Beef Stroganoff: A noble dish, remade for the masses

Beef Stroganoff: a dish invented for the Russian nobility, later popularized and served in every Soviet cafeteria.

Beef Stroganoff: a dish invented for the Russian nobility, later popularized and served in every Soviet cafeteria.

Anna Kharzeeva
This dish, which foreigners often identify with Russia, has its roots in the upper crust, but most Soviets associated it with cafeteria food.

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.

When I started my cooking school, I was preparing a Russian menu for my foreign clients: borshch, pirozhki, salads and drinks. Then I started getting requests for a meal I had never cooked before, and quite likely had never even tried: beef stroganoff. When I told my friend who was working with me about the request, she said: “what sort of a meal is that?” Even Granny didn’t have a recipe to share.

I had to turn to my foreign friends to learn to make this “classic Russian dish,” and it’s become a staple meal in my cooking classes. I discovered a great recipe for it from a professional chef. I suspect his recipe was somewhat close to the original – although the history of the invention of the meal is, as usual, unclear. Beef Stroganoff is not a traditional Russian dish, but rather one invented for the nobility, in this case Count Pavel Stroganoff. One theory says it was invented for his open table in Odessa, which anyone “decent” could attend. Beef stroganoff could be made in large quantities, was easy to prepare, easy to divide up and was tasty, which made it a good choice for feeding a crowd. Another theory (promoted by Wikipedia) says a chef invented it for Stroganoff when he was old so he could chew it easily.

In Soviet times, the meal was popularized and served in every cafeteria – although this version would have been no good for the old Stroganoff’s teeth. “Beef stroganoff was always there in the cafeterias, although quality varied – sometimes it was dry and chewy, other times it was OK,” Granny said. “I never made it at home, and I don’t think many people did – you needed decent meat to fry, which we didn’t have, so we mostly boiled meat or made cutlets.”

I wonder why this “bourgeois” meal wasn’t left behind by the Soviets – its noble roots weren’t even concealed with a new name when it was added to the Book, keeping the unabashedly French “bef” and the nobleman’s last name. In this respect, the meal got a luxury many Soviet citizens couldn’t even dream of – many had to burn their family documents if they didn’t come from the “right” (proletarian) background.

Making the Soviet-style stroganoff was fairly quick, although a bit different from the recipe I teach my cooking students: it doesn’t call for any pickled cucumbers or tomatoes, and is served with fried potatoes instead of rice or mashed potatoes. It also calls for “yuzhny,” or “southern” sauce, which apparently used to be widely available and didn’t need an introduction. I have no idea what  “southern” sauce is, and a call to Granny didn’t help solve anything: “Hell knows what it is – *minute-long laugh* - I never used to buy sauces in shops,” she said. 

I figured since I live pretty much in the south, Georgian tkemali (plum sauce) would fit the bill. When you live in Georgia, tkemali goes with everything.

The stroganoff I made turned out quite nicely, although I still don’t know what it would taste like with the right sauce. And I definitely prefer rice to fried potatoes as a garnish.

“I haven’t had beef stroganoff since the university cafeteria,” my dad said after ordering it in a Moscow café about a month ago. He’s lived abroad for over 20 years, so I guess that’s understandable. “I think this is a fair bit better than the cafeteria one. And your Olivier salad looks like it’s close to the original recipe.” 

It would appear that today’s Russians are shaking the Soviet dust off the pre-revolution meals to try and get closer to the original recipes – although you can still find plenty of cafeteria beef that would make Stroganoff turn over in his grave.

Beef stroganoff

The recipe from the Soviet Cook Book, page 169The recipe from the Soviet Cook Book, page 169

Ingredients:

  • 500 grams meat
  • 1 kg potatoes
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 Tbsp “southern” sauce
  • 2 onion
  • 1 Tbsp flour
  • 3 Tbsp butter

1. Wash and trim the meat and cut into small pieces. Beat with a rolling pin or meat mallet and then finely chop into “straws.”

2. Dice the onion and fry it in the butter. When the onions are browned, add the sliced meat, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring with a fork.

3. Sprinkle the meat with flour and cook another 2-3 minutes.

4. Add the sour cream and boil 2-3 minutes. Season with the “southern” sauce and add salt to taste. 

Serve with fried potatoes as a side dish. You can sprinkle the meat and potatoes with finely chopped dill or parsley. 

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