According to Maksim Syrnikov, who has spent the past two decades studying traditional Russian cuisine, there is a reason that there is no agreement on the ingredients of a solyanka, a classic and very controversial Russian dish. Solyanka is generally understood to contain cabbage and maybe some meat, but even that’s in dispute: Is the cabbage soured in brine, or braised? Can you make solyanka with fish? And what is a solyanka, anyway? Is it a casserole, as Muscovites claim, or, as Petersburgers argue, a soup?
Apparently, it can be all of the above. Moreover, it is unclear whether the dish’s name comes from the word sol, meaning “salt,” or whether it has a different etymology. “Back in the day—say, for a holiday—everyone in the village would bring out whatever they had in the house, put it all in one big pan, and then bake it in the oven,” Syrnikov says, explaining an- other theory. “Which is why some people think the dish was originally known as selyanka, not solyanka, from the word selo”—which means village. Syrnikov—whose preferred version of solyanka comprises layers of shredded, smoked, and boiled beef alternating with braised sour cabbage, all doused in beef stock—is a short, plump man in his forties with the ruddy face of a benevolent village matron. When he cooks, he wears a chef ’s apron stretched around his belly, and his hair, long and graying, is messily bundled into a ponytail. He is extremely polite, which, for a moment or two, makes you forget that he is almost always correcting you. When he makes a point, his voice rises and breaks in excitement. Syrnikov is an exacting researcher: if he wants to discover how whitebait was fished in the northwestern Belozero region for centuries, he spends days out in the boats with the local fishermen. He was appalled when the editors of one of his cookbooks, unable to find whitebait in Moscow, substituted dried Chinese anchovies in a photograph, and he is still deeply embarrassed about it.
As a self-appointed guardian of authentic Russian fare, Syrnikov has a problem: Russians don’t hold Russian food in particularly high esteem. When they eat out, they favor more exotic cuisines, like Italian or Japanese. The tendency to find foreign food more desirable is a prejudice that goes back centuries—to a time when the Russian aristocracy spoke French, not Russian—and it was exacerbated by the humiliating end of the Cold War and Russia’s subsequent opening to the West. Russian food is pooh-poohed as unhealthy and unsophisticated.
Among the many things that annoy Syrnikov is the fact that a good number of the despised Russian dishes aren’t even Russian. “I did an informal survey of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and asked them, ‘Name some traditional Russian dishes,’” Syrnikov told me. “What they named was horrible: borscht, which is Ukrainian, and potatoes, which are an American plant. In the middle of the eighteenth century, there were riots, because people didn’t want to grow potatoes.” He insists that real Russian food contained no potatoes, no tomatoes, few beets, and little meat. Instead, there were a lot of grains, fish, and dairy, as well as honey, cucumbers, turnips, cabbage, apples, and the produce of Russia’s vast forests—mushrooms and berries. Because of the climate, little of this was eaten fresh; it was salted, pickled, or dried for the long winter. Most of Russia ate this way until the twentieth century.
By exploring the Russian food that existed before potatoes, Syrnikov hopes to help Russians reacquaint themselves with the country’s agrarian roots, torn up during seven decades of Soviet rule, and to convince them that their national cuisine can be just as flavorful as anything they might find in a sushi bar. He spends his time travelling through the countryside in search of old recipes, trying them himself, and blogging about his experiences. He has written four books, including an encyclopedia of Russian cuisine and a cookbook that ties food to the fasts and feasts of the Russian Orthodox calendar. He makes frequent television appearances and conducts master classes all over the country, instructing everyone from restaurant chefs to hobby cooks in the ways of the Russian peasant kitchen. Often, he is brought in as a consultant on projects to make a restaurant authentically Russian. Recently, he hatched a plan for a user-generated database of folk recipes. “My idea is to send out a call across all of Russia,” he told me. “If you have a grandmother who makes shanishki”— disk-shaped pastries—“that aren’t made in any other village, but your grandmother still knows how to make them, go immediately, and take a picture of them, write down the recipe. To me, it’s absolutely obvious that, if we don’t wake up and find out from these old women and set it down on paper, in twenty years we won’t have anyone to ask. Russian culture will lose a very significant part of itself.”
A traditional Russian kitchen starts with a pech, a huge brick oven with many winding vents designed to retain the heat from a wood fire. A pech was once the centerpiece of traditional peasant homes: it took up about a quarter of the available living space. It heated and ventilated the house; it dried food; children and the elderly slept on ledges built into it. When the oven cooled, it even served as a bath: family members climbed inside and doused themselves with buckets of water heated in the oven. From a culinary point of view, it was also ideal for the peasant cook: stoke the oven with a cord of wood in the morning, put in an iron pot of solyanka, and, while you worked in the field, the slowly decreasing temperature of the oven would take care of the rest—a pre-modern Crock-Pot. This is why the central Russian method of preparing food is tomlenie, which is loosely translated as braising.
On a bright, chilly day last August, Syrnikov was working at a pech that he had helped construct, in the kitchen of a restaurant called Golden Rus, in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city just east of the Ural Mountains. Golden Rus is part of an entertainment complex called Galactica, whose owners had decided to rebrand the restaurant as a bastion of pure Russian fare. Syrnikov had been brought in as a consultant after a partner in the Galactica venture picked up his book “Real Russian Food.” Now Syrnikov, who lives in St. Petersburg, was finishing a two- week stint at Galactica, helping in the preparation of a trial banquet. The menu consisted of twenty-nine dishes, most of them unknown to the average Russian.
The process of turning Galactica into a showcase for Russian cuisine, however, had been complicated by the fact that a pech is hard to come by these days. In the Soviet era, the stove’s immense size proved ill suited to urban life styles and to communal apartments. A pech also consumes a great deal of wood, and Russia’s forests have thinned significantly. Moreover, a true pechnik, or oven builder, is hard to find: what was once a common trade is now a rare hobby. The man hired by Galactica did not have the expertise to include a heat-conserving labyrinth of vents, and he built the chimney toward the front of the oven, rather than over the fire. This arrangement used less wood and kept heat in longer, but all the food came out tasting smoked. Still, the oven’s three little compartments provided enough room for a frequent rotation of pans and traditional cast-iron pots—fat-bellied, with narrow bottoms—and its warm roof, about a foot below the kitchen’s ceiling, became a favorite for the three young chefs in the kitchen: Anatoly, with his blond mullet; Serezha, who had two gold incisors and a Russian Navy tattoo on his hand; and quiet, lanky Sasha. They worked twenty-four-hour shifts, sometimes consecutively. Periodically, one of them would climb down from the top of the pech, ruffling his hair and rubbing his eyes.
On the morning of the banquet, Aleksander Ladeischikov, the tanned and dandyish co-owner of Galactica, visited the kitchen. Syrnikov had just lifted a suckling pig, milk-white and puckered, from a vat of marinade: a bottle of vodka, water, and lemon. (Lemons, he explained, came to ancient Russia by way of Byzantium.) “He didn’t have a very long life,” Syrnikov said, laughing as he rubbed the piglet with paprika, salt, sage, and sugar. Ladeischikov gave a rueful smile. “Oh, I can’t even look at it!” he said. “And then I’ll have to eat this poor child!”
Ladeischikov walked proprietarily through the kitchen in white boat shoes and a white Yachting Class Club T-shirt stretched tight under a seersucker blazer. He peered inside the oven and smiled at everyone encouragingly. Then he noticed some cigarette butts in a makeshift trash can. “Who’s been smoking in here?” he asked, and looked at the three young cooks. “Guys, guys, let’s get this straight right now: we’re not going to smoke in the kitchen. Clear?” The boys shuffled their feet and carried on mincing and stirring. Ladeischikov’s upbeat charm returned. “I have some friends, who are also chefs, who want to come see what you’re doing here,” he announced. “I told them they could come watch.”
After Ladeischikov left, Syrnikov called to the head chef, a wry, wiry woman in her forties named Rita, and asked for some buckwheat kasha—a kind of porridge. It would be mixed with chopped hard-boiled eggs as stuffing for the pig. Meanwhile, Anatoly and Serezha were preparing another kasha, made with semolina, known as Guryevskaya kasha. It was named for Count Dmitry Guryev, the Russian Minister of Finance during the Napoleonic Wars, who is said to have purchased the serf who invented the dish and installed him as the head chef at his own residence. Guryevskaya kasha consists of layers of semolina porridge alternating with layers of the chewy, caramelized film that forms on the surface of milk as it bakes in the oven. It is baked, then topped with nuts, dried fruit, and macedoine—a light syrup with skinned grapes that is a French import—and finally sprinkled with sugar and brûléed.
In the pech, a black iron pot bristled with fish tails. It would eventually become an ukha, a clear fish soup customarily made with three types of fish. In a different compartment were the tel’noe, a kind of fish cake made with cubes of salmon and perch, and mixed with raw egg and chopped onions. The patties had been arranged in a cast-iron skillet and covered with a mixture of sour cream and rassol, or pickle juice, a common way to add flavor in a climate where not many flavorful things grow. Soon, three small, fat carp would join them. In the neighboring compartment, a goose and a duck, their wings wrapped in foil, were turning a deep Cognac color.
Tucked in the back, near the coals, was a pan of grechniki, a buckwheat cake that is cut into squares—like brownies—and served with shchi, Russia’s traditional cabbage soup. Syrnikov considers shchi the most Russian food of all. Cabbage was a vital source of nutrients in a harsh climate that could support few fruits or vegetables. It was gathered in the fall, soured in brine, and stowed away for the winter in ice cellars. Shchi is made by chopping this soured cabbage, putting it into a cast-iron pot, and leaving it in the oven for hours. This breaks down the sugars in the cabbage, resulting in a sweet-and-sour taste similar to that of sauerkraut. A stock—fish, meat, or mushroom—is added after the cabbage has braised for a day.
Sutochnye shchi, or day-old shchi, gets its name from this process and can be found on the menu of almost every Russian restaurant in Moscow. These days, it is usually made more quickly, with sour cabbage tossed into the soup at the last minute to boil, but Syrnikov had braised his cabbage the day before. Shchi is very filling, and was central to the Russian peasant diet. Furthermore, the long cooking time became a characteristic aspect of the nineteenth-century culture of the traktir, the roadside inns that crop up so often in the writings of Chekhov and Gogol. When a coach driver stopped at an inn, he would have with him a pot of braised sour cabbage prepared in the pech of a previous inn. This would be mixed with a stock prepared at the new inn, and, while the driver ate and slept, a new batch of cabbage wilted in the pech for the next leg of the journey.
Syrnikov did not have a hungry childhood, but his parents did. His mother was born in Leningrad in December, 1941, at the start of the Germans’ siege of the city, in which more than half a million residents died of starvation and disease. “Throughout my childhood, they told me about what they ate during the siege,” Syrnikov recalled one day, as we sat in an upscale Italian restaurant in Chelyabinsk. “They told me how they boiled carpenter’s glue, and how the food warehouses burned down during the first days of the siege. My grandmother would go to the spot where they had stood—many people went and dug the earth where the sugar silo was. And then they would bring this earth home, wash it, and make syrup out of it.”
Before Syrnikov’s mother’s family came to the city, they lived in the countryside by Lake Seliger, between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Peasants for generations, they lost their land in the forced collectivization of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, when the Soviet Union’s plans for colossal communal farms obliterated existing agricultural communities and led to food shortages that claimed millions of lives. The field where Syrnikov’s great-grandfather grew rye is now abandoned, but Syrnikov, who has built a dacha nearby, takes walks here with his six-year-old son. His father’s side of the family, meanwhile, included a long line of cheese-makers, from whom his last name derives (syr is Russian for “cheese”). His paternal grandfather was arrested in the thirties and shuttled around the Gulag for nearly twenty years. Syrnikov is bitterly conscious of the miseries endured by the Russian people in the twentieth century. “My great-grandfather had eight children, and I am the only great-grandchild,” he says. “Can you imagine?”
Perhaps because of an acute sense of what his family lost to the Soviet regime, Syrnikov has made it his life’s work to reclaim the past. He refers to regions and cities by their pre-Revolutionary names, and to tsars as gosudar’, or lord. He is extremely devout, observing most Orthodox fasts and ignoring secular holidays. Nonetheless, his upbringing was in some ways typically Soviet. He served in the Soviet Navy in the early nineteen-eighties—Navy Day is the only secular holiday he acknowledges—and at university he studied the quintessentially Soviet subject of “culturology,” which attempted to examine the basis of culture scientifically. But by the time Syrnikov graduated, in 1991, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and in the economic chaos that ensued he worked various odd jobs to support himself.
Syrnikov began to travel around the country, sleeping on boats or in tents, exploring what remained of Russia’s peasant culture. There wasn’t much. Thanks to decades of inefficient collective farming, vital expertise had been lost, and Russian agriculture has not yet fully recovered. The culinary traditions of the peasants had likewise fallen into obscurity, as had the intricate fusion of Russian and French cuisines favored by the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In their place, the country’s diet was dominated by the bible of the Soviet kitchen, “The Book on Delicious and Healthy Food,” which was published in 1939. Through countless editions in the following decades, it helped Soviet cooks adapt to the growing dearth of the most basic produce. But it is also the source of the bland, greasy things that are commonly thought of as Russian food.
These days, few Russians have eaten the simple foods with folksy names that were once staples of the Russian table, such as kulebyaka (a huge pastry stuffed with fish, mushrooms, rice, and crêpes) and mazyunya (a fudgelike mixture of turnip flour and autumnal spices). Yet Syrnikov found that old women in the remote corners of the empire still remembered such things. Their mothers had made these dishes before the Revolution and had managed to pass on the recipes.
Syrnikov fleshed out his discoveries by hunting down pre-Revolutionary texts, accumulating an impressive library of culinary literature. (The oldest item in his collection is a Russian cookbook from 1790.) He also looked for clues in the Russian literary canon. In Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” Chichikov eats nyanya, which, Gogol notes, is a “famous dish, served with shchi, consists of a lamb’s stomach stuffed with buckwheat, brain and legs.” Syrnikov decided to re-create the dish, which he calls Russian haggis. He procured and cleaned a lamb’s stomach (“Not a very pleasant or easy task”), and then stuffed it with lamb shank and liver, fried onions, hard-boiled eggs, and buckwheat kasha. He sewed up the stomach with white thread, and, after it was baked and photographed for his blog and his books, ate it with shchi, just like Chichikov.
“Who, other than me, is making nyanya in Russia right now?” Syrnikov says. The same can be said of other literary dishes. He soaks and preserves cloudberries, an orange raspberry that grows in the north of the country and is a peasant delicacy that Pushkin is reputed to have asked for on his deathbed. He has re-created the recipe for sayki, buns made from a dense wheat dough which, in Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the House of the Dead,” are handed out to prisoners.
The result of Syrnikov’s twenty-four years of investigation is outlined in his lushly illustrated books. They read like the description of an utterly foreign cuisine. This is because, while Syrnikov was recovering techniques and flavors from before the Revolution, the rest of the country was being propelled into the globalized world of the twenty-first century. The new urban élite has the leisure to think about food, and is able to travel widely. In response to this, restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg have begun to focus more on the quality of the food they serve. In big cities, you don’t have to be an oligarch to get a grass-fed steak or chicken sous vide or an Old-Fashioned. Farmers’ markets are suddenly in vogue, and, last August, a food festival in Moscow attracted thirteen thousand people, despite the twenty-dollar admission fee and the fact that it was peak vacation time, which meant that the city was largely empty.
The festival’s organizer, Aleksei Zimin, edits a food magazine and owns a restaurant—Ragout—that wouldn’t be out of place in the West Village. He praises Syrnikov for restoring regional differences in a country that experienced decades of upheaval. For the most part, though, he sees Syrnikov’s project as quirky and anachronistic. “For me, food is alive—it’s what is here, now,” Zimin says. “Syrnikov is an archivist. There are people who spend years searching for something that was lost, like the fountain of youth, thinking that if they find it they will find some kind of truth in life.”
Others contend that the food in Syrnikov’s cookbooks is simply impractical for a modern life style. “You have to feed people according to contemporary standards of nutrition, and Russian food doesn’t meet these standards,” says Victor Michaelson, who leads the Slow Food movement in Russia, and describes himself as Syrnikov’s “antagonist.” “First of all, Russia was an agrarian country, where most people lived in villages. This means work outside, which, given the difficulty of the labor and the harshness of the climate, burned a colossal amount of calories and demanded a solid, peasant figure. But life has changed. Modern life means a low weight, fewer calories. Eating like a Russian peasant is no good for an urban life style. It’s good for an archeological restaurant.” Michaelson, whose slim figure presents an obvious contrast to Syrnikov’s, paused and added, “If you need proof, look at Maksim, and look at me.”
The first time I met Syrnikov, in Moscow, Russian television crew was about to film him as he made samogon— Russian moonshine. He had arrived that morning from St. Petersburg, carrying a twenty-litre jug of malted rye and a metal box—a still that his friend, an engineer at a dairy factory, had welded for him. “I don’t like store-bought vodka,” Syrnikov said, pausing to clarify that, while it is illegal to sell moonshine in Russia, it is perfectly legal to make it. He usually makes samogon from rye, the grain that grows best in Russia, but sometimes he experiments with things like rowanberries—hard, red berries common in the country’s forests. After the first frost, he gathers thirty or forty kilos of them, naturally frozen on the trees. After pressing out the juice, he ferments it for two months, and then distills it. “And what you get is a completely unique beverage,” Syrnikov says. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a lot of it. Maybe about two litres of this heavenly drink.”
The Russian fondness for drink was noted early. Travelling through Muscovy in 1476, the Venetian diplomat Ambrosio Contarini wrote, “They are great drunkards and are exceedingly boastful of it, disdaining those who do not drink.” Contarini, however, did not mention vodka. At the time, distilled spirits were a rarity still being introduced by Hanseatic traders through the Baltic. Contarini reported that Russians drank a much milder beverage: “They have no wines, but use a drink from honey which they make with hop leaves.” Syrnikov occasionally makes this drink, known in English as mead and in Russian as myod (which is also the word for “honey”), flavoring a mixture of boiled honey, water, and yeast with hops and homemade cherry juice. The result is bitter, tart, and only mildly alcoholic.
Distilled liquor was initially tightly regulated in Russia. It is said that the first Moscow tavern allowed to serve it was exclusively reserved for the oprichniki, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police. But eventually it was made all over the country, in a process much like the one that Syrnikov was going to show the TV crew. For a long time, vodka was similar to whiskey: it tasted and smelled strongly of the grains used to make it, and was called “bread wine.” Until the twentieth century, only bread wine infused with herbs or berries was called vodka. The crystalline, nuance-less spirit that we now know as vodka emerged in the late nineteenth century, when the monarchy monopolized alcohol production and marketed the move as a health initiative that removed the impurities in homemade bread wine. Instead of making alcohol through fermentation, distillers used a new industrial method of synthesizing pure alcohol. To meet the centuries-old standard of forty per cent ethanol content, distillers simply diluted pure alcohol with water. The vodka historian Boris Rodionov compares the technique to making coffee by dissolving a caffeine tablet in water. “It will pick you up, clear your head, no question,” he said. “But the aroma, the taste, the things that make coffee have been stripped away.”
Preparing for the TV crew, Syrnikov put the metal tank filled with the malt on the stove and screwed on a metal cylinder containing the cooling coil. Then he attached two pieces of green hose, one to supply cold water to the coil, which would cause the evaporating samogon to condense, and one to flush the water back out. But there was a problem. A third tube, through which the samogon was to flow into a waiting bottle, was missing, as was the rubber seal needed to keep the hot malt from bubbling up into the cooling chamber. Without these parts, the whole process could go wrong. That morning, Syrnikov had searched nearby gas stations and car-repair shops for a piece of hose to use instead, to no avail. He decided to risk it.
When the television crew arrived, Syrnikov put on a traditional embroidered linen peasant shirt that he tends to wear on such occasions, and explained the intricacies of preparing malt and distilling it into samogon. First, he had soaked the grains of rye in warm water, drying them when they showed signs of sprouting, and then heating them until they did. Sprouting increases the sugar content of the grain, and more sugar means more alcohol. When the sprout was nearly the length of the grain, Syrnikov had rubbed handfuls of the rye between his palms to remove the chaff and the sprouts. Then he dried it, milled it, mixed it with yeast and water, and added some dried peas, which speed up fermentation because they have colonies of yeast on their surface. In about five days, Syrnikov had twenty litres of cloudy braga, or malt—enough to distill about two litres of samogon.
This malting technique is centuries old and subject to all sorts of variants. As Syrnikov poured the milky malt into the metal hulk of the still, he told the story of an old man he’d seen one spring in a village in the Vologda region, in the northwest, once the heartland of ancient, pre-imperial Russia. “ This grandfather makes it the way they made it two hundred years ago in that village,” Syrnikov said. “In spring, snow melts and you get a big puddle. So he takes a bucket of rye and tosses it in the puddle and leaves it. In two or three days, the rye sprouts. And when it sprouts he scoops it back out with the bucket and dries it in his oven.”
Behind Syrnikov, the still sat awkwardly on the stove. It wasn’t heating up fast enough. After a discussion of whether to turn on a second burner, Syrnikov decided to leave things as they were. He talked about a recent expedition to Belozero to fish for whitebait. The small fish were a crucial part of the Russian peasant diet during Church fasts. In the nineteenth century, the region had been a major exporter of whitebait to Britain. An hour passed. The crew was getting impatient. The cameraman mentioned how eager he was to have a taste. Suddenly, the room began to smell of bread. Someone noticed the first clear drops of samogon.
“A tear!” the crew’s driver said.
“The tear of a newborn!” Syrnikov said.
Then he realized that the reason for the smell of bread was that the still was leaking, just as he had feared. Panic set in. Someone tried to wrap the leaking tube in a towel. Syrnikov yelled for some rye flour and water to spackle the leak. (Because the malt was rye-based, this solution, he explained, would not ruin the taste.) The television reporter suggested putting an empty drawer under the bottle that awaited the samogon, in order to catch any liquid that went astray. The driver demanded a nail or a key to bend the spout down into the bottle, or else a wire or thread for the distillate to trickle down. In the end, the still was spackled, the spout bent. A glass bottle stood propped up on the empty desk drawer, ready to catch the samogon. “It’s not very pretty, is it?” Syrnikov said, sighing.
Once the leak was fixed, the samogon started flowing. When there was enough for a degustation, as Syrnikov called it, everyone tried a shot. It was still warm, and smelled of freshly risen dough. It had the alcoholic burn of strong vodka but none of the smoothness. This drink, with its distinct flavors of grain, cannot be mixed with cranberry juice, and it would make for a rather strange Martini, which is perhaps the point: samogon is specific and Russian, entirely different from the chameleon export that the West has come to know as vodka.
In the end, Syrnikov made around two litres of samogon, and we drank it all that night. They say that, unlike vodka, samogon doesn’t give you a headache the next morning. It’s not true.
Around noon on the day of the banquet, a Galactica administrator, a tall, middle-aged woman of distinctly Soviet aspect, sternly paced the kitchen, cross-examining the staff on their preparations. Then she came across a glass of toplennoe moloko, milk that has sat in a hot pech for several hours until it is the color of crème brûlée and has the faintest suggestion of caramel. She drank it down in a few long gulps. “Oh, that is so good,” she said, closing her eyes and wiping off the milk mustache with the back of her wrist. “That’s the taste of childhood.”
By the time Ladeischikov’s guests— two local chefs—arrived, activity in the kitchen had reached a frenzied pitch. One guest, a chef named Aleksander Kotenko, watched Syrnikov fashion a pastry in the shape of a giant horseshoe. The dough was made of butter, sour cream, and flour, and Syrnikov rolled it up with a filling of crushed walnuts, confectioner’s sugar, and honey from a local apiary.
“So,” Kotenko said in a tight, sibilant voice. “Is this going to be like a strudel?”
“No, not really a strudel, because strudel is made with a totally different type of dough,” Syrnikov said politely, as his big hands mashed the nuts into the honey. “And the filling is apples and raisins, if you’re talking about a classic Austrian strudel.”
Kotenko helped Syrnikov hoist the pastry onto a pan, and asked what kinds of crockery the ovens required. Did they have thermometers?
Syrnikov kept working, answering Kotenko’s barrage of questions as economically as possible. He reached into a pot and took out a section of risen dough. Part of it would be used to make garlic knots to accompany the borscht, the soup that Syrnikov regards as a Ukrainian interloper. (“They insisted I make it,” he said, sighing.) The rest he rolled out for a giant vatrushka, an open-faced pastry topped with farmer’s cheese mixed with egg, sugar, and raisins—my childhood favorite.
Sensing that he was in the way, Kotenko went to examine the pech. “Everyone’s going to be walking around covered in soot!” he exclaimed. Embroidered on his chef ’s whites was the legend “Mr. X,” the name of the restaurant-cabaret where he worked. The bottom of the “X” was a stockinged pair of women’s legs. “We serve all kinds of food,” he said. “Dorado, tiger shrimp, pizza for the kids, Bolognese, carbonara.” He cooks a few Russian dishes, too. “We also have a Guryevskaya kasha,” Kotenko said. “But, having seen how they make it here, I understood that it’s quite different from how I make it.” Unable to bake milk, Kontenko substitutes thick cream for the caramelized milk film, which, in Syrnikov’s version, gives the kasha a smoky flavor. “It’s the difference between making kebabs on a grill and making them in a frying pan,” Kotenko said. “As different as heaven and earth.” The heat in Mr. X’s conventional ovens isn’t the same—it’s not as dry. “My kasha came out kind of liquidy,” he said. He wondered again about the soot.
Hearing this, Syrnikov bellowed from across the kitchen. “All over the world, Chinese chefs make Peking duck in wood ovens!” he said. “All over the world, Italian chefs make pizza in wood ovens!” “And only Russians look at Russian ovens with horror: ‘Oh, how can we work with this! Oh, the soot!’ ”
Kotenko quickly conceded the point. But he had another question for Syrnikov: “Can you bake croissants in these ovens?”
By three o’clock, the kitchen had begun to send the dishes up to a dining room hung with disco balls. Syrnikov, Anatoly, Serezha, and Sasha started arranging the food on a long table covered with a mauve tablecloth. In one corner stood black cast-iron pots containing two types of shchi (one with meat, the other with mushrooms); the ukha, with its three kinds of fish; and the borscht. Stretching into the distance were the solyanki (one with fish—the Moscow version—and one with meat), the tel’noe, and the carp. There was buzhenina (garlicky roast pork, served cold with horseradish), a beef-and-liver stew, braised chicken hearts and kidneys, and quail, wrapped in bacon and baked in a rye crust. Beyond that were the goose, the duck, the suckling pig, and a sturgeon, which had been baked in a sea of pickle juice, a halo of a lemon slice gilding its head. At the end of the table were the pastry and the grain dishes: the Guryevskaya kasha, the kulebyaka, the vatrushka, the horseshoe pastry, and a kurnik, a gloriously golden dome of pastry stuffed with layers of chicken, mushrooms, rice, eggs, and crêpes. Syrnikov had topped it with a little dough chicken, in honor of its name, which means henhouse.
The staff milled about the table, craning their necks to see the dishes, afraid to touch anything.
“Can we start?” someone asked, after Syrnikov had explained what everything was.
“Yes, yes, of course!” he said.
Everyone swarmed the borscht. Second most popular were the goose and the pig. And the horseshoe pastry was gone in an instant; Russians are among the world’s biggest consumers of sugar.
Music from “The Godfather” played overhead. People ate quietly. Syrnikov disappeared into the kitchen with the three young chefs. “This can all be made at home,” one man said to no one in particular. “I don’t see what the big deal is.” It was Vladimir Maximov, the deputy head of the district. He was eating borscht. “Russian food is really bland,” he noted. “I like Georgian food better.” He said that he couldn’t see much difference between this food and food that wasn’t prepared in a proper Russian oven.
Ladeischikov and Sergei Efimenko, the partner in the project who had introduced Galactica’s owners to Syrnikov’s work, toasted with shot after shot of vodka. Ladeischikov was happy. He liked the duck, and was chewing on one of the ribs of the suckling pig, which had tugged at his emotions earlier that morning. His wife liked the Guryevskaya kasha—which came out sweet and subtle and creamy—and talked about their recent cruise in the Mediterranean and her daughter’s private school, in Geneva.
“She’s fluent in English,” Ladeischikov bragged.
Some dishes flopped: the quail tasted strange, tinny. The duck, which had earlier been deemed undercooked and returned to the oven, had ended up dry. The goose was better, but less succulent than the one Syrnikov had made the day before. The kurnik, despite its festive exterior, was dull. But the kulebyaka was a magical fluff of dough, full of the taste of salmon, mushrooms, and rice. The kalitki—little boats of rye dough stuffed with mashed potato and cream—were buttery, cheesy, chewy. The flavors of the solyanki (the smoky meat, the velvety fish) sparkled against the backdrop of the braised sour cabbage. The vatrushka, thick with sweetened farmer’s cheese, was the best I’d ever eaten. And the shchi, their smoky sweetness cut by a subtle tartness, were a revelation.
“They need to put thermometers in the ovens,” Kotenko said, as he enjoyed a bowl of borscht.
“We can do that,” Ladeischikov said. “Not an issue.” He asked for Kotenko’s opinion of the meal.
“The goose was undercooked,” Kotenko said. “The solyanka was good, but so unusual! The Guryevskaya kasha is good, but some soot from the logs must have gotten in, because there’s something crunchy in there.”
Efimenko called for silence and offered yet another toast. His face had reddened.
“To Russian cuisine!” he said. “The best cuisine in the world!”
“To our native cuisine,” Kotenko said. “The one we don’t even know!”
The Borscht Belt [TNY]