Want to have people over? Better find your herring plates

Serving food via Soviet Diet Cookbook. Source: Anna Kharzeeva

Serving food via Soviet Diet Cookbook. Source: Anna Kharzeeva

The Book was very clear on how to set a proper Soviet table, and Soviet housewives had all the dishes to pull it off.

This piece is part of the Soviet Diet Cookbook, a blog about a modern Russian girl cooking Soviet food. To read more of the series, click here.


“Cover the table with a white, well-ironed table cloth…wine should be served in open bottles…champagne should be open just before pouring into glasses…Mind the following rule: when serving a dished up meal, serve it to the guest from the right hand side, if a meal is on a platter and the guest has to take some to put on his plate, then serve it from the left-hand side.”

The Book has very strict guidelines on how to serve food.

I finally decided to make dinner and serve it in the proper Soviet style, with a special plate for pies in addition to 2 other plates per person. Precise to the last piece of dark bread, the set up of the Soviet table “for guests” was as uniform as anything Soviet. Every family owned a table service, which was a must as a wedding gift, and the family would then try to add more pieces to it not according to need, but according to greed — at least that’s what Granny tells me:

“Success was measured by having a car, a dacha, exceptional success by your own apartment, and by the amount of crystal. Everyone was obsessed with crystal — they had to have crystal glasses, vases, bowls and figurines. People would buy special glass cupboards to show off just how much crystal they had. My friend’s mother-in-law, who was a manager at a grocery store — the one we’d buy meat from, would become physically ill if her friends had more or better crystal than her. She would think for a while and eventually procure an even nicer piece to then have the ‘lucky’ friends over to show it off to.”

Granny and I chose the dishes for the dinner according to the plates we had to serve them in. One of the plates — a big one and a few individual ones — is called “selyodochnitsa,” or “plate for herring” and is, as far as I know, a uniquely Soviet piece of crockery. Herring was a must at every table and still features heavily in the diet. It’s served in long thin plates and I’m certain the fish would jump out of any other plate if anyone attempted such a crime.

Another meal we picked was the omnipresent zharkoye – stewed meat, usually with potatoes – to be served in a zharkoye plate, naturally.

As I was ironing the white tablecloth (Granny had a few to choose from, one older than she is!), I was wondering how on Earth could tiny Soviet apartments, especially communal ones, fit all the necessary plates and glasses, and cloths? I keep suspecting Granny’s cupboards actually open up into a world of even more cupboards, kind of like Narnia, because honestly I just don’t understand how all the plates, cups, books, photo equipment, documents, sewing machines fit in there!

Storage aside, the dedication it must have taken to have people over for dinner is to be admired. You didn’t just have to procure the necessary ingredients and take a trip to Narnia to get the crockery out, but also iron and then clean the tablecloth and serve your guests from the left and right hand sides!

Whether it was to show off new crystal, or genuinely welcome friends, there was certainly no expense spared when it came to hosting. I think going through the motions once might be enough for me! My table is much less bourgeois than the Soviet one – thank God for IKEA wine glasses and ‘bring a plate’ dinners! Special blessings should be made for finger food and cocktail parties with napkins instead of dinners with three special plates — not that you could pass those down generations.


Herring with garnish

The recipe from the Soviet Cook Book, page 54

Before you cook the herring, if it is very salty, it must be soaked in a rather weak tea infusion for 3-4 hours. Herring fillet can be soaked in cold milk, which will give it more mild taste.

Clean a whole herring as follows: Cut the edge of the abdomen. Remove the head and tail and set aside. Make an incision along the back and remove the skin from both sides. Separate the meat from the spinal bones; Cut the rib bones with a knife on each half.

After that, move the pieces of herring onto plate or tray, with the head (without the gills) and tail. Place on a plate with the herring garnish of cucumbers, tomatoes, pickles, salted mushrooms, boiled beets, potatoes, carrots, onions (green or bulb), capers and boiled eggs. All side dishes must be carefully and beautifully cut in the form of balls, slices, cubes or finely chopped. Garnish should be displayed symmetrically on both sides of the herring. Lay the onion rings on top of the herring.

Before serving, pour the dressing over the herring.


Herring Dressing:

Combine and mix well: 2-3 Tbsp vinegar; 1 ½ Tablespoons vegetable oil; Sugar, salt and pepper to taste


Combine and mix well: 1 egg yolk; 1 Tsp mustard; 1 Tsp Sugar; 1 Tbsp vegetable oil; 2-3 Tbsp vinegar

Salt to taste.

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