The Struggle For Culinary Coolness
From the outside it may seem that Soviet cuisine doesn’t really have a lot going for it… While other cuisines appear to be practically bursting with excitement. There is something inherently sexy about Latin American restaurants. Maybe it’s the mood-setting salsa music, or the buxom belles and body-built boys commonly staffing these places. Sexy too are contemporary Asian joints, stylishly-designed dens where the promise of chilli is like an aphrodisiac. Modern Middle Eastern cuisine has sex appeal too – a suggestive orgy of textures, flavours, colours and spices laid out in dimly-lit, incense-infused, Persian-rug-adorned caverns. Even the American hamburger is hot, sliding down throats in miniature form at weddings, stag nights and other hormone-charged events; the greasy meat a catalyst for other carnal instincts to prick up. It seems that many cuisines have enjoyed a trendy revamp of late, loaded with menu-friendly buzzwords making them cool and sexy.
Not so much with the Soviet kitchen, however… Soviet cuisine evokes images of babushkas boiling cabbage in a brutalist apartment block and queues for ration coupons. But this negative association may risk letting a loaded culinary treasure trove stay undiscovered. Over a hundred distinct nationalities lived in the USSR. A world of culinary cultures is still largely hidden, blanketed by industrial Soviet cuisine.
The First Wave of Soviet Cuisine
Two Cats Kitchen in Birmingham are among a small handful of cool restaurants which have realised that this is a golden opportunity. Starting out as a pop-up restaurant but now in permanent digs, Two Cats Kitchen couldn’t feel further from Soviet coupons. Championing what they call New Baltic cuisine, Two Cats is a suave but casual eatery. This spot embraces the culinary traditions and bounty (adapted to the UK landscape) of the Baltic countries and western Russia. This means things like pickling, fermenting and forest-harvested produce are brought to the fore. Like the New Nordic explosion, Two Cats Kitchen have an eye on both the past and the future. Expect modern takes on old recipes. Traditional dark bread is reduced and reintroduced as a preserve. Sweet molasses and caraway give depth to a hibiscus tea mousse dessert.
Perhaps more impressive than Two Cats Kitchen’s amazing food, though, is its sex appeal. Colourful dishes and exposed brick walls lead your eyes towards a lively open kitchen. This is the kind of cool, modern eatery that you would never normally associate with this cuisine. Unlike a Slavic joint run by a grumpy grandma, Two Cats Kitchen befits a romantic date or meal with friends. It’s a beacon of hope for the celebration of national cuisines that were squashed by the Soviet food system.
Like Noma took New Nordic to the top, Two Cats Kitchen could be the flagship in a new trendy-eating armada. Already attracting high-level attention, their success suggests people are curious about traditional cuisines from within the former USSR. This can also be seen in the success of a book by Olia Hercules, Mamushka. Which recalls the recipes and tastes of her childhood during the last years of the Soviet Union. Far from the bleak images of borscht and potatoes, it is a vibrant celebration of flavours from the former USSR.
A Unique Table
But what about distinctly Soviet cuisine? Not the culinary cultures that were suppressed, but those of the system that was imposed upon them. We don’t mean kitschy, socialist-themed tourist cafes common in Central and Eastern Europe… But rather top chefs, food thinkers and trendsetters looking for something new.
Josef Stalin’s ruthless drive to industrialise and consolidate centralised control during the 1930s evaporated most of the USSR’s culinary diversity. Restaurants were nationalised, farms were collectivised and the national food industry had to adapt to feed its newly structured population. During this time Anastas Mikoyan, a trusted Politburo insider, went to the United States on a goodwill visit. There he studied American industrial food supply and implemented similar processes back in the USSR. He oversaw the construction of canned food factories and encouraged the production of processed frankfurters and ice cream. This saw Soviet incarnation of the hamburger – the ‘cutlets’ that would become a staple of Soviet cuisine.
These developments had a huge impact on the Soviet diet for the next half-century. Eating habits depended more on what was available at government food stores and canteens, than on personal preferences. Large-scale, processed food was the most efficient way of stocking these stores. Mikoyan’s pet ice cream project inadvertently advanced a frozen-food storage and delivery system. This allowed manufactured foods to be preserved and transported over long distances, reaching all over the vast Soviet landscape. To top it all off, Mikoyan drove the production of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food in 1939. This household bible of new Soviet cuisine remained the primary cookbook in most kitchens until the Cold War era.
As with other aspects of the Soviet system, Russian culture had the strongest influence on this new way of eating. Borscht and pelmeni were very common at canteens, while herring and pickles were ubiquitous in the Soviet pantry. But some items from minority cuisines were included, like shashlik kebabs and fermented kefir from the Caucasus. Largely what the centralised food supply did was blend things into a fairly predictable, fairly bland norm. Spices and fresh herbs were rare, and there was often little to differentiate between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ignoring special occasions and holidays, this monotony is basically what Soviet cuisine came to mean.
With that unflattering description of it, we now ask: can Soviet cuisine become cool? In Russia today, after a few decades of Big Macs, people are starting to favour Soviet-era food products. Some of this could be nostalgia, but many claim that it is for their superior quality or health benefits. Some brands that bucked the re-branding trend and retained their Soviet-era packaging are now as popular as ever. The industrial sausage factory still bearing Anastas Mikoyan’s name is one of the country’s major food manufacturers. There is a growing interest in unfamiliar Soviet-era products among younger generations.
Perhaps the reboot of the Cold War has had a hand in this. Following events in Crimea and Ukraine, a ban on European imports in 2014 caused a boom for Russian food producers. It’s unlikely that foreign markets will start importing Russian tvorog like Russian latched onto French Camembert. But, the fact that such products are still relatively unappreciated outside of Russian communities suggests an amazing opportunity for chefs.
Hipsters Hopping On The Bandwagon
Same goes for the national cuisines mentioned at the start of this article. We’ve seen how crazy people go for spelt, kamut and einkorn… So, what about the dozens of heirloom wheat varieties hiding in Ukraine? Home fermentation is currently cool, so fermented mare’s milk from the Buryat people of Lake Baikal should sufficiently impress. Not to mention the health claims that could come with these intriguing new products… Already, the heralding of kefir as a health wonder has shown that former Soviet staples can attract attention from hipsters. Maybe it merely takes a picture of Putin topless riding a horse to highlight the benefits of a Soviet diet?
So while a former Soviet Union-themed restaurant is probably not the ideal location for a wedding proposal, just yet. The foundations are certainly there for former Soviet Union cuisine to become cool and sexy! All in good time.