broth, with the occasional addition of meat. She would serve it with some homemade croutons which, to be honest, were the most exciting part of it. I was a little bit surprised to read that the recipe in the Book also includes potatoes, tomatoes and carrots.


Just as well it did, too, because when I made it, I was visiting my Australian in-laws, and I didn’t think they would be terribly excited by the idea of having boiled cabbage and broth for dinner. The quality of produce in Australia is very high and as a result, the soup turned out nicely and was well received. At least my in-laws said they enjoyed it, and I’m just going to believe they were sincere.


I know foreigners have a limit on just how Russian they are willing to take with their meals. I wouldn’t try the layered mayonnaise and fish salad known as herring-under-a-fur-coat on the Australians because, well, they could just put me on the next flight home. When I cook for them, I have to pick the right meals and not overdo it on the “Russianness.”


As it turns out, my grandmother did the same for my brother and me. When she made us regular shchi, she also made pickled cabbage or “sour” shchi – just for herself. She would then ask us with a cheeky smile: “I don’t suppose you would like some sour shchi?” We would exaggerate just how put off we were by the idea of it, and that would give Granny great satisfaction. She loves the idea that her limit of Russianness is much higher than ours.


Granny learned about sour schi from her neighbor in the communal apartment, who would lure her in saying: “I bet your mom doesn’t cook this for you.” I am positive that Granny, known to have been a very picky eater as a child, grew fond of the soup partly so her mother’s job feeding her wouldn’t become any easier.


The neighbor was a “simple” woman from a village, and brought the recipe with her when she moved to Moscow. To create the Soviet Union’s society of equals, former nobles were housed under the same roof with farmers, writers and government employees. Recipe sharing flourished — made a lot easier (and kind of necessary) in the set-up of a communal kitchen.


Often when I ask Granny whether she knows a certain dish or recipe, she will say: “We never made it, but our roommate such and such made it a lot — she was from Kazakhstan/Latvia/somewhere else.” There were also always stories of my great-grandmother teaching the neighbors to make Jewish challah and how they never, never could get it right and suspected great-granny of holding back on a crucial part of the recipe.


The Book’s version of the well-loved shchi is one that is certainly worth sharing — wherever your roommate might be from. And I think I’ll share it with Granny, too, just to show off how my Russian cooking horizons have expanded.


Recipe:


For 500 grams of meat, use 500 g fresh cabbage, 200 g of root vegetables and onions, 2 tbsp. oil and 200 g tomatoes.

Start cooking some meat in broth. After 1 ½ hours, remove the meat.

In a soup pot, add pre-roasted root vegetables and onions. Then add the meat and chopped cabbage. Cook 30–40 minutes. Five to 10 minutes before the end of cooking, add pepper, salt and a bay leaf.

Potatoes and fresh tomatoes can also be added to the soup. If you want to cook this option, peel and slice the potatoes. Put them in the pot 10–15 minutes after the start of the cooking. Add the tomatoes, in slices, at the end of the cooking time, along with the spices.

18. The Soviet meal that makes Australians think of Mcdonald’s. Vinaigrette, golubtsy

As my Australian in-laws reacted positively to shchi, I thought it was time to take them further into the world of Russian cuisine. For my next meal, I made the staple golubtsy (cabbage rolls with beef and rice) and the beet-and-vegetable salad known as vinaigrette.


Luckily for my in-laws and, in part, for me, it’s practically impossible to find sour cabbage in Sydney, so my vinaigrette was cabbage-free. I also didn’t follow the instructions on adding mayonnaise and just went for the more common vinegar-based sauce instead. I do have a fear that some day I will get too comfortable with cooking Russian cuisine and not notice that I have crossed the line into true Russianness — I think that line might be made of mayonnaise. I followed the recipe closely in every other respect, and the salad really turned out delicious. A little bit different from Granny’s, but still very good.


I got my niece and nephew, Zahra and Hal, to help me roll the stuffed cabbage leaves – the same job my grandmother used to assign to my brother and me. I also put the kids on sauce duty. Hal later said that sauce was what added that “je ne sais quoi” to the meal. We poured lots of the sauce, made of sour cream and tomato puree, over the rolled cabbage leaves. While I don’t normally like tomato paste, in this meal it works really well.


Since making golubtsy is quite a tedious process — rolling each one takes a while – people have come up with an easier version aptly named “lazy golubtsy.” To make those following Granny’s recipe you need to fry some onion in a saucepan with a thick bottom and in a couple of minutes, after the onion has browned, add some ground meat. Then, add pre-soaked rice and stick some garlic cloves in it. Put chopped cabbage on top and pour the tomato and sour cream sauce on top with some water and broth to cover all the rice. Cover with a lid. Poke with a wooden spoon to check if there’s enough water in the rice, if not, add more. Cook for 20–30 minutes until ready.


Zahra said the food made her think of a McDonald’s hamburger. That statement was promptly defended by her older brother who said that the food tasted much, much better than McDonald’s. Big praise from a 15-year-old boy! I was trying to understand what she meant, and she elaborated it was the beet in the vinaigrette that made her think of the hamburger.


I remember being most surprised when I learned that Australians love beets as much as we Russians do. They might even love them more. They put them on hamburgers, and even McDonald’s has given into the charms of the beet. Canned beets are widely available and boast labels like “Australia’s favorite.”


Why a country that produces so much beautiful produce is so taken with a root vegetable will remain a mystery to me, but it certainly worked in my favor. Unlike my niece, at the age of 12 I hated vinaigrette. I blame McDonald’s for not putting beets on their hamburgers in Russia.


My mother-in-law was quite taken with vinaigrette, too. She said she would serve it to her friends as a side to BBQ meat. It only then occurred to me that it does make a perfect summer salad. I have wild hopes now that it will catch on in Australia, a country where almost any cuisine of the world is available, but Russian food is largely unknown.


I was pleasantly surprised that golubtsy were well received, too. Although I don’t have wild hopes of them catching on in Australia. They are already available in Greek restaurants, and for now that might be good enough.


Recipes:


Vinaigrette


4–5 boiled potatoes; 1 beet; 1 carrot; 2 pickles; 1 apple; 100 grams sauerkraut; 50 grams; green onions; 2–3 Tbsp vegetable oil; ½ cup vinegar; 1 tsp mustard; sugar to taste.

Cut potatoes, apple, pickles, beet and carrot into cubes or strips.

Combine them in a bowl and add the sauerkraut. In a separate bowl, mix together mustard, salt, pepper, sugar, oil and vinegar until sugar dissolves. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and mix.

To serve, put in a salad bowl and garnish with slices of beets, sprinkle with green onions and dill. You can also decorate the salad with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. Vinaigrette is more delicious if made with mayonnaise sauce.

To make Mushroom Vinaigrette, add different pickled mushrooms – about 25 grams per serving.


Golubtsy


300 grams of ground beef; 800 grams cabbage; 1/2 cup rice (millet or barley will also work); 1 onion; 1 Tbsp flour; 2 Tbsp tomato paste; 1 Tbsp cream; 1 Tbsp butter.

Cook rice. Cool and combine with ground meat. Chop and lightly fry the onion. Add the onion to the meat and rice mixture along with salt and pepper to taste. Boil some water.

Add whole cabbage leaves and submerge them in the boiling water for 5–7 minutes, then remove them from the water and cool.

When cool, pound the leaves until they are the thickness of a sheet. Put a portion of the meat and rice mixture in each leaf and wrap it up.

Add butter to a pan and fry the rolls briefly. Then add the cream, tomato paste, 1 cup of water and flour, stirring until the flour is combined. Bring the mixture to a boil and add salt to taste.

Cover the pan and let the rolls simmer on low heat for 30 to 40 minutes. The rolls can also be baked on low heat in the oven for 30–40 minutes, but in this case, do not cover the pan. Serve the rolls with sauce sprinkled with dill or parsley.

The stuffed cabbage can be prepared without cream, but in this case add more tomato paste.

19. You can’t have fried meat pies without lard. Chebureki

I was a little nervous approaching the next recipe. Chebureki (deep fried meat pastries) have a legacy of their own: there are songs about them, they appear in cartoons (at least they are often drawn as cartoon characters), and, from what I’ve heard, they are not easy to make.


My grandmother’s comment about them only made me more anxious. She said: “The best cheburek I ever had was in Bakhchisaray [a town in Crimea]. Ooooh I still remember that delicious, juicy filling and perfect pastry — crispy, yet soft. I never had anything like it ever again. They were soooo delicious.”


Needless to say, I am not letting her try my chebureki. She had enough fun with my pickled cabbage “fail;” that story will get her through a few more dinner parties.


Looking for chebureki in Moscow, you will find them mostly in cheburechnye — special shops that sell chebureki. Granny tells me that these shops used to be everywhere, like blinnye — cafes that sold only the Russian pancakes called blini, and pel’mennye — restaurants that served only dumplings. These places attract a certain crowd, and I’m pretty sure they double as a social outlet, English-pub style.


There are still cheburechnye around, although not as many as before. I remember as an 18-year-old, going out dancing all night and ending up at a cheburechnaya at 5am, surrounded by a crowd I wouldn’t want to tag on Facebook. It was a good feed though: cheap, filling and quick.


My failing in making my own chebureki started at the ingredient list. Nearby shops didn’t have any lamb, so I had to settle for beef. Culinary sin, I know. I’ll confess later.


Then of course there is the lard. You can’t find it these days. It’s something your Ukrainian friend would bring over and only share with his/her best friends. I was among the best friends once, but passed up the opportunity. I won’t eat pig fat if I can help it. Lots and lots of Soviet citizens would have disagreed with me:


“Lard was very popular, you could get it in any meat shop. It was even more popular than meat, and certainly cheaper,” Granny said. “It made for a good snack for drinkers. You could get Hungarian lard with red pepper and other various types of salted lard. People would put it on bread, not use as cooking oil.”


She also spoke to her friend, Galina Vasilyevna, who grew up in the countryside: “In the village, I practically grew up on lard,” Galina said. “It was the main product for the peasants. Any trip away from home would require a loaf of dark bread and a slab of lard to make sandwiches. Historically I think it’s because when Tatars would come in and raid the villages, they would take all the cattle, but not the pigs, as they were Muslim. That’s how peasants got used to eating mostly lard.” She added: “mixing the ‘inside’ lard with honey, aloe and cocoa makes for a perfect remedy for pneumonia and TB.”


The dough for chebureki is very tough and hard to roll out. I must have put too much filling in, as it took ages to get them to cook through. As a result I had very hard, almost burned pastry with uncooked filling. Considering how long chebureki take to make, and how unhealthy they are as they’re deep-fried, I don’t think I’ll be trying this recipe again.


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