Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2017

Adventures in the Slavic Kitchen, a book of essays with recipes, by Igor Klekh, translated by Slava I Yastremski and Michael M Naydan #BookReview

adventures-in-the-slavic-kitchen I have been fascinated by Slavic cuisine ever since we decided to visit Russia in 2012.  It has been our habit to explore the cuisine of the countries we visit before we go, but Russian cuisine turned out to be more interesting than most.  After an exhaustive hunt to find a cookbook of any kind, we learned what we should have realised beforehand: that the Soviets had a major impact on food and cooking just like everything else.  When the aristocracy faded into history or exile, their adaptations of French cuisine went with them, and what was left was a rather rudimentary cuisine.

It would be nice to think that people did not go hungry in the USSR, but it was not so.  There was a long history of drought and famine prior to the Revolution, and there were famines even before the disastrous collectivisation under Stalin. But that’s not all that impacted on Slavic cuisine: as I learned from this most interesting book, there was also a program to get women out of the kitchen so that they could join the workforce, which soon gave rise to those horror stories we’ve all heard about Soviet cafeterias:

Let’s remember the background – to promote female cooks to the status of Deputies of the Supreme Soviet! Let’s remember the policy of the elimination of women homemakers as a class, a huge expansion of the Soviet system of public cafeterias, the enlargement of food production factories – huge industrial complexes and plants, and the phantasmagorical impoverishment of product variety when not just some products but even their classes and kinds disappeared without a trace, and only generic types remained: “kielbasa” (ringed sausages) in general, “meat” as such, or simply “fish.” One of the possible definitions of Socialism is precisely this “impoverishment of product variety,” which, in the world of food, means “nothing extra,” only the necessary stuff, preferable in that it is commonly accessible.  (p.27)

It wasn’t all bad, apparently.

It must be said that there were some positive achievements on this path: thanks to rigid state standards, we had good bread, tolerable vodka, ice cream for everyone (thanks to the ambitious Mikoyan and his 1937 Program)*, very decent candies and cakes, and those kinds of vegetable oil, sour cream, mustard, mayonnaise, and herring to which we have become accustomed and therefore have not needed any others.  (p.27)

But…

Let’s forget all the cellulose ringed sausages, sour beer, deteriorated kinds of vegetables that can only pass as cattle feed, watered down milk, and it would be better left unmentioned, “schnitzel with garnish” and “Thursday is fish day” (remarkable for the anonymity of its inventor).  (p.28)

*Anastas Mikoyan was put in charge of the food industry and, fired by the spirit of rivalry with the capitalists of the USA, came back from a trip there to dramatically increase the production of ice cream!

As you can see from these excerpts, the author Igor Klekh has a sense of humour and a philosophical attitude towards ‘Soviet Times’.   But he also has some interesting observations to make about food and cooking in general.  In the essay titled ‘The Origin of the Kitchen’ he notes the triumph of fast food:

In terms of the effectiveness of food, its convenience, and accessibility in the modern world, McDonalds and pizza parlours (those, figuratively speaking, unpretentious culinary Kalashnikov machine guns), or to put it differently, the almost universally established system of fast food and the use of pre-prepared food, which more and more is ready for consumption, beat everything else.  In proportion to the disappearance of the peasantry with the traditional kitchen, it could not be any different from what might be expected. (p.22)

But he goes on to divide cuisines into two types:

  • the ‘Imperial, continental, totalitarian’ kitchen, exemplified by French and Chinese kitchens – which achieve maximum power over the base product – in the transformation of its taste and appearance (to feed a goose to the point it dies, to let mould eat through cheese, to bury eggs in lime for a year.
  • the ‘island’ kitchen, exemplified by Britain and Japan, with their minimal interference over the taste of the original raw material.

The Russian Kitchen of the last two centuries, he says, is also an Imperial, continental kitchen that went through the school of the best French chefs after the Napoleonic invasion of 1812. They then appropriated the cuisines of the Russian Empire (and subsequently the Soviet Empire) so that it became supra-national. And these days, you can certainly see that this is true if you look at the slide show of our meal at Gogol’s Restaurant in St Petersburg.  Gogol was apparently a noted gourmet who spent 12 years in Italy, hence the ravioli on the menu!

William Pokhlebkin (1923-2000) is a hero of Slavic cuisine, and Klekh bestows upon him the epithet one of those last Knights of the Kitchen Table.  Labelled a dissident in 1968, he was denied publication under the Soviets, and the books he worked on as a hobby weren’t published until the post-Soviet era.  He was against the concept of ‘usefulness’ but made it his credo to promote tasty cuisine and the return of the happiness of life and the poetry of food.  He also empowered cooks by teaching the basic principles of the kitchen so that they had the ability to improvise and create new dishes.  (These basic principles are not known, alas, to many young people in the West these days.  I have seen Masterchef contestants who don’t know how to make pastry!)  Murdered in his apartment in the year 2000, Pokhlebkin lives on in his very popular books which are in every big bookstore in Russia. 

Klekh is baffled by the prevalence of tasteless food in the modern world.  You would think that when the iron curtain fell, a gigantic gastronomic world would have opened before us.  But no, nowadays gourmets have become conspirators and misfits and underlying processes force more and more people to eat tasteless and unhealthy food and pay quite a lot for it.

Nowhere in the world have I met such a great number of unbelievably obese people as in American provincial cities, and I looked at them with a mixture of horror, rapture, curiosity and repulsion.  It would be fine if they ate with delight for the sake of pleasure, but they swallow everything in quick succession in their fast food restaurants with pseudo Chinese and Mexican buffets as well as cheap pizza, chasing everything down with iced drinks at any time of the year, turning any food into alimentary garbage with their gluttony. (p.34)

bliny-and-caviar-kitezh-grad-on-petrovka-st-moscowYes, Klekh is opinionated in an amusing way, and he can’t help himself when it comes to comparing Russian with Ukrainian food. (No, I’m not going down that controversial path!) In Part II, ‘Cultural Dictionary of Eastern Slavic Food, he explains that ‘salo’ (pig lard) is the same for Ukrainians as Manna is for the Jews, a transcendental and earth-shattering dish… both public and sacred, polemically sharpened and consuming it resembles gliding on skis.  The Russian blin, on the other hand, is a matter of theatre, at their most intense at wakes where they are served with caviar: an inversion and a shroud that conceal the hyperbole of cornucopia.  Death pregnant with life.  (I can’t vouch for that, but you can see here the same dish that I shared with The Spouse in Moscow. It was the most expensive entrée I’ve ever had in my life, but hey, you only ever get one chance to eat real Russian caviar; it is utterly unaffordable in Australia.  No, I can’t quite see myself shelling out a similar amount for pig lard.)

Some of Klekh’s humour is a little … a-hem …  ‘earthy’ as when discussing the erotic qualities of kielbasa, a type of sausage.  And perhaps his snippet about vodka and ‘the metaphysics of a hangover’ together with ‘hangover cookery’ doesn’t acknowledge the seriousness of alcohol abuse in Russia.  (Our guide was quite upfront about the cause of her marriage breakup, and its prevalence amongst her friends and family.) But perhaps in Russia as elsewhere, black humour is one way of dealing with serious matters…

Having established his scorn for processed food (I’m with him there), he then proceeds to offer recipes, everything from chicken liver pate to sardines in tomato sauce (which does sound rather nice, though I don’t suppose I can buy Black Sea Sardines here in Melbourne).  There are admonitions against buying washed potatoes, and he shares his doubts about the whole idea of salads because they are ‘heretical’ for Russian cuisine.  He complains that it’s no easier to get the right fatty pickled herring under capitalism as it was under Socialism, because only the waste of the catch ends up in Russia.  Well, we know about that in Australia.  All our best seafood is exported to Japan and China these days, and the pub crayfish is just a nostalgic memory…

Goodness, I’ve just looked at my word count!  Enough already!

Part III is called Seasonal Culinary Art and Part IV is Cities and Dishes, both delivered in his chatty style rendered in a somewhat idiosyncratic translation into English.  I just wish it had pictures of the dishes, though I suppose that would add greatly to the cost.

Author: Igor Klekh
Adventures in the Slavic Kitchen, a book of essays with recipes
Translated by Slava I. Yastremski and Michael M. Naydan
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2016
ISBN: 9781784379964
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications.

Available in Australia from Fishpond: Adventures in the Slavic Kitchen: A Book of Essays with Recipes ($33.99 AUD, cheaper than the Book Depository)

Or direct from Glagoslav Publications where you can get it for a song as an eBook or €21.00 for the paperback.


Responses

  1. What an interesting review Lisa. And now I need to know, why shouldn’t we buy washed potatoes?

    • p. 125: “Keep in mind that the skin of true young potatoes must flake and be smeared with earth and not covered with some imitation of it, nothing has changed here. Avoid imported potatoes, washed by shampoos and genetically modified on top of everything, that just pretend to be “young potatoes” [what we would call “new potatoes, I think].
      I think he’s probably right. I suspect that those small potatoes sold as “new potatoes” are not “young” at all: I bet they have been modified to grow large bunches of small potatoes that keep for months in storage, rather than being newly harvested before they have had time to grow to full size.
      We are just coming to the end of our potato harvest now, and have had to buy potatoes for the first time in months. They taste nothing like the potatoes out of our garden, which is not entirely because they are a different variety.

      • Very interesting. My favourite potato is the pink-eye but it has been modified and it is difficult to get the ones that come from true pink-eye stock. I don’t eat butter or margarine much but, whenever I go home to my mother’s place she tries to buy true pink-eye and we smother them with butter and sometimes add mint leaves. Yum!

        • Yes, I get cranky when people who are against genetically modified foods are accused of being ignorant and anti-science. For me it is all about flavour, and the GM spuds we get in the supermarkets have no taste. (And my second witness for the prosecution is the strawberry. I saw some at Xmas that were the size of a small apple, and they taste like water.)

          • Confession: I am a fruit and vegetable sniffer. In the supermarket, I trawl through the fresh produce and there are rarely items that smell like they should smell. I am lucky to have a wonderful greengrocer close to home and he will sometimes grin at me say ‘don’t even bother smelling that’. One day I walked in when he had just received some lemons from a new supplier and we stood there smelling and oohing and aahing to the delight of other customers.

            • From our previous greengrocer we learned that they despise people who don’t properly inspect what they’re going to buy. He would sniff scornfully if I looked at what he had on display, and say, oh, that’s not for you, that’s for people who will eat any old thing. And then he would disappear into his cool room and bring out exquisite produce that was garden fresh. It was a very sad day when he retired.

  2. I enjoyed your review, though as a vego I’m not going near pig fat anytime soon. I wonder if reports of famines as being due to collectivisation and therefore a fault in communism were politicised, and were actually ordinary droughts.

    • That’s an interesting point… it wasn’t until I looked it up on WP that I discovered that droughts and famines were a regular occurrence. Collectivisation may not have helped, but communism may have meant that whatever there was, was shared equitably…


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