Are there any foods more Russian than shchi (cabbage soup) or kasha (porridge)? Not according to Russian folk wisdom.
“Щи да каша – пиша наша.” Shchi da kasha – pisha nasha. Cabbage soup and porridge are our food.
Both of these foods not only have an illustrious history in Slavic lands, but are also staples of the Russian diet today. The saying might be using “our food” to refer to Russian cuisine, but Russians surely don’t object to sharing these warming foods with everyone. Indulge in a Russian soup or kasha this chilly autumn!
This week, we bring you:
Pervoye bludo may literally translate as “first course,” but when a Russian says it they don’t mean a salad or snack. Pervoye can only be one thing: soup. Soup is the mandatory starter of Russian meals; find it in every stolovaya (cafeteria), at daily lunch in kindergarten, and on the stove of any Russian household that claims to value their health. Don’t forget your dollop of smetana (sour cream) – or mayo if you must – without which no Russian soup can be properly enjoyed!
The most Russian of all Russian soups is made with cabbage, pickled or fresh. Onion is also mandatory, as is water; all other ingredients are optional. It was invented as soon as cabbages themselves first appeared in Russia, around the eleventh century. Shchi is so fundamental to Russian cuisine that the word is probably derived from the ancient Russian words for “food” and “eat.” Want to eat it? Try our recipe (and read how Russian writer Turgenev succinctly explains the difference between peasants and aristocrats through shchi).
Borshch is very similar to shchi, down to the frightening consonant cluster shch that really just approximates the single Russian letter щ. Borshch is basically shchi with beets in it; the word might mean “red shchi” (unless it was named after a weed). Indeed, this bright red soup has come to symbolize Russian cuisine to foreigners, even though it is actually didn’t appear until the fifteenth century, long after shchi, and is by all rights Ukrainian. That doesn’t stop you from giving our Moscow version a try, though.
These two soups are grouped together because they both date to around the fifteenth century and are characteristically salty (you can tell from the presence of the word for salt, sol, in the names). Rassolnik is made from pickles and pickle juice, whereas solyanka derives it salt and sour more broadly, not only from pickles but also kvas (a fermented wheat soda) and olives. While they can be made with any meat, or vegetarian, modern day versions most typically include thin slices of sausage. Bonus: rassolnik is a great hangover remedy, and solyanka used to be, almost literally, a community melting pot.
In modern Russia, ukha is unequivocally fish soup. However, it was originally a soup made not only from fish, but also meat or chicken, and only became exclusively pescetarian by the eighteenth century. In fact, the word ukha might have come from ukho, meaning ear; the broth gets its flavor from boiling all parts of the animal, including its head. You might not find many ears in fish soup, for obvious reasons, but if offered some homemade ukha, watch out for floating eyeballs – or make it at home and fish them out yourself.
Russians like mushrooms, and they like soup, so it is no surprise that as soon as they started gathering mushrooms from the forest, they started putting them in soups. Mushroom soup is the star of the show in fasting periods before Christmas and Easter, during which believers eat only vegan food. Check out not one, but two mushroom soup recipes from the Russian Life archives.
Chicken noodle: While no one is claiming chicken noodle soup is traditionally Russian, it is now one of the most common soups on stove tops and in restaurants today. Yes, they still add sour cream to it, and that’s the only real requirement of a Russian soup anyway, right?
We would be remiss in our duties if we did not add okroshka to a list of Russian soups, but it is at the end of the list because you might want to hold off making it until next summer. This cold soup is traditionally made from small pieces of meat or fish and vegetables, with a broth of kvas, a fermented wheat soda. During the Soviet era, sausage substituted for pieces of meat, and kefir, a fermented dairy product, was sometimes added instead of kvas. Lenin even used the soup as a symbol of eclecticism: a bunch small pieces of different things brought together. If you don’t like following recipes, okroshka is a great way to unite your random leftovers.
Coming soon: Part 2: Seven Kasha's To Live By...
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