Soviet food nostalgia has taken off in the last few years, as a post-Cold War generation grows up intrigued by a period which many older than them would rather forget. Soviet-style canteens like Kamchatka serve herring in a fur coat to queues of Moscow hipsters, while curious westerners can now consult an English-language edition of Soviet cookery bible The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food to try their hand at holubtsi. Olga and Pavel Syutkin’s CCCP Cook Book continues the trend, serving up recipes of Soviet-era classics while delving into the stories behind the dishes to offer a cultural history of the USSR through its food. We’ve selected, perhaps not always the tastiest, but certainly some of the the most interesting dishes here.
Okroshka — an old Russian dish that contains finely chopped ingredients — enjoyed great popularity in the USSR. The reason for its success is simple: it is almost impossible to judge the quality of ingredients such as frankfurters, cucumbers or radishes when they have been diced into cubes and are floating in generous portions of kvas and smetana (sour cream).
Before the revolution the ingredients were quite different, typically high-quality boiled meat (usually beef) or white fish.
Soviet food shortages served to mangle the pre-revolutionary version of the dish to such an extent that only the name remained. Initially the meat was replaced by tongue, offal and scraps. Then from the end of the 1950s finely chopped frankfurters or boiled sausage (a common meat substitute during the late Soviet era) became the primary ingredient. As food shortages peaked, a vegetarian variety appeared and occasionally the consumer was in for a further surprise as kvas was replaced with kefir (a fermented milk drink).
Aspics were a quintessential part of any Soviet feast, in particular New Year’s dinner. Each household would have its own trusted recipe for this cold appetizer: some used only pigs’ trotters while others preferred beef shanks or cows’ heads. True connoisseurs, however, always mixed different kinds of meat. The thick stock that resulted from cooking the meat would be poured into bowls and taken outside. A domestic fridge just wasn’t cold enough for the aspic to set, but winter temperatures of minus 15-20ºC were ideal. Minutes before the Kremlin clock struck midnight, the bowls would be brought back inside, placed on the table, and the party would begin.
Galantine, a dish of boiled or roast meat, fowl, rabbit or fish, served in aspic is another Soviet stalwart. During the Siege of Leningrad the Soviet authorities found 2,000 tons of mutton guts which they turned into galantine to feed the starving citizens. In their extreme hunger, people would make galantine from whatever “ingredients” they could find, including wood glue (at that time made from bone and gristle) flavoured with bay leaves.
At the end of the 18th century, when French chefs began arriving in Russia, few could find apprentices who understood them well. In most cases they were assisted by peasant boys from the countryside. Being unable to comprehend French, these boys introduced a great deal of confusion and inaccuracy into their masters’ recipes. Many of these errors remained uncorrected for decades to come.
Vinegret is one such example. While the name originates from the French dressing vinaigrette, in Russia it was attached to the dish that used it as a dressing. As a result, chopped game garnished with boiled vegetables and vinaigrette dressing was also called vinaigrette, transliterated as vinegret. The Russian term refers primarily to the method (finely chopped ingredients with dressing) rather than to a specific recipe.
During the Soviet era the dish was simplified even further. Meat was all but eliminated, leaving only sauerkraut, beets and pickles, and the intricate French dressing was replaced with sunflower oil. Some still remember the odour of unrefined sunflower oil in vinegret with affection.
Opinions about the origins of Chicken Kiev differ. Some claim the dish was invented in the Merchants’ Club of St Petersburg in the early 1910s. Others believe it is derived from a much older Russian dish made from fattened fowl or capons fried so the butter inside didn’t melt.
The dish was resurrected in 1947 thanks to a cook at the Ministry of International Affairs, who served it to diplomats at a reception in Kiev. It then became popular in the restaurants on Khreshchatyk (the city’s main street) and spread to other venues where it was known as Chicken Kiev. Worldwide popularity arrived soon afterwards and eventually the dish was included on the menu of every Intourist restaurant (the Soviet organisation responsible for accommodating international tourists). As a result, hundreds of thousands of visitors to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Odessa were introduced to chicken kiev and disseminated its fame throughout the globe.
Eggs were one of the first foodstuffs to disappear at the beginning of World War II. The Soviet authorities found a solution in the powdered eggs provided by the US under the 1942 Lend-Lease policy.
Initially people reacted to powdered eggs with caution, and the government responded by taking coordinated action. One after another, Soviet newspapers featured articles claiming that while powdered eggs contained almost every nutritional benefit known to mankind, regular eggs were filled with pathogens and fats that weakened the body.
In the mid-1950s fresh eggs began to re-emerge on grocery shelves and powdered eggs ceased to be available. At first people were understandably doubtful, so the authorities immediately commanded the press to reverse their previous statements and a “new” idea came into journalists’ heads: fresh eggs are enormously healthy and nutritious.
Following the end of the war in 1945 and the death of Stalin in 1953, hundreds of thousands of political prisoners returned to their homes, officially “exonerated”. Rumour has it that the great Soviet actress Faina Ranevskaya, a famous wit, telephoned her friends after reading about the rehabilitation of the humble egg, to exclaim, “What joy! Eggs have just been exonerated!”
In Ranevskaya’s time eggs were fried not only with ham and tomatoes (which were not always easy to come by) but also jam. This was usually homemade in the autumn after the ripe berries and fruit had been picked at family dachas.
As Soviet leaders tried to build a new way of life following the 1917 revolution, the country collapsed into poverty. In 1918 Elena Molokhovets, whose culinary bible A Gift to Young Housewives was reproduced in hundreds of thousands of copies, died of starvation in St Petersburg.
Under the new regime, the “material luxuries of the nobility” were frowned upon. When the People’s Commissar, Alexander Tsiurupa, fainted from hunger at a government meeting he was hailed as a symbol of communist asceticism and the new proletarian consciousness, and the scene was relayed widely as propaganda.
Before 1917 caviar had been an everyday item, widely available from local grocery stores and a popular accompaniment to blini (pancakes) eaten in inns during Shrovetide. But under the new regime caviar became a symbol of inequality. Rumours spread that even during the harshest years, Kremlin leaders were consuming it by the spoonful.
These whispers were not entirely unfounded. In 1919 Fyodor Raskolnikov, Commander of the Volga-Caspian Fleet, brought several barrels of black caviar captured from former tsarist warehouses back to Moscow. At a dinner commemorating the second anniversary of the October Revolution, large bowls of this delicacy were served to every guest. Unfortunately the diners were only offered two thin slices of bread, not nearly enough to finish the caviar, so the contents of the barrels featured on Kremlin menus for months to come.
Leafing through the meat sections of Soviet cookery books inevitably leads you to the conclusion that the majority of recipes were not for whole cuts of meat but were more labour-intensive creations using various kinds of mince. Minced meat, of course, was easier to come by, while longer cooking times and added ingredients meant it did not have to be of such high quality.
Restaurants and cafeterias offered some dishes that used whole cuts, such as steaks, schnitzels or escalopes, but they were never very popular because the meat was often poor quality and tough. The thick coating of breadcrumbs made it impossible for diners to guess what kind of meat they were actually eating and so this section of the menu was mostly ignored. Choice in the way the meat was served was unheard-of: neither the patrons nor the chefs knew what “rare”, “medium” or “well done” meant and even at the best Soviet restaurants waiters would never ask how you’d like your steak done.
The standard fare was a tasteless and tough slab of meat from a cow that had yielded record-breaking quantities of milk for years before finally being slaughtered.
State-owned restaurants kept a close eye on the quality of their meat and chefs were fired or even imprisoned if they were caught substituting cheaper cuts. A continuous battle prevailed between good and evil, with each side looking for ways of tricking the other.
Increased austerity meant some foods that had once been common became sought-after and expensive and were prepared only on special occasions. A pig stuffed with buckwheat was a perfect example. Previously a simple peasant dish, it was now available solely to the Party elite during official celebrations.
In May 1962 Nikita Khrushchev was on an official visit to Bulgaria. Arriving at a reception in the Soviet embassy, he entered the banqueting hall and suddenly stood stock-still. The numerous tables were crowded with delicacies: sturgeon, salads, fruit and at the centre of each a golden-brown roasted pig with buckwheat. Seeing Khrushchev’s amazement, the ambassador anticipated praise, if not a medal. But that was far from the First Secretary’s mind.
“Do you think communism has already arrived?” asked Khrushchev with a stern expression on his face. “Who gave the order for this?”
The ambassador turned pale. He mumbled something about additional money being allotted by the Council of Ministers to fund both the reception and a charter jet from Moscow to bring in the exquisite food. Khrushchev frowned. Enraged, he proceeded to one of the tables where, to everyone’s relief, he began to eat. The silence in the hall was broken only by the sound of clinking silverware. It was clear to the ambassador that roasted pig stuffed with buckwheat was not a feature of the communist menu.