Originally published June 11, 1984
[Editor’s note: This article was written before the fall of the Soviet Union.]
However well fed they may be on other diets, Russians, after a time, feel a kind of emptiness only Russian food will fill. All other cooking eventually seems either too spare or lean or too fancy. And food is of great importance to the Russian’s life. It was a featured pastime in the long idle days of the country’s aristocracy and landed proprietors. Meals and snacks were often the only events of the day, and the supervision of the meals and the kitchen, root cellar, drying room, ice house and preserve filled pantry was the main concern of the mistress of the house.
This preoccupation with food is so constantly reflected in Russian history that the Kitchen Mouse first thought of writing a column on Russian cooking while recently reading about eighteenth and nineteenth century czars.
Russia today is a country of 16 republics and approximately 170 languages, customs and traditional cuisines. Not all, by any means, eat borscht, kasha and beef stroganoff. Borscht is unknown in the Caucasus, the home of shashlik, and even the way shashlik varies from one valley to another in the three Caucasian republics, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaidzhan. While northern Russians eat buckwheat kasha, a kind of baked cereal, Armenians serve a rice pilaf with currants, cinnamon and pine nuts. In Georgia, where rice will not grow on the steep mountain slopes, the pilaf is of cracked wheat. The sour cream and mushrooms of beef stroganoff typify the Slavic north, while yogurt and dried mint are more common in the Caucasus, and hot red pepper is always on the table of the Uzbeks. In the east, there is distinctly oriental flavor, and in the Baltic regions, a strong Scandinavian influence.