A culinary daydream back to the Soviet Union

Soviet cuisine was almost entirely thought up by Stalinist Commissar Anastas Mikoyan, yet it remains standard fare for most of the former Soviet Union's population.

Nostalgia for the Soviet days has become very popular as of late, even amongst those who never really experienced them. But the Soviet era never really went away. Its symbolism, traditions, social politics, education system, healthcare network, and cultural legacy have established today’s norms in modern Russia, whether people like it or not.

Soviet cuisine and food products are not an exception to this.

Passing enthusiasm for 1990s imported foodstuffs in glitzy packaging has given way to the taste of childhood memories and comfort foods. Many goodies from the Soviet era give foreign competitors a run for their money in modern supermarkets and corner shops: Alenka milk chocolate bars, 48-kopeks vanilla ice-cream, Stolichnaya wheat-grain vodka, Moskovskaya vodka, Vologda dairy butter, Doctorskaya boiled sausage, and many more.

Experts calculate that there are around 3,000 former Soviet-era brands doing well on the market today, and their numbers are set to grow. They have been repackaged in several cases, while the old Soviet-style packaging is all part of the appeal in others. For example, there are the famous Soviet pelmeni (dumplings consisting of a filling wrapped in thin, unleavened dough) in their dreary cardboard boxes, or sweetened condensed milk in blue-striped 9-ounce cans.

This nostalgia clearly represents a yearning for a lost past. Soviet-era food products are becoming a benchmark for forgotten quality and natural flavors, especially in medium-sized and smaller towns.

Consumers fondly recall the Soviet Quality Mark that used to appear on food packaging and grumble that no equivalent of the GOST (mandatory and nationwide quality standards) system now exists. Meanwhile, a variety of commercial outfits that have succeeded Soviet-era producers are fighting for the right to represent particular Soviet brands to consumers.

Soviet nostalgia has reached the grocery baskets and dinner tables of average citizens. Of course, the sky is the limit when it comes to preparing meals at home, thanks to the effects of globalization. Yet new dishes remain a fantasy or a whim, while traditional Soviet and Russian cuisine still makes up the mainstay of Russian eating habits.

People in Russia prefer sourdough rye bread, especially the much-loved Soviet brand Borodinsky: steam-cooked rye bread enriched with molasses and whole cardamom seeds.

Russians also enjoy a huge variety of dairy-based products: curd cheese, sour cream, ryazhenka (a sour milk product made from fermented heated milk), and kefir (a fermented milk drink made with kefir grains). Frankfurters and salami-style sausage are still produced for the domestic market at the Soviet-era plants of Mikoyan and Ostankino.

Porridges are made from buckwheat, oats, and millet; wheat grain porridge can be made either with milk or with butter. Open sandwiches are enjoyed with cheese or slices of sausage. Eggs are boiled or fried, or served as omelettes. A mid-day, three-course lunch is preferred: a hearty soup, such as cabbage soup or borscht; meat or fish, served with a potato or grain side-dish; and tea or fruit compote. Such is the legacy of Soviet eating habits.

Today, many families often make Soviet-era recipes, such as the erstwhile favorite Macaroni po flotski: large chunky macaroni dressed with fried or boiled minced meat and fried onions. Soviet rissoles are often seen on menus. They are quite similar to European croquettes, but lean toward the style of an American hamburger.

Stalin-era Commissar Anastas Mikoyan, the father and ideologue of mass catering in the Soviet Union, was so impressed by hamburgers during his visit to the United States that he decided to produce something along the same lines on his return home: the Soviet rissole for public catering that eventually became part of Russian home cooking. Another example is Mikoyan’s Soviet goulash: stewed meat in a tomato sauce served with boiled buckwheat.

Another irresistible Soviet-era hors d'oeuvres was dressed herring: chunks of herring fillet mixed in layers, with cooked beetroot, potato and carrot, liberally doused with mayonnaise. Gobies in tomato sauce, along with sprats, are still popular. Gobies are a small fish from the Black Sea, while sprats are traditionally smoked and canned in oil. Russian pancakes are served with many fillings: meat, cottage cheese, and yeast-raised pancakes were always popular with Soviet families.

Pelmeni are now produced in nearly all of Russia’s medium-sized and major cities. Experts believe that 80 percent of frozen convenience foods in Russia are pelmeni: a favorite amongst the country’s bachelors. Finally, home-bottled salted or pickled vegetables have always been the pride of Soviet housewives and remain a staple today – although they are now often bought in shops or at the market, rather than made at home.

It stands to reason that the further one goes from the capital or major cities, the closer home cooking clings to old Soviet traditions. Yet, even in well-to-do households in major cities, Soviet cuisine – perhaps embellished with a few imported ingredients – still makes up a happily nostalgia-laden table for lunch.

The shortages of food items in the Soviet era, a topic of continuous annoyance back then, have now transformed into a touching memory – even a source of pride. Before our very eyes, new myths come into being about the recent past: about the health benefits and natural taste of Soviet-era foodstuffs, about how simple they were, and about how easy they were to get.

A new generation of Russians – born on the cusp of the Soviet Union's demise or shortly thereafter – is very happy to enjoy these Soviet culinary traditions. Parents can often be heard vying with each other about how their children love this or that Soviet dish, all prepared at home for them.

The attitude younger Russians have toward Soviet dishes often boils down to a simple formula: “Why didn’t we have this before now? It’s delicious stuff, much nicer than those Western dishes and recipes.”

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