What Exactly Is Russian Food Today?

Darra Goldstein, a Russian cookbook author and scholar, on the importance of questioning what you know to be true, cooking as empathy, and horseradish vodka as antidote to the bitter north wind.

February  4, 2020
Photo by Stefan Wettainen © 2020

Darra Goldstein's written two cookbooks on Russian cuisine—each starkly different, reflective of her own ever-evolving understanding of and relationship to the country. Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore, her latest book, came from a realization that the her first cookbook)—featuring elaborate tsarist and austere Soviet dishes—were not at all indicative of how Russians eat and cook today. To define “Russian” cuisine today called for a return to the elemental, the geographical.

Coral Lee: What first sparked this interest in Russian culture and cuisine?

Darra Goldstein: I started studying Russian in college, and was enthralled with Russian poetry. I first went to the Soviet Union in 1972—such a strange and fascinating place during the Cold War. The tensions were high then, and they’re high again. I was going back and forth to the Soviet Union, when it collapsed in 1991. Suddenly, it was just Russia—and I’ve been discovering what that means ever since.

I had wanted to write my dissertation on Russian food and literature—food is this immediate way of communicating culture, and better understanding characters in literature. But I was told by my colleagues that food wasn’t a serious subject worth studying. So I did it on my own. I published A Taste of Russia, which looked longingly back at the 19th century. It was full of these opulent tsarist regime dishes.

Photo by Barry Goldstein

So, you did it, you supposedly defined the taste of Russia in that book 35 years ago. But now, there’s Beyond the North Wind—which defines the taste of Russia in an entirely different way.

When I looked back through A Taste of Russia, I realized what I had described in that initial book was not true any longer. Those dishes were not purely Russian. What are the foods that are so uniquely Russian, elemental, independent of political and cultural influence? In my research, I found many foods that we are trying to eat now—fermented foods, cultured dairy, whole grains—all surprisingly very modern and relevant, though very old. I found this relevancy very important, when people are writing Russia off as an evil place. It’s not so simple. I want to get back to the people, the place, where people live, so people understand the country as more than just an evil place.

How strict were you in selecting ingredients elemental to Northern Russia in Beyond the North Wind?

I was, and I wasn't. Most of the dishes are really simple. A lot of them rely on a few basics ingredients, but feature modern spins on ancient modes of preparation. There’s this traditional method of steaming vegetables in a Russian masonry stove with a little bit of water, but you can totally simulate that in the oven.

How did you determine these “elemental qualities"?

I looked at the geography. My previous books looked at Russia at large—the Soviet Union, plus Russia, Georgia, Central Asia. For this book, I studied Northern Russia, where it hasn’t been influenced by Western incursion. It’s a remote part of the country where people settle, and have brought Medieval Russian foodways from Moscow. The cuisine features lots of hearty grains—barley, rye, millet, oats, and wheat berries for Christmas—and root vegetables—especially turnip and celery root. Honey is also a quintessential flavor, as sugar was expensive and scarce up until the late 19th century.

How did you reconcile the elemental—or, the authentic—with what’s accessible to the average home cook?

Cookbooks can already be so alienating. I think it’s important that I bring my readers out of the book and into the kitchen, to get them actually cooking. I admit, there are a few things you have to seek out for this book, like sea buckthorn, black currants, and bird cherries—which is this naturally gluten-free flour that tastes like almond and cherry—but there’s so much value and pleasure in the gustatory, and in learning other cultures by cooking another’s cuisine. Without cooking, I don’t feel like you understand ingredients completely. If you can have one taste of something—even if it’s just one thing—in this book, if you connect you to one thing new, or even familiar—it opens you up, and makes you a more empathetic person.

If you can have one taste of something—even if it’s just one thing—in this book, if it connects you to one thing new, or even familiar—it opens you up and makes you a more empathetic person.
Darra Goldstein

How did you intend Beyond the North Wind to be used by your readers?

If writing is well done, beautiful, it carries us to other places. It was important to me that the recipes evoke a sense of place—so that people could feel the cold north wind, the coziness of coming inside, and sitting around a table. To really understand vodka—beyond a way of getting drunk—how warming, invigorating it is when infused with horseradish.

What do you want to see for the future of Russian cuisine/culture?

There are some other great Russian cookbooks out there. All are quite different, many of them Soviet. I’m trying to give people a basis for what is uniquely Russian, so that people can then play with those flavors. One of the ways that cuisine stays alive is when people riff, adapt, and put their own imprint on it. This book is defining something elemental, yes, but that doesn’t mean adapting isn’t welcome.

Okay, so then, what is elemental Russian to you?

During the Soviet era, homemade jams, gathering mushrooms, and infusing vodka to put up for winter were all very important. But, people now enjoy a wider variety of fruits and vegetables than they did during the Soviet years. When I first went to Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, my friend, who lives there, was so excited to cook something special for me. She made me a pizza with ham and slices of kiwi. People there are so excited to try new things and have new experiences, but also have no idea what to do with these new ingredients. It’s both wonderful and heartbreaking. But people are a lot more savvy now.

Have any of your readers had a similar ham-and-kiwi confusion with your recipes?

Actually, yes! In my Georgian cookbook, I used tons of cilantro. But, back then, we called it “fresh coriander.” I got a letter from a reader who was so angry because she made one of my favorite recipes for a coriander sauce—this rich, vibrant, fresh green sauce—but she used coriander seed!

And what are you doing now that this book is done?

I’ve actually just started working on a new project at the Yiddish Scientific Research Institute. I’m developing an online course on Ashkenazi Jewish food. I’m no Leah Koenig, no Adeena Sussman—but because of this project, I’m suddenly thinking so much and so deeply about Jewish food and my own family traditions.

What is Russian food and culture to you? Let us know in the comments.

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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.