July 03, 2020

The Soviet Diet Cook Book

The Soviet Diet Cook Book
Food writer Anna Kharzeeva with The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food – an iconic Soviet cookbook. Courtesy Anna Kharzeeva

A culinary journey into the USSR and a family history

While quite many Russians feel a certain nostalgia for the Soviet era, recalling tastes from their childhood, they also know about food shortages and long lines. That is all certainly true for Anna Kharzeeva, food blogger and founder of the Moscow-based Samovar Cook & Chat Club. Growing up in early 1990s, eating her grandmother’s food, she later was able to travel the world and fell in love with international cuisine. Which is why, for a long time, she had no interest in Russian food. But then in 2014 Anna started a blog, where she explored The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food - a culinary Bible for every Soviet housewife. Each week she would cook a Soviet-approved meal and discuss the results with her grandmother.

First published in 1939, later the Book went through 10 editions. Surprisingly, the most recently one came out in 2016 (25 years after the fall of the USSR!), while an English translation appeared only in 2012. It features more than 1,000 recipes and includes not only classic Russian dishes, but also meals from every Soviet republic, including Uzbekistan, Georgia and Ukraine. It had both a practical and propagandistic purpose: simple ingredients and easy-to-follow instructions were published alongside lavish color illustrations of an idealized Soviet table. 

Russian Life first spoke with Anna back in 2015 about her project, which culminated this spring with the publication of The Soviet Diet Cook Book.

How long have you been doing your blog and book?

I wrote the blog for 2 years, starting in 2014. It was supposed to run for a year, but it was quite popular, so it got extended another year. Once it was finished, the editor and creator of the idea, Lara McCoy, said it would be great to turn the blogs into a book. I agreed and then spent a while looking for a publisher but couldn’t find one, so I decided to self publish it.

It took about four months to get everything together, go over all the text, edit and add some more cooking information, as well as recipes that work, to add to the book's recipes that I failed at.

What was the most complicated recipe and what was the easiest one? 

Kulebyaka was a pretty tedious process and took a while, but it was worth it! Sauerkraut was a bit tricky, because I was trying to follow the book’s instructions and not get advice from Granny – I was trying to just follow the book as though I was a Soviet housewife, without altering recipes or asking for help, and that led to a few failures, like the sauerkraut one. Later on, I realized that such an approach wasn’t realistic – no Soviet housewife would have been left alone with the book. She would have had her mom, grandmother, aunt, or even kommunalka neighbor to help out. Maybe that’s why so many of the recipes are quite vague – the book's authors knew everyone reading it would get help figuring them out.

Did you discover anything entirely unknown to you before about your grandmother while you were working on the project?

I had heard a lot of the stories before, but certainly not all of them. I loved how Granny would call up her girlfriends with questions about meals and ingredients – it showed me once again how close they are and how much they’ve been through together. 

I also never quite knew that, when Granny was a kid, her parents (her dad died when she was 9) never told her what they thought about the Soviet government, because it was too dangerous. She figured it out for herself later on – starting with not being able to get into university because she is Jewish, and then learning of friends’ parents who got arrested – many kids her age lost at least one parent in 1937 (Granny was born  in 1932).

Do you think the Book is still relevant for modern Russia? Do people still use it when there are so many international recipes available online?

I just saw the Book at a fancy grocery chain recently, it got reprinted not long ago. So I think it still is relevant to many people, although, just like the shelves in grocery stores today, the Soviet stuff is right next to all the new foods from the West and the East and they seem equally important. I’d say Soviet food is still present in everyone’s diet to some degree.

The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food
Typical Russian table, according to The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food, published in 1982. / Elena Bobrova

And in your opinion might this be interesting for a foreign audience?

I think the very idea of one single cookbook for the whole country should be interesting to a audience. Also there are recipes from Georgia as well as Uzbekistan which are exciting cuisines, and Georgian food seems to be taking the Western world by a storm!

There is a certain nostalgia for Soviet food now (judging by some Moscow and St. Petersburg cafes). Why is this happening?

I have also noticed the nostalgia. I think partly it’s a natural process of returning to something from your own culture – people have tried various cuisines and have travelled a fair bit, and now they’re going back to Russian and Soviet food. Partly I think Soviet movies are responsible for the nostalgia, as they’re still very popular and bring back memories for people. And partly maybe because Soviet design and lettering were pretty cool, and people love seeing those old ice cream kiosks and sparkling water stands. I also love that there is a trend toward resurrecting old, pre-Soviet Russian food, which is very interesting. 

What was your grandmother’s reaction to your e-book? Do you plan to publish a print version?

The Soviet Diet Cookbook
Anna cooked 107 meals from the
original book and and wrote down 
bizarre stories from her Granny.
[get the book]
/ Anna Kharzeeva

It’s a good question: while Granny is excited that the book is out, she can’t read it, because it’s in English. I have to translate it for her, although I’m worried she may not approve of some of my joke attempts. I am definitely planning to publish a paperback, in fact it’s already available on Amazon, but I want to print it locally in Moscow, too. I will definitely bring a copy over to Granny’s once it’s safe to do so.

How did COVID-19 affect your culinary workshops? And do you plan to run some of them online, maybe together with Elena Moiseevna?

Naturally, all my cooking classes this summer have gone the way of all the tourism industry, but I have started doing zoom classes – I’ve already done a kvas one, where I shared my family history and one on lemon cakes from the book, where I talked about communal apartments in Moscow and Kiev, where my great grandmother’s place was turned into one. I look forward to running more online classes and real life ones, too, once it’s possible!

What is cooking for you?

Cooking to me is about much more than just mixing ingredients. It’s a way to learn, teach, connect and keep memories going. I’ve started writing another book about my family history – five generations of women, starting with my great great grandmother Sure Hana and finishing with myself. Granny shared some recipes from Sure Hana with me and I’ve been making them – it’s just amazing to feel a connection to an ancestor through the food they used to make. And the fact that my son likes it, too, makes it even more special.

What kind of advice would you give to a person who doesn't like cooking? 

One thing I like to tell everyone is to write down their mother’s, grandmother’s, aunt’s or even friend’s recipes and stories. You might feel like making your mom’s signature soup long after she’s not around to share that recipe with you any longer. So, whether or not you like cooking now, I urge everyone to do that. I have put together a list of questions to ask and tips on how to do it, and am always happy to share. 

Also, if you don’t like cooking, it might be good to start by cooking along with a friend or family member who likes to cook and doesn’t mind sharing some tips with you. And then, you never know, it might be hard to get you out of the kitchen!

Russian pancakes
Pumpkin Pancakes – Anna’s favorite from The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food. / Anna Kharzeeva

Cook 1 kg pumpkin, peeled and cut into cubes, until soft. Press through a sieve to make into a puree. Pour the pumpkin puree into 1 liter of milk and heat until it is the temperature of fresh milk. Into the milk-puree mix, add 15 g yeast and 3 eggs. Stir. Add 2-2 ½ cups flour until the dough is the right consistency. Put in a warm place and let sit for two hours. Then, add 1 tbsp oil, ½ cup sugar and a sprinkle of salt. Again let it sit in a warm place until it rises. Then form and cook the pancakes.

Priyatnova appetita!

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