Eggplant or zucchini ikra (caviar), which should really be called a spread or a dip – both words have made it into Russian – has been a Soviet staple for quite some time.
Allegedly the dish came to Russia in the seventeenth century, and by the 1970s became widely available in supermarkets, often among the very few things available. It is something every Soviet citizen was familiar with. I grew up with a jar of the stuff almost always in the fridge or on the table, and used to really like it (and still do). What I didn’t know was that people used to laugh at it. Widely available but little desired, it was the subject to jokes (oh, the Soviet sense of humor!) and ridicule.
Recently, Russian food blogger Yulia opened my eyes to the story behind eggplant or zucchini caviar, as told by Russian food historian Pavel Syutkin. A very famous Soviet comedy film, Ivan Vassilyevich Changes his Profession, is about a Soviet engineer who invents a time machine and ends up in the time of Ivan the Terrible, where he is mistaken for the tsar. And he is taken to a banquet where black and red caviar are served in huge quantities, along with a drop of eggplant ikra, called “zamorskaya,” or overseas ikra. It was obviously a joke, but after the movie (all Soviet movies were viewed by everyone, as there simple wasn’t much other entertainment on offer) came out, the fashion of serving eggplant caviar began, and the stuff started flying off the shelves.
That’s store-bought caviar, but in the southern parts of the USSR, where eggplants and zucchini grow in abundance, a home-made variety was made.
It was also made by those who love their dacha, a Russian summer house outside of town, that people either love or hate, or love to hate. Yulia is one who outright hates it. Her memories of weekends spent at the dacha are of the hard work of pulling weeds, less than perfect conditions, and a desire to return home as quickly as possible.
Yulia didn’t start appreciating the whole farm-to-table, organic and homegrown produce thing until her 20s. Sometimes you need to go away to start appreciating what you had, and that’s what happened with Yulia. She went to university in the city to study PR. She then did an internship at a big cosmetics company, which was supposed to turn into a job, which would have been a dream. But that crashed and burned thanks to a rude and sexist HR head who, having never seen Yulia before, told her that her English was no good and that there was no place for her in the company. Yulia cried for a week, and then got on a bus for six hours to Chelyabinsk, where she applied for an overseas job through ISIC. She was given a choice between postings in Poland or Sri Lanka, and chose Sri Lanka.
The decision to go to Sri Lanka was fateful for Yulia. She was shocked at first, especially since the young overseas exchange workers didn’t have the best of living conditions. But she also met people who opened her eyes to the world and who became great friends. She also met her husband there.
And it was in Sri Lanka that she learned to cook: on her way to the bus stop she saw a sign reading “cooking school." Intrigued at what it might be, she walked in and met an older French chef who, having worked in expensive hotels and restaurants, had semi-retired to Sri Lanka and opened a small cooking school. The school was small and there were times when Yulia was the only student. It was quite cheap, so she could afford it, and made Yulia fall in love with cooking. She was so excited to make her own tiramisu – a dessert she’d only had in restaurants before! And she always liked going out to restaurants, as soon as she could (kind of) afford it: out of her R500 weekly allowance she would spend R100 on one cup of coffee at a cafe. Because it was a cafe, and to a 90s kid, cafes are extra special.
Fast Forward to today, Yulia lives in Germany with her Sri Lankan husband and one-year-old son. She has a successful English language blog where she writes about her cooking and travel adventures. Still, she misses some childhood treats, including eggplant caviar. It goes well with rye bread and Soviet movies, especially Ivan Vassilyevich Changes his Profession.
Yulia’s recipe for eggplant caviar can be found here.
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