There is an old Russian saying: “What is good for a Russian is death to a German”, which is generally understood to mean “our food, weather, government, living conditions, professional soccer, movie industry, infrastructure and communal bathing rituals would be deadly to most foreigners, a fact we are proud of.” I will note here that “German” has long been a synonym for “non-Russian”, which is in itself a funny piece of language history that I will explore in the next post.
The saying has certainly been proven true on many occasions, most famously circa 1940s, and it’s pretty accurate when it comes to food. Actually, when it comes to food, it works both ways, especially when you consider what is good for a Mexican. But in this case, we will look at a food that in the West is generally considered a symbol of destitution, sadness, social injustice and Scotland. This food is, of course, porridge. Also known as gruel. Also known, in Russia, as the most staple and essential, as well as the most patriotic, of foods
Enter kasha. Nobody is safe.
And here is another linguistic note for y’all. While in America the word “kasha” has come to refer to a specific type of cereal (namely, buckwheat, which was brought here by Russian Jews as the most sensible and universal of all porridges), in Russia it is all-encompassing. Any type of hot cereal, including oatmeal, wheat, rice pudding or anything similar will inevitably be called kasha. And then, venerated. Russians don’t just love their kashas. They worship them. Even the ones they hate. They worship the idea of a kasha for it is, in many ways, synonymous with food itself.
Yes, friends, you may forever associate gruel with waifishly malnourished English orphans, but to us, nothing screams “I love the Motherland!” like… well, screaming these very words through a mouthful of buckwheat.
“Schi and kasha is our food”, proudly proclaims an ancient Russian adage, also referring to a rather sad folksy soup made of cabbage and an earnest wish for a better country to be born in. Once again, the folklore isn’t exaggerating one bit. Kasha was and is the lynchpin of Russian cuisine, especially in certain settings where aesthetics and taste are secondary to functionality and raw survival. Such as the military, for example, or the kindergarten. In fact, the Russian word for a military cook is “kashevar”, which literally means “kasha maker.” As for the kindergarten, most preschool facilities in the Soviet Union would raise their tiny charges exclusively on gruel, utterly killing any desire to touch the dish ever again, until the necessities of military life brought it roaring back into our existence in the late teens.
With that, let me introduce you to the wide variety of gruels/porridges/kashas served at a typical Russian/Soviet table, ranging from the legendary to the infamous.
The Staple: Buckwheat
If Russia ever declares anything its national food, it will most likely be blini (which will absolutely get their own post) or Olivier, probably because they are among the most appealing and desired dishes we boast. But the fact is, they are festive foods, associated with special occasions or holidays and certainly aren’t everyday staples screaming of necessity or essentialness. This characteristic absolutely applies to borscht, but its association with Ukraine would make it a poor choice in today’s political climate. Buckwheat, however, is as irreproachable as it’s irreplaceable. Just slap a steaming bowl of it right on the national coat of arms and it won’t seem out of place at all.
Buckwheat’s innate patriotism is in no way undermined by the fact that the Russian word for buckwheat, grechka, actually means “Greek.” This is due to the fact that the cereal was introduced to the Eastern Slavs by the Byzantines in the VII century, which indicates that Russia’s love for buckwheat predates Russia itself by good 200 years.
Americans, who refer to buckwheat simply as “kasha”, might not understand our devotion to this rather simple dish, and it is indeed hard to explain. Grechka, rich and lavishly salted, is our ultimate comfort food. “You can’t spoil kasha with butter”, says the Russian proverb, a rough equivalent of the English “you can’t have too much of a good thing.” Indeed, it is hard to spoil grechka with too much butter, or with too much anything else in fact. Russians love it with anything. It goes great as an accompaniment for meat dishes, it is terrific with pickled vegetables, it accepts pasta into its loving bosom with care and generosity (creating what you might know as “kasha varnishkes”), it will even welcome a limp hot dog as the ultimate Russian “single male too incompetent to feed himself properly” meal.
Buckwheat is simple. Buckwheat is peasant-like. Buckwheat is family. In fact, most Russian buckwheat is sold with a lot of husk, earth and other trash in the bag, and the usual pre-cooking ritual involves spreading the cereal out on the table cloth to pick out the inedible bits. Most of the Civil War and World War II stories I heard from my grandma were told over this bond-building activity. Buckwheat is symbolic of the most rustic type of Russianness, penetrating deeper the holiest of holies of the elusive “Russian soul” than anything that is not vodka.
In fact, most Russian food historians agree that the adage “Schi and kasha are our food” speaks exclusively of buckwheat as it is hard to imagine any other type of porridge that could form as close a bond with our national identity.
The Child Abuse: Semolina
A dish’s name can be very important. Perhaps Americans love their French fries in part because the name makes them sound sophisticated. On the other hand, Americans also love their hot dogs, which sound anything but… Russians call semolina manka, or mana, which is done purely in order to fool children into thinking it’s delicious.
Then again, who knows, perhaps Russians actually believe that when Jews in the desert had food air-dropped on them by Yahweh Express, it was this particular cereal. In either case, propagating lies is nothing new to the Russian society, and this is one that gets introduced to us early.
Semolina is generally viewed in Russia as children’s porridge. It is the go-to dish in daycare centers, kindergartens and summer camps, most likely because it has a very mild taste and is quite runny. Russian moms and care providers always operate from the assumption that children’s stomachs are unable to process any solid or flavorful foods. Semolina is usually boiled in milk, with plenty of sugar and butter added. But despite these oafish and ham-fisted efforts to please the children, it is a frequent visitor in many of our childhood nightmares.
The reason for semolina’s lack of popularity among its target audience is the fact that it is rarely prepared well. Most of the time, it is served by uncaring care providers either entirely too thin or abhorrently lumpy or, quite frequently, both. If Jews had Russian kindergarten manka dropped on them in the desert, they’d stick with the golden calf, thank you very much.
One variation of the manka, however, still perseveres as an upper-class, incredibly posh dish from the czarist times. It is called the Guriev kahsa, and it can only be found in high-end restaurants nowadays. It is made with rich cream, nuts, dried fruit, honey and other flavorings. The decadent quirk in the dish is milk skins, collected while the milk boils, which are used to separate layers of ingredients… I mean, this shit was named after count Guriev, the Napoleonic-era Russian Minister of Finance, what the fuck do you expect? My boy once tasted the porridge at his friend’s house, so he went and straight up bought the serf cook from said friend with his entire goddamn family.
Russia, man. I tell ya, there is a reason nobody ever bought the poor sad asshole who invented kholodets. And he must have been on a major sale, too.
The Aristocracy: Oatmeal
Russians proudly proclaim that the very best cinematic treatment of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson stories was the 1979-1985 Soviet TV series called “The Adventures of Sherlok Kholms and Doktor Vatson.” This claim is a bit precarious since most people who make it have never seen any other treatments. Furthermore, the series, while tastefully witty and exceptionally well acted by the two lead men, does suffer from usual Soviet production issues, particularly when it comes to lighting and sound. Most night scenes, for instance, are basically ten minutes of hoofbeats in pitch-black darkness punctuated by Mr. Kholms’ raspy conclusion: “We are there, Vatson!” As for the climactic fight scene between Kholms and Professor Мориарти, the less is said about it the better.
Still, Russians will proudly note that the portrait of the Russian Holmes, Vasily Livanov, is displayed in the museum on Baker St., which, to them, indicates that even the Brits have acknowledged Russia’s superiority in adapting their national treasure. Be it as it may, perhaps the most iconic characters in the series are not the two title dudes but rather the pair from “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, Sehr Genry… er, sorry, Sir Henry Baskerville and Mr. Barrymore. The latter is the very paragon of the unflappable English butler while the former, brilliantly acted by Nikita Mikhalkov (a legendary Russian filmmaker who has, sadly, turned into a stark raving mad Putin stooge since), is a lovable oaf who can never remember how to pronounce Barrymore’s name.
The most parodied scene in the series is the moment when Barrymore sternly and ceremoniously serves Sir Henry his morning oatmeal, the breakfast of a true English lord (or so Russians think), while the master, who is actually a Canadian rustic, is utterly baffled by the concoction.
“What is it, some kind of kasha?”, he asks Barrymore, because of course the Soviet version of Sir Henry would ask precisely that.
“It is oatmeal, sir”, replies Barrymore in the tone of utmost gravity with a slight hint of royal disapproval.
“Don’t you have, like, kotletas or something?”, further inquires the ever more Soviet Sir Henry (you can bet your ass a post on kotletas is in your future, by the way).
“Meat will be served for lunch, sir”, answers Barrymore before gracefully absenting himself.
This phrase, “Oatmeal, sir” has since entered the Russian language as an ever-present colloquialism. It implies poshness, self-importance and treating mundane, pedestrian things with overinflated reverence. “Hey, Vasya, what’s for breakfast today?”, a typical Soviet teenager at a Young Communist Pioneers summer camp would ask his comrade. “Same fucking shit”, the comrade would reply, un-Leninistically. “Oatmeal, sir.”
In addition to being poshly foreign, oatmeal was considered a very healthy breakfast option, helping Soviet children grow up strong enough to not just wrestle overgrown hounds and nutty Irish professors but also to defend the Motherland and fulfill the Five-Year Plan in less than five years.
Instant oatmeal was mass produced in the USSR under the brand name “Hercules”, implying these very health benefits. Unlike the bland and unimaginative Brits and Yanks, most Russian mothers boiled the oats in whole milk, giving it the richness and the sweetness that Western porridges lack, deeming sugar, syrup or most other additives superfluous.
“Come and eat your gerkulesovaya kasha!”, my gandma would call most mornings, being quite unwilling to follow in the “Oatmeal, sir!” fad.
“With raisins or what?”, I would invariably ask.
“With nothingness”, she would answer, as only Grandma Russia ever could.
The Sadness: Millet
Let us get this thing straight: millet was not meant to be consumed by humans who have graduated past sustenance farming and gathering. I mean, there is nothing wrong with eating it in whatever form you find most palatable, but you can’t simultaneously compete in the space race and claim millet as one of your staple foods. I am sorry, this is simply a logical incongruity. Luckily for Russia, logical incongruity is an indelible part of our national endeavor.
The millet porridge is the very soul of sadness. Greatly hindered by the simple fact that this particular cereal looks, tastes and feels exactly like the bird food that it is, it is normally used as the last-resort option in most Russian daycare centers, at the point where resorting to downright starving of the children would be considered a step too far.
To be sure, recalling my own preschool days, I would have probably chosen starvation over having to swallow spoonfuls of the sandy yellow mess whose only identifiable taste was a profound disappointment in our economic system.
I don’t ever recall it being served either in my or in any of my friends’ households, and I grew up in the poorest neighborhood of one of the poorer towns of one of the poorest parts of the Soviet Union. No, it was only the institution whose modus operandi was showcasing profound disregard for the kids’ feelings who would ever serve this kasha. School cafeterias were particularly enthusiastic about it.
Even now, as millet has undergone a revival of sorts thanks to Russia’s fascination with rediscovering its history, few people ever tout its taste qualities, rather highlighting millet’s supposed nutritional value. But it’s hard for me to believe anyone would choose to eat this shit of their own free will. Millet is, simply put, unsalvageable. Unlike oatmeal or even semolina, it is not friendly to additives such as dried fruit, nuts or honey. Unlike buckwheat, it doesn’t treat savory toppings well, either. It has the magical quality of destroying everything it touches and making it bird food.
There are no redeeming qualities either for this porridge or the system that has spawned it. Millet is as much an indictment of Soviet Communism as the GULAGs were. Millet Day at your pre-K surely meant that a) the cook was hitting the bottle again, b) the administration had embezzled most monthly funding, or c) all of the above.
We need to move past this sad chapter in our narrative. Excuse me a minute…
The Rations: Pearl Barley
Porridge is ultimately a simple meal. You scrap together whatever cereal you have lying around the house, you dump it into the liquid of your choice, you boil until digestable, you move on with your life. It’s perfect for those times when you… you know… were born a peasant. Cheapness, simplicity and the ability to fill you up quickly and efficiently is what is prized in it above all else.
Well, let’s just say there is a reason why pearl barley is rarely seen outside of Russia and that reason is that, for a simple meal, it certainly isn’t quick or easy to make. Pearl barley is a fighter. It’s an absolute son of a bitch of a cereal. It will not give its life easily, it will not succumb even against insurmountable odds, it will resist you for the pure bloody-mindedness that it possesses in spades. To properly make pearl barley porridge, one must soak the cereal for up to 12 hours, then boil it quickly, then slowly cooking it in a water bath for another six hours. This is the only way to make it more palatable than raw oats or shredded rubber. It should be noted, though, that modern-day Russians can always buy instant pearl barley, which just goes to show how far we have fallen as self-respecting humans.
Anyway, perlovka‘s recalcitrant nature makes it perfect for Russia, one of the world’s most difficult customers. It is no coincidence that perlovka was reportedly Peter the Great’s kasha of choice, because when you are a seven-foot-tall sociopath hell-bent on turning Russia into a European nation even if it kills everyone in it and building Europe’s most beautiful city in the middle of an impassable swamp while literally paving the streets with bodies of fallen serf workers, what the fuck else are you going to sustain on?
It is also perfectly logical that perlovka is the food most commonly associated with soldiers’ rations, which kind of gave it bad rep back in the Soviet Union. In my humble opinion, this stereotype only cements (in more ways than one) its glory as Russia’s Edible Embodiment. Russia’s military, after all, might not be the best equipped, the most sober or the most… you know… not evil one in the world, but, holy shit, is it ever an intractable, unreasonable, obdurate horror show to fight against.
Of course, as is the case with all the cheapest cereals, it was also a common visitor in kindergarten and school cafeterias where it was normally treated as a meal in its own right. Which, to be fair, it was. After all, the effort of chewing and swallowing pearl barley leaves little energy available for meat or vegetables. Strangely enough, I don’t remember hating it as virulently as I hated millet and semolina. There is something about pearl barley that gives you a pause before daring to critique. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it’s a kind of an aura. Probably akin to that of a nervous twitch of Peter the Great’s mustache or the cold, dead stare of the muzzle of the PPS machine gun amid the howling void of December in Kursk.
The Epitome: Mamaliga
I am adding this bonus entry, of which most Russians know next to nothing, because I fucking can, that’s why.
Mamaliga is the national dish of Moldova, the Soviet Union’s smallest republic and now, proudly independent, the poorest nation in Europe. I was born and raised in this Soviet version of Holmes County, Mississippi and I know what it takes to survive there, namely: spunk, a positive attitude, a high pain threshold and giving absolutely zero fucks. Moldovans, a stiff cultural cocktail of Romanized steppe barbarians, Slavs, Turks, Romani and perpetual backwater poverty, are a rare European nation that has embraced corn as its national grain. For all its faults, Moldova is a sunny region where the North American plant grows tall and strong while the more traditional Russian wheat hasn’t quite taken hold.
Mamaliga is grits with cojones. It’s polenta with street cred. It’s cornbread with assertiveness and pizzazz. It’s what happens when corn mush doesn’t fuck around and decides to live its best life. It is the product of the world’s simplest, angriest recipe: pour cornmeal into a cast iron pan, add water and salt, stir moodily with a wooden paddle until mutual agreement between human and food is achieved. This is it. This is the dish.
To be fair, corn mush isn’t unique to Moldovans. It is extremely popular in the Caucasus mountains as well. Georgians have their own version, called gomi, which is almost indistinguishable from America’s southern grits. Chechens, who call their dish akhyar khudar (literally, “cornmeal porridge”), make it achieve a very fine, hummus-like texture. I am not familiar with the Ossetian version except for the fact that it has a name similar to the Moldovan one, mamelayi kyebyer, which literally translates as “a piece to prevent dying.”
It is, however, Moldovans who have achieved perfection, and everyone else can fuck all the way off. The reason Moldovans got so good at it is that they originally practiced on millet before switching to the imported grain, which was not taxed by the occupying Turks. As millet is, of course, inedible garbage compared to corn, the new recipe was literally a piece of cake.
The proper mamaliga needs to be thick, almost like a loaf of bread, which makes the constant stirring absolutely imperative. It should stick to the knife, which is why Moldovans traditionally cut it with a thread. Hot, steaming pieces of mamaliga are then dipped into butter, sour cream, crumbled feta, oil-and-garlic sauce, shredded cheese, bacon or pork rinds. It can be accompanied by pickled mushrooms, salted fish or eggs. It keeps wonderfully well and can be fried later in lard to make fry bread or a thicker type of tortilla. It can be rolled into dolmas or stuffed with cheese and butter and baked.
Mamaliga is a dish so endemic to Moldova that, while absolutely failing to penetrate anywhere outside its tiny borders, it has been readily and warmly embraced by every single ethnicity living there: Romanians, Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Bulgarians and Romani. Which is no mean feat, because some of them would love nothing more than to permanently separate themselves from the others. But even in the darkest times of the early 1990s, when Russian- and Romanian-speakers shot at each other in the streets of my native city for the stupidest of reasons one can think of, locals of all backgrounds never thought twice of pouring that pack of cornmeal into that cast iron pot, adding water and salt and stirring like a motherfucker.
For this is how one gets their piece to prevent dying, friends.
Stay tuned for the next installation, when I will go on a detour around the culinary theme and take you on a deep dive into the Russian holiday traditions. Get ready for Russia’s General Winter to enter the War on Christmas. Santa’s frozen body will ever rest in peace in the ruins of Stalingrad.
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