The Russian Kitchen: A Primer

It’s never too early to brush up on your Russian cooking skills.

As we collectively shudder at the political events of the past weeks and pray it is not the beginning of Lenin’s “capitalism in decay,” it occurs to me that I am utterly unprepared for life under a Russian flag. It will be hard to be a Russian chef if I know nothing about Russian cuisine. I learned how to make coulibiac and charlotte russe in culinary school.  But these are dishes of the pre-Soviet aristocracy (and created by French chefs). I know Russians like vodka, borscht and caviar, but that’s going to get old fast. Therefore, I decided that it behooves us all to get better acquainted with the Russian kitchen.     

Traditional Russian food is wildly diverse (it was a huge country, even before Soviet era).

It incorporates many cuisines from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The typical meal consisted of several courses, starting with a soup — hot or cold, made from a base of kvass (a fermented bread beverage), broth, milk or puréed vegetables or grains. Kasha (porridge), made from a variety of grains, was a staple, as were a number of dumpling-like foods, including pot-sticker-like pelmeni; and the ubiquitous pirozhki, stuffed with meats, boiled eggs, potato, mushrooms or cabbage. Meat and offal were prepared in a hundred ways — boiled in broth, roasted and baked, skewered and spitfired, pickled and cured. Blini were topped with fruits, smetana (sour cream) or caviar. 

Food was good until the revolution, when the kitchen itself became politicized. The intention was to make all people equal. This required, among other things, relieving women from kitchen work, and encouraging them to develop other interests. (It’s the thought that counts, right?) But more to the point, the bourgeois idea of private property included private, personal kitchens. This led to houses being built without them, forcing people to eat in state-operated stolovaya (canteens). Food shortages and famine soon limited the mass-produced canteen fare. Stations served reliably similar dishes day in and out: a mayonnaise-based salad of meats or vegetables, a soup, a solid (which meant meat of some kind — chicken cutlets, fish, beef fried to oblivion, stringy mutton, liver in gravy), a garnish (usually a grain), a drink and a dessert. Limited ingredients and limited cooking methods emphasize the idea that food, and the pleasure it derives, was itself anachronistic and bourgeois.   

Under Stalin, food, like everything else, became industrialized. Food was fuel, after all, and the canteens became healthy-worker factories controlled by the Central Commission of Restaurants and Cafés. This commission designed every menu, every day, incorporating the latest nutritional science. Eventually the spread expanded, as the commission realized that more flavors and options lead to a healthier appetite. Foods from the expansive Soviet regions were incorporated, and boiled chuck and cabbage gave way to kebabs.

In addition to kitchenless homes, there were communal apartments. In structures that had once housed one aristocratic family, there were now 10 families sharing one kitchen. In these apartments there may well have been a spy who would rat out you and your radical opinions, so the kitchen was not a place to hang. Families would cook their cabbage soup and porridge, then carry it down the hall to eat in their room. 

By the 1950s even communal housing couldn’t alleviate the severe overcrowding, and during the Khrushchev Thaw, construction of Khrushchyovka began. These five-story cement apartment buildings were made quick and on the cheap. But at least the units were meant for one family each, and they had kitchens. It was here, around these kitchen tables, that Russian culture thrived. Despite the new, more liberal policies, there was still censorship, and there was no way to meet and discuss art or politics in public. But in the kitchen, groups of people could meet, and they did. Here, poetry and literature was self-published — typed in carbon copies on government-issued typewriters and passed from friend to friend. (Dr. Zhivago was written this way.) Here, banned music was recorded using handmade recording lathes to etch grooves onto old X-ray film. (It’s now known as “bone music.”) All of this happened over shared vodka, brown bread and pickled vegetables. Sure, there was probably a KGB agent in the stairwell. But as a chef, I like the thought that, when things spin out of control, there is some comfort to be had by the stove.

Then, in 1959, in a kitchen at the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon met and tried to make nice with Nikita Khrushchev. At an exhibit of a typical American home that any American could afford (at $14,000), Nixon proudly pointed out the technologically advanced dishwasher. Khrushchev crowed that the Soviets would catch up in a few years and would then quickly surpass the United States. When Nixon lost the election in 1960, Khrushchev proudly took responsibility. (Everything old is new again.)

So, I’m thinking that now is a good time to get your kitchen ducks in a row.  Be sure you’re stocked up on vodka, brown bread and pickles, and cultivate a group of friends you can trust. But do it on the down-low.

Soviet Pickled Mushrooms

Pickled vegetables began out of necessity, but gradually became beloved. Now there is a salty-sour component to most Russian meals. I’m thinking we should all brush up on our food preservations skills now, while we can.

Ingredients

3 pounds button mushrooms, stems removed (save them for mushroom soup!)

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup cider vinegar

1/3 cup wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sea salt

4 cloves chopped garlic

1 large yellow onion, sliced

2 bay leaves, crushed

1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped

Method

1. Sterilize a couple of large jars and lids (I do it by running them through a dishwasher). Pack the jars with the mushrooms, then set aside.

2. In a large saucepan combine oil, vinegars, salt, garlic, onion, bay and dill. Bring it to a boil, then pour over mushrooms, filling to a quarter-inch below the top of the jar. Close the lids and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days. Serve chilled with vodka, brown bread and hope.


Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.