Rediscovering Russian cuisine

 Russian cookbooks

When you say the words ‘Russian food’, most people immediately think of borscht, beef Stroganoff, or possibly golubtsi. Many dishes everyone believes are classic Russian foods are not, in fact, Russian, according to Maksim Syrnikov. He has spent over twenty years researching pre-Soviet Russian foods, writing several (Russian language) cookbooks in the process.

Syrnikov is a man on a mission, to reclaim the heritage of Russian peasant food that spanned eons before the Bolshevik revolution. He believes that many of the foods that predated this cultural upheaval are in danger of being lost, so he travels across Russia searching for old family recipes. He also looks for clues in novels by writers like Dostoyevsky and Gogol. His goal is to “help Russians reacquaint themselves with the country’s agrarian roots” and discover that the classic foods are as worthy as any imports.

It’s a daunting task, as Russians don’t hold their national cuisine in high regard. That’s because what most people think of Russian cuisine is based on post-revolutionary foods that lack the character and flavor of the ancestral meals that few people in modern Russia have even tasted. 

While Syrnikov is exploring nearly-forgotten foods like nyanya (lamb’s stomach stuffed with buckwheat, brain and legs) and kulebyaka (a huge pastry stuffed with fish, mushrooms, rice, and crêpes), others are also turning their attention to Russia and its former satellite states such as Georgia. More and more cookbooks are bringing the flavors of this area to new audiences.

While recent books like Kachka, Kaukasis, and Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking may not dive quite as deep into the history of the region as Syrnikov does in his tomes, they do provide us with insights into cuisines that haven’t been properly recognized before. In the last five years, over 25 new Russian cookbooks have been added to the EYB Library. There are even more when you add in regional specialty books focusing on Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and others. 

Since my German forebears lived for a time in the Ukraine and Moldova before arriving in the United States, I find these volumes fascinating. It’s amazing to me how much my own family picked up from the region in less than a full generation. I hope that this trend continues and that other small countries in Europe and beyond have their heritage cuisines examined and explained to a new generation of cooks. 

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