Don’t be surprised if this edition of the Guide winds up being the last. Oh no, it’s not because I am running out of topics to discuss. I mean, we are only six posts in, and I still haven’t gotten to the issue of porridge, for crying out loud! However, since in this post I am about to reveal Russia’s most closely guarded and embarrassing military secret, and since Russia’s government is known for taking such indiscretions rather badly, I am probably better off not making any long-term plans for the time being.
One may wonder if such a sinister lead-in is necessary for a blog post dedicated to nothing more nefarious than the usage of herbs and spices in Russian cooking, but one thing you are hopefully learning about Russia is that nothing is ever harmless and nobody is ever safe. With this warning out of the way, let’s dive into this difficult topic by immediately exposing Russia’s most glaring weakness.
None Like it Hot
In 1937, Stalin’s trade minister Anastas Mikoyan was dispatched to the United States in order to see what kind of American agricultural and culinary innovations could be borrowed for the benefit of the Soviet people, still wallowing in their kasha and turnip misery. Mikoyan, a shrewd and insightful Armenian who knew a thing or two about good cooking, came back with several important innovations, among them ice cream and mayonnaise, which became huge staples of Soviet cuisine, as well as ketchup, which emphatically did not.
One reason for ketchup’s relative lack of success in Russia was its rather surprising reputation for being a bit too much of a walk on the wild side. Here is how the tomato-based gloop Americans pour on everything was advertised in the 1930s USSR.
“In America”, proclaims the poster, “every restaurant table and every housewife’s cupboard contains a bottle of KETCHUP! KETCHUP – the best, spicy, pungent condiment for meat, fish, vegetable and other dishes. Demand KETCHUP!”
Do you see the problem here? Ketchup, guys, is a spicy condiment. Which, to most Russians’ tastes, it most certainly was. It was rather naive of Glavkonserv (“The Main Preserves Factory”, the state-licensed producer of ketchup) to expect that Russian people would ever “demand” anything with a reputation for being spicy. Which, and I cannot stress this enough, Russians most definitely considered ketchup to be. Let’s dig into this, shall we?
It appears that 1937 was somewhat of a big year for the Soviets’ exploration of the US, as at the same time Pravda had also sent two very prominent reporters to tour the Western nemesis and write articles about American life. The duo, Ilya Ilf and Evgeni Petrov, happened to be among the most talented and wittiest writers ever born in Russia, and their trip would actually result in a book, One-Storied America, an account so brilliant and honest that it wound up being banned in the USSR. Among their funny and earnest impressions of subjects as diverse as the US political system, advertising, pop corn and American football (their thrilling account of a TCU-Santa Clara game actually turned me into a fan of the sport and made me want to become a sports writer when I read it in the 1980s), was this story about visiting a Mexican restaurant.
“After a month and a half in the States we were so sick of American cuisine that we were ready to consume any foods – Italian, Chinese, Jewish – just not “breakfast number two” or “dinner number one”… American food is undoubtedly an exemplar of a ridiculous, eccentric taste that has created such abominations as sweet pickles, bacon fried to the toughness of corrugated wood and bread of blinding whiteness and absolutely no taste (or rather the taste of medical cotton balls!). This is why we found ourselves looking tenderly at a glowing sign “Original Mexican Restaurant”, which promised bliss… We ordered soup, the name of which we have forgotten and something called “enchilada.” The name of the soup was forgotten because the very first spoon of it knocked everything out of our heads except for the wish to grab a fire extinguisher and douse the flames in our mouths. As for the “enchilada”, it turned out to be a tasty-looking crepe, stuffed with red peppers and thinly sliced artillery gunpowder and slathered in nitroglycerin. Verily, it is impossible to sit down to such a lunch without a fireman’s helmet. We ran out of the “Original Mexican Restaurant” hungry, angry and dying of thirst. Five minutes later, we were sitting in a genuine American drug store and eating (oh, the humiliation!) the centralized, standardized, numbered American food that we had just been cursing half an our ago. But not before downing ten bottles of ginger ale each.”
Ilf and Petrov were not in any way unusual in their utter refusal to accept spicy foods. Many decades later, a friend of mine who had moved to Moscow from Atlanta and was generally very happy there for a while, complained that his biggest beef with the Russian capital was that it was absolutely impossible to find a decent Mexican restaurant.
In fact, that very same soup that threatened the well being of Ilf and Petrov (the tortilla soup, most likely) became the reason for a minor scandal in Russian hockey about ten years ago. Once, during a Russian national team’s tour of Sweden, it was served the Mexican dish in the hotel restaurant, and the team doctors, upon sampling it, were horrified and became convinced that Swedes were trying to poison the opponent. “Who Served Mexican Soup to Our Athletes?”, screamed a headline in a Russian sports publication the next day. Murderers, obviously. Only murderers could feed Russians anything spicy.
The nation that found ketchup to pack too much heat can be easily scandalized even by something that barely registers on the Scoville scale. Consider this: is there anything blander and less adventurous than Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine? Would anyone ever suspect any fireworks from Tanta Leya’s gefilte fish or Grandma Ruth’s kasha varnishkes? Yet, for a very long time, one aspect of Russian anti-Semitism was a violent rejection of Jewish food on the grounds that it had too strong a taste due to its utilization of garlic. One wonders whether a hint of paprika could send Russians into toxic shock.
For a country that froze Wermacht to death, conquered space and is notorious for drinking brake fluid, Russia is certainly incredibly wimpy when it comes to spice. In fact, the film “Some Like It Hot” starring Marylin Monroe was tremendously popular in the Soviet Union, but it ran under a changed title, “Only Girls are Allowed in Jazz.” Soviet citizens could not conceive of human beings, even capitalist pig jazz musicians, who would ever, under any circumstances like anything hot.
Several years ago, Russia had passed a horrible law that forbade Americans from adopting Russian children. Even though it was nothing more than retaliation for America’s Magnitsky Act (which sanctioned corrupt Russian officials), its ostensible purpose was to “protect” children against falling victim to abusive American foster parents. Because a 1% chance of landing in a “bad” US family is much worse than the 100% chance of living in a Russian orphanage, of course. Anyway, offered as one of the examples of inhuman mistreatment of Russian foster children in America was a terrifying story of a child being forced to consume hot sauce. This was told, screamingly, from the floor of the Russian State Duma by a radical parliament member, to audible gasps in the chamber. You can’t make this shit up, folks.
Mother Russia has been around for the Mongols, Napoleon and the Nazis, she’s been through famines, riots, famine riots, the Holocaust and Stalin’s Purges, she sees enough bad soccer each month to kill ten stadiums’ full of Brazilians. But Frank’s Red Hot will make her clutch her pearls in utter horror.
Speaking of kiddies, I have once bought a Russian book for my son which had a poem in it called “A Vegetable Celebration.” In it, anthropomorphic fruits, berries and vegetables put on their best clothes and danced or something. Each was introduced with some basic info about them. One of them was described as such (original rhyme is unfortunately lost due to my lack of poetic talents):
This is pepper, it is red
It is dangerous to eat
You should marinate it first
Then you try it, little bud
Otherwise, your mouth and tongue
Shall be consumed by deadly fire
The verse was complemented with an illustration showing an innocent Slavic bunny sprinting away in visible agony with flames emerging from its mouth. The most precious thing about this is that the pepper depicted in the picture was none other than a bell pepper. All zero Scoville units of it. As I have said, you can’t make this shit up.
This leads me to the greatest Russian military secret I am about to reveal. Pentagon, you may want to take notes… If the United States ever chooses to invade Russia, the only weapon you will ever need is pepper spray. You are welcome, America.
Spice Dunes in Flavor Desert
While the Russians’ morbid fear of spicy foods is a detriment to the variety of our cuisine, its effect doesn’t spread throughout the former Soviet sphere of influence. Indeed, the aromaphobia (a real word, by the way) is only limited to Russia proper. The Caucasus and southern parts of Ukraine can produce wonderfully seasoned dishes, the former due to spices’ actually growing there and the latter thanks to the Ottoman Turkish influences.
Here, for example, is ajika, an Abkhazian paste made out of boiled chili peppers and a mixture of multiple herbs. When slathered all over roasted chicken, it’s heavenly, with just enough heat to satisfy most spicy food aficionados, complete with underlying flavors of garlic and herbs, yet still subtle in the way that lets your palate absorb the taste of the meat without obliterating it. All of this greatness is in the first picture. The second picture is pure bullshit.
The second image is what is sold as “ajika” in Russian stores. It is a story of sadness, of colonial appropriation, of infamy and shame. It is what happened when Russians, upon conquering the Caucasus, discovered ajika and thought the idea of rubbing spices onto meat (as opposed to salting it in tears of bereaved Slavic widows, as was usually done) a splendid one. That is before they figured out that they are incapable of handling the heat.
This is how the Russian “ajika” came into its tortured and pointless existence. The sloppy mess of watery tomatoes and bell peppers (bell peppers!) was supposed to convince Russians that they were letting a taste of the exotic Orient into their kitchens. To this very day, many a Russian housewife will serve chicken soaked in glorified tomato puree, proudly declaring it to be “Georgian-stye ajika.”
In the eternally rebellious Ukraine, well-spiced borscht has a pride of place at the table, while the Odessa-style eggplant dip must be bursting with peppers and garlic for an authentic, inimitable taste. Alas, Russians had to spoil these as well, as they normally eat borscht plain and their “eggplant caviar” packs bell peppers, carrots and occasionally mayo (because of course) but absolutely no heat at all.
Central Asia’s pilafs, delightful rice dishes packed with lamb, sheep’s fat and red peppers, have been adopted to the Russian palate by substituting peppers with carrots. Probably because the carrot is the spiciest elongated reddish food Russians are willing to consume.
It is a general rule that anything sold in a Russian food store and labeled as “Spicy!” will, at its most extreme, contain nothing more acidic than tomatoes as its key ingredient. This, by the way, is why you have to pay extra for a pack of ketchup in a Russian McDonald’s. They just want to make sure you are absolutely certain you want to subject your palate to such reckless and exotically wild life choices.
Even horseradish, Russia’s most traditional condiment, has been gelded by the addition of grated beets, which badly mitigates its sharpness and colors everything it touches deep crimson.
The only outlier in the story of Russian aromaphobia is, interestingly enough, mustard. Russian mustard, traditionally sold in toothpaste tubes, is brown, gritty and tastes very much like getting hit on the nose with a Soviet military-issued sapper’s shovel. It’s wasabi with a hangover. It will instantly turn your hot dog into a Soyuz space module and shoot you right the fuck into outer space. It’s not really heat, per se. It’s an annexation of your nasal cavity under flimsy pretenses that wouldn’t pass mustard in international courts. Your nostrils will speedily evacuate all matter as their self-destruct sequence will be involuntarily activated. Russian mustard, for no apparent cultural and historic reasons, managed to be spectacular and persevere against all trends and directives. It is truly the Trotsky of Russian food.
The Herb of Discontent
What Russians lack in spice, they certainly greatly overcompensate by insane amounts of herbs they shove into any conceivable dish. Parsley, cilantro, bay leaf (which Russia absolutely has to be the world’s primary consumer of), thyme, grass, whatever. All is good for the pot, as there apparently isn’t a substance on earth whose basic unit can be described as “a sprig” that Russians won’t readily throw into their food.
But nothing, absolutely nothing beats out the ubiquitousness of dill.
An innocent Western traveler will find it everywhere. In their soup, in salads, on sandwiches (this is the only type of vegetation we put on our bread, usually as a topping for salt fish), in meat, poultry, seafood, in every single jar of pickles, hell, even in desserts as fennel is generally called “sweet dill” in Russian. At first the innocent Westerner will be amused. Then, bemused. Then, irritated. He will soon discover that any requests to hold the dill will not be answered and asking for foods that do not contain dill will be met with polite bafflement.
One American journalist once tried, very, very pointedly, to ask a Russian waitress to not put dill into his borscht. He repeated it several times in his good Russian, he made sure she understood what he meant. What he meant was that there should be absolutely no dill, not even a suggestion of it, in his bowl. Not a milligram. Please. No dill. She assured him that she absolutely understood what he meant and then, of course, she brought him a bowl of borscht with dill in it. “I thought you’d like just a little”, she explained as the American proceeded, I assume, to bang his head on the table. He should have known better.
Asking a Russian for borscht without dill is like asking them for borscht without water. In fact, you’ll have better luck asking for borscht without beets, because it absolutely exists. It’s called “green borscht.” Its primary ingredient is dill.
Silly Westerner, avoiding dill in Russia is no less of a pipe dream than avoiding bad weather, crooked cops, self-important verbose literature and crippling existential despair. Hell, we even make vodka cocktails with it. Behold a “Chelyabinsk Mojito.”
Which is why it is the most ironic thing that, since 2014, dill has become a symbol of ethnic strife, Russian military revanchism and intense hatred for Ukrainians. The reason for that is not culinary but purely linguistic.
The Russian word for dill, “ukrop”, thanks to its first three letters, has become an offensive nickname for Ukrainians in the wake of the 2014 revolution. Back then, Russia’s former colonial protectorate overthrew its Kremlin-installed president in an effort to take a more Western-oriented course of development. Russians, of course, greatly resented the move and replied to it by annexing a part of Ukraine and waging a hybrid war in another part of it, all while disparaging the locals as inbred bumpkins bamboozled by America.
Dill’s image as a rustic herb found in peasant dishes, especially in borscht, was supposed to convey the Ukrainians’ simplemindedness, even though they are exactly as fond of dill as Russians are. As a result, many Ukrainians have actually embraced the nickname and turned it into military insignias and even a name of a political party.
Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko even tweeted a picture of himself wearing a shirt with a dill badge, while proclaiming that “Dill is Ukraine’s Resistance!”
Dill’s important role in international relations being what it is, many foreigners may emerge from their Russian experiences thinking that the entire raison d’etre of our cuisine is grossing them out. It is not so, and even if we tend to overdo it sometimes on the herbs and underdo it on the spices, we are not strangers to complexities of culinary experiences. You can think of us as a Slavic version of Cajuns who stick celery into everything. But without the spices, natch.
Remember that, Pentagon. Pepper spray. Seriously, don’t need anything else at all.
Come back next time when, assuming I evade FSB assassins long enough, we will gorge ourselves on the topic of Russia’s porridges and gruel. We are all Mother Russia’s orphans, you know.
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