November 16, 2019

Seven Kasha's To Live By...

Seven Kasha's To Live By...
The Russian kasha festival in Belgorod, 2017. Website of the local government of Belgorod

Borshch without kasha is a widower, and kasha without borshch – a widow,” goes a Russian saying. In Part 1 of this mini-series of Russian cold-weather (but really, all-weather) cuisine, we wrote about the joys of Russian soup. This week, we bring you:

Kasha (Porridge)

Porridge is perhaps a poor translation for the ubiquitous kasha, but it is the best the English language can do to translate a word that is “not only food, but a whole philosophy of life,” according to one blogger. Kasha is the breakfast of choice for many Russians, but it is also so much more than breakfast. Nearly any cooked grain can be called kasha, so the food group has great diversity, enough options that might cause you to have kasha v golove (kasha in your head – a Russian expression for confusion). 

However, kasha does have one defining feature. Just like you can’t eat Russian soup without sour cream, “kashu maslom ne isportish” (you can’t spoil kasha with butter). The phrase means that you can’t have too much of a good thing, but this abstract interpretation rests on the very literal assumption, practiced in Russian households daily, that butter in kasha is an unequivocal good. There are at least six other folk sayings expressing the deep bond between kasha and butter. So, if that pat of butter on your kasha looks rather large, resist the temptation to count calories – after it melts, you won’t taste butter per say, you’ll just taste appreciate how unusually delicious Russian kasha is. 

1. Oatmeal (ovsyanka)

What’s all the fuss about brown sugar and maple syrup? Russians do just fine without these traditional American oatmeal toppings, and forget the premade microwave packets. Russian oatmeal cooked over the stove is so rich and creamy from milk and butter that you can skip the sugar altogether. Instead, try it with some local berries from the forest via the rynok (market), like currants and bilberries. 


2. Farina (manka)
Guryevskaya kasha
Alexander Sherstobitov | Russian Life

Baby’s first kasha is a creamy, finely ground hot cereal made from wheat. While now considered a children’s kasha, farina once had patrons in high places. Guryevskaya kasha, a traditional Russian version of farina with nuts, spices and jam, was most likely invented by a peasant cook named Kuzmin at the beginning of the eighteenth century. When Count Guryev, Minister of Finance, came to dine, he immediately bought the peasant off his previous lords on the merits of this kasha. The social mobility of farina from peasant to tsar was completed when the dish became a favorite food of Alexander III – and might have saved his life. Will it save yours? Not likely, but the only way to know is to try one of our recipes.


3. Buckwheat (grechka)
Russian buckwheat
Laitr Keiows | Wikipedia

Grechka looms in the Russian consciousness like brussel sprouts in the American: the bane of childhood eventually becomes an adult pleasure, full of hearty, nutty flavor. If we look at the lifespan of Slavic civilization, though, grechka was there right at the beginning – perhaps as early as the seventh century. While you can sometimes find grechka on the breakfast table cooked like oatmeal, it is more common as a compliment to greasy meat dishes with savory sauce and onions. 


4. Rice

According to one source, rice kasha in Russia was originally a rare food only for the elite, but today rice is as democratic a kasha as any. For an especially autumn treat, try preparing milky rice kasha with pumpkin (or other squash; in Russian it’s all the same word, tykva). This was my favorite breakfast out of my Russian host grandmother’s repertoire, which is saying something, because the diversity and deliciousness of her pancakes – blini, oladi, syrniki – was impressive.


5. Spelta (polba)
Russian spelta
Andshel | Wikipedia

This kasha “fed all of Russia” from the fifth century to Pushkin’s time, according to a website devoted to the grain. Even though it is very easy to grow, it virtually disappeared in the eighteenth century, crowded out by softer grains with larger harvests like wheat. Now it is remembered mostly as a “fairytale kasha” from one of Pushkin’s stories.


6. Barley (yachnevaya or perlovaya kasha)

Peter the Great loved barley so much that it was named perlovaya from the foreign word “pearl,” and became the food of the army. Googling any type of kasha will result in copious articles about comparative health benefits, and one Russian website goes so far as to claim that eating barley will make you smarter. I’m not sure that barley increased the IQ of the Russian army, but eating barley is probably a smart decision anyway, given how tasty and nutritious it is. 


7. Kutya

This is the only item that is not a particular type of grain, but rather a honey-sweetened kasha that can be made from several types of grain, including barley, wheat or rice, with toppings of poppy seeds, nuts, and dried fruit. Kutya is a traditional holiday kasha served on occasions such as births, weddings, funerals, New Year’s… essentially, the entire cycle of life, since the grains symbolize rebirth. Squirrel this recipe away to eat – and throw at the ceiling to read your fortune – this New Year’s. 


Regular use of various types of kasha can give a rebirth to your cooking as well. This easy, nutritious and delicious daily dose of whole grains is equally satisfying on the breakfast table, alongside lunch or dinner, and as a dessert. Even if “kasha – mat nasha” (kasha is our mother), you certainly don’t have to wait for a Russian mother to make it for you. Kasha, made with love (and butter), is nurturing all on its own. 

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