When you’re after cooking inspiration, you might scroll through Instagram or turn to a bestselling cookbook author like Yotam Ottolenghi or Hetty McKinnon. You probably wouldn’t think of Anastas Mikoyan, a Soviet official born in 1895.
But in 1939, he published The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food, and it was a mega success: it eventually sold eight million copies and spanned many editions. With this book, Mikoyan wanted to ‘liberate’ Soviet women from spending so much time in the kitchen – which is ironic, as some of the featured recipes take quite a long time to pull off! The book had a long afterlife and in 2014, it inspired Anna Kharzeeva to start a food blog based on his publication. At this point, she was a cooking teacher in Moscow and it was Lara McCoy Roslof, an editor at Russia Beyond the Headlines, who suggested that she spend a year attempting recipes from The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food.
‘I thought it sounded fun and said yes,’ says Kharzeeva. But she was nervous, too – she didn’t have much writing experience and wasn’t entirely confident as English was a foreign language to her.
‘Now you can’t keep me away from writing, and I’ll always be grateful to Lara for that.’
Her blog eventually became The Soviet Diet Cookbook: Exploring life, culture and history one recipe at a time, published in 2020 and available locally as an eBook. It’s a revealing, good-humoured and insightful look at Mikoyan’s creation and also reflects on the life of her grandmother, Elena Moiseevna Lapshina (Blumek), who owned a copy of this popular volume.
I enjoyed talking to Kharzeeva about her experiences of cooking from Mikoyan’s bestseller, and how it tells a story about Soviet living that was different to his utopian vision. She also covers the cultural significance of the Russian dishes in the book, the ones she’d happily skip (kissel!) and the literal lifesaving power of sauerkraut and semolina porridge.
Can you tell us about the edition of The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food that you referenced for The Soviet Diet Cookbook: Exploring life, culture and history one recipe at a time?
I used the 1952 edition. It was published the year before Stalin’s death and still had his quotes in it. It has a ribbon at the back to hold it together – babushka was great at mending things in a creative way – but otherwise it is in good shape. When I left Moscow, I brought three copies of my own book, thinking, half-jokingly, that if need be, I could exchange them for food, but didn’t have room in the suitcase for much more, so sadly my copy is still in Moscow.
Some dishes in The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food involve extensive preparation – there’s one you need to wrap in blankets, another forbids you from opening windows for hours and then there’s one recipe that requires stabbing cabbage with a wooden stake. What were some of the toughest dishes to recreate?
The sauerkraut was a challenge as the recipe just wasn’t detailed enough, and I felt that for the sake of keeping the experiment real, I had to adhere to it strictly and not listen to babushka’s helpful and unsolicited advice, which resulted in a disaster – babushka laughed for ages. Kulebyaka (layered pie) certainly took a lot of time, but at least was straightforward enough. Kvass (a grain-based drink) was a challenge, too, as it takes a few days. I now use babushka’s recipe when I make kvass – which, to be fair, is not very often, although it is delicious.
Your grandmother had to share one kitchen with six other families in Moscow and your grandparents in Kursk were unable to find butter and other basic staples where they lived. The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food, though, presented a fantasy version of Soviet life. Your grandmother said, ‘a big part of the Book is just for show’. Can you talk about these ‘showy’ elements?
My grandmother often said the book was an ad for a happy Soviet life. The images in the book are certainly a big part of it. They portray feasts of fruit, champagne, meat and sweets that average Soviet people never saw in real life, and certainly not all at once. The people who put the images there knew no one lived like that, not the ordinary people anyway, but they had a job to do, which was to please their bosses. Those bosses were trying to please their bosses, and no one cared how little the advertised ‘happy Soviet life’ had to do with reality. It was just another Soviet thing, completely disconnected from real life. Some recipes called for crab meat, game or figs, which seems bizarre. As well as the way you were supposed to serve the table with all the right crockery when most people were still living in communal apartments, where space was way too limited for formalities of that sort.
In your book, your grandmother talks about kids keeping pan-fried peas in their pockets during World War II. You also write: ‘I remember as an eighteen-year-old, going out dancing all night and ending up at a cheburechnaya at 5 am, surrounded by a crowd I wouldn’t want to tag on Facebook. It was a good feed though: cheap, filling and quick.’ They’re both such vivid images! Were there particular food images that stayed with you while working on your book?
My babushka’s story of going to pick watermelons really stuck with me. She said students would create a line and pass watermelons to each other until they reached the truck. They would also get to eat some, and babushka was very good at telling which one would be the sweetest. I can just see her tapping on a watermelon and cutting into it with her friends. I also can see her on a little boat in the Black Sea, fishing with her friend and mum, and then eating the caught fish with some delicious tomatoes and bread. It was around the time she met my grandfather, and I can picture him young at the beach, too.
The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food was partly inspired by Mikoyan’s awe at seeing cornflakes and tinned food in the United States. Are there things that seemed futuristic and progressive to a Soviet official at the time that now seem really dated to you?
Mikoyan went to the USA to see what modern ways of feeding the workers he might be able to bring home. He brought back the ‘patti’ from burgers which we now know as kotlety, or rissoles, and all sorts of canned and ready-made foods. I think rissoles really were an inspired move, given the quality of meat in the USSR, and the quantity. Ground meat allows us to use even pretty tough meat and stretch it out with bread and bits of veggies. I make rissoles for my son often, not for those reasons but because he loves them – I loved them as a kid, too.
Mikoyan’s canned coffee, sauces and other drinks, like kissel (juice with starch) which I always hated, do seem outdated to me now.
In your book, you write: ‘I also feel grateful to manka (semolina porridge), since I recently found out it helped my parents survive.’ Can you talk about some Soviet dishes that were lifelines for people?
In my family, and I’m sure in many others, sauerkraut has been a huge help. It has been there all along, when little else was, providing so many much-needed vitamins and nutrients. Potatoes are another one – my great-grandmother grew her own during the war and sold them to buy onions, garlic, lard and one chocolate bar for my grandmother. When Moun’ka, my great-grandmother, was a teenager, she put on a dinner made of potatoes, sauerkraut and fermented potatoes for her friends during the civil war. They missed the curfew and had to stay overnight, and if it wasn’t for the cabbage, tomatoes and potatoes in the basement, they would have all gone to bed hungry.
Your grandmother ate one orange during her childhood – her mother had to exchange a silver spoon for the fruit. Were there other foods that seemed unusually luxurious at the time, but are very commonplace to us now?
A good piece of meat. I left Moscow in March and I’m not sure what’s happening meat-wise now, but before I left good steaks were widely available and not too pricey. In the USSR you needed to know a butcher to get any meat that wasn’t terrible or just bones. Babushka always said butchers were the most influential people in society. At different periods of the USSR the most common things, from bread to sugar and tea, would be deemed as luxurious. I think that’s the hardest part of it all, that they really were all simple things people would queue for hours to buy, and would dream about. Babushka said that during the war when they lived in the Urals ‘in evacuation’, she dreamt of buying enough white bread to make lots of croutons. They never had enough bread, and she couldn’t dream of it being fresh and abundant enough to not have to dry it. She loved bread and had it with every meal, right until the very end of her life.
In The Soviet Diet Cookbook: Exploring life, culture and history one recipe at a time, you write about enjoying a Soviet dish that’s like shakshuka. What were some cooking highlights from working on the book?
I loved the pumpkin pancakes, I still make them at times. I also really liked the very sweet porridge called Gurievskaya kasha, which is a pre-revolutionary recipe that made it into the book. Very decadent, as it calls for fruit and nuts and lots of sugar, and one of the recipes that I’m sure didn’t get made much in the Soviet period, but I enjoyed it. I also loved some vegetarian dishes like a bean paté, and green beans with apricots and walnuts.
And can you tell us about kissel and other Russian recipes you weren’t as enthusiastic about?
I have always hated kissel. I’ve hated all things of Jello-like consistency, even marmalade. Sadly, kissel was hard to avoid. There were quite a few recipes that could have worked well if they were better written because the dishes can be delicious. A lot of things that can be quite dull (like zapekanka, or some soups) can be jazzed up quite easily, so if you take recipes in the book as a starting point you can end up with a good result – provided you already know how to cook.
The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food was ‘as much a propaganda tool as a collection of recipes’, you write. It hoped to create a unified vision of Soviet cuisine, as patched together from the fifteen separate republics in the Soviet Union. Do you think it succeeded?
The book was supposed to help popularise the new food for the new person the Bolsheviks were trying to create. Food that was quick and easy for working people to make – we need to remember that women worked from the very start, 1918 – and they did include recipes from different republics. These meals were also available in cafeterias across the USSR, another huge project that influenced the way everyone ate, which meant everyone found out what plov, chackokhbili and dolma, among others, were. Some dishes, like plov, really made it to people’s diets way outside its original area (Uzbekistan), and way different from its original version. So I think yes, they succeeded in distributing these recipes, but their Sovietised versions.
I first came across your work when I was looking for submissions for New Voices On Food 2. In the book, you write about how you fled Moscow as the invasion of Ukraine started – and how Vegemite ended up being a surprising source of comfort during a time of uncertainty and fear. Can you talk about what it was like, leaving Russia in such circumstances and finding refuge in Sydney?
The events of this year have felt like one long nightmare. Ever since the war started, it’s just felt so surreal. When the war started, I felt what it’s like to be in the middle of historic events. I’d read so many Soviet memoirs where people were describing going through very intense things, I never thought I would find myself becoming a protagonist of what felt like a Soviet memoir. When the war started, I protested and spoke up against it, and while I knew I wouldn’t be among the first to be prosecuted for it, I felt unsafe and made the very hard decision to leave. I have felt very connected to the previous generations of women in my family, and knowing my family history has been a big help and comfort – I think I’ll write an article about it!
‘A lot of the Soviet cooking I’ve done so far has been much like an eccentric aunt paying a visit – fun, entertaining, gives you something to talk about, but one night is enough,’ you write in The Soviet Diet Cookbook: Exploring life, culture and history one recipe at a time. I wonder if things feel different now that you’re in Australia?
I feel like things seem a lot more weird and eccentric from Australia. Back home, everyone knows the book I wrote about, whereas here I have to explain what it is. And then there’s the fact that my book, despite saying ‘cookbook’ on the cover, isn’t really a cookbook. How weird is that? It’s a book about a cookbook, and a peculiar one at that, so I feel like this strange foreigner, but also am extremely grateful to everyone who gets me and is interested in my book and work.
In the book, you introduce a Soviet salad called ‘vinaigrette’ to your mother-in-law in Sydney. ‘I have wild hopes now that it will catch on in Australia, a country where almost any cuisine of the world is available, but Russian food is largely unknown,’ you write. Now that you’re based here, do you feel there’s a growing awareness of Russian food?
I’ve seen pelmeni (dumplings) in a cooking class by Sydney’s Cornersmith, and I hear you can get medovik (honey cake), but I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a lot more Russian food than before. I feel that saying Russian is problematic now, so I mostly say Eastern European, unless something is specifically Russian, because it’s more accurate, too, since a lot of the food we eat in Russia is popular in a few Eastern European countries. I do feel that thanks to the interest in fermentation, Eastern European food is now more palatable to Australians, with things like kombucha – I grew up with it, we call it tea mushroom – and sauerkraut now being quite commonplace.
You dedicate the book to your grandmother, Elena Moiseevna Lapshina (Blumek). How has your relationship with the book changed since its publication in 2020 – especially reflecting on it in your new home of Australia?
When I published the book, babushka was still alive and well. She died in March 2021 following three months of being sick with COVID, among other things. She’d contributed so much to the book and yet was never able to read it, because it was in English. She’d asked me to translate it, and I tried but it just didn’t translate well because I wrote it with an American audience in mind. Babushka was proud of me and of being in the book despite never having read it.
When she died, I felt just how important it was to keep her memory alive – I always knew memory was important, but I really felt it that time – and I felt so happy that so much of her is in my book. I say in the book that she comes back to life every time I open it, and it’s true. I know that my son will one day read it, and hopefully, it will help him get to know her better and remember what he does of her – he was three when she died.
When I ordered the first batch of hardcover books, they arrived on her birthday, the first one without her, just as my mum, son and I sat down to have lunch and remember babushka. It felt truly magical because they could have, and should have, arrived on any other day and at any other time. This book is also a big help in advancing my writing career, and I always feel like it’s her gift to me that will always be with me.
Below is an excerpt from The Soviet Diet Cookbook: Exploring life, culture and history one recipe at a time. You can also find Anna Kharzeeva’s writing in New Voices On Food 2.
CORN – THE WRONG INGREDIENT FOR BUILDING COMMUNISM.
It took me a while to figure out the words ‘cornflakes.’ They came into my vocabulary as ‘kunflaiki,’ or something like that, when we first tried the famous American breakfast meal.
In Russia in the 1990s, cornflakes were pricey, cool and very much sought-after by slightly older children. We loved the packaging, the sweet flavour and the thought of being ‘like Americans’ when we ate them – it was nothing like the Soviet breakfast of porridge, cottage cheese or bread with cheese.
It looks like there were actually cornflakes in the Soviet era, or at least they feature in one of the Book’s recipes – egg whites with raisins and cornflakes. It was a rather interesting and weird combination – the result being very crunchy, sweet and overall not very good.
Granny doesn’t remember any flakes back in the day, but she certainly remembers the corn:
‘I first encountered corn in 1949, when we went to Moldova for the summer. There they ate mamalyga [like polenta] instead of bread, and a local girl and I would go to the cornfields nearby to steal corn ears. We then boiled them in a large pot – it was delicious!’
Granny says there were ears of corn at the market, but the only way they were consumed was by boiling them and eating them hot. Ten years after Granny’s first encounter with corn, Nikita Khrushchev went to the United States, where he saw massive cornfields. He was so impressed that he began his infamous campaign to ‘cornazize’ the USSR. Even those who know very little of Soviet history are aware of the campaign and will cite ‘corn is the queen of the fields’ – one of its slogans.
Granny’s friend Yulia, whose father was killed in 1948 in part of Stalin’s terror, remembers part of a song about corn:
‘Kukuruza kukuruza ukreplyaet organism; bez kukuruzy bez kukuruzy ne postroit’ communism,’ which I’ll dare to translate into English:
‘Corn, corn strengthens the body; without corn, corn you can’t build communism’ – except it sort of rhymes in Russian. Sort of.
And then there was one more: ‘corn is miracles (chudesa), because corn is salami (kolbasa).’
I didn’t get the kolbasa part (building communism with corn was very clear!), but Granny explained the depth of meaning behind the saying: ‘Kolbasa signified food itself. If you didn’t even have kolbasa in the house, it was the end,’ she said. Kolbasa was made at no less than at the meat factory of the Book’s creator, Mikoyan, himself, so Khrushchev aimed very high when he suggested replacing kolbasa with corn!
These days you can get cornflakes easily (although they are mostly Kellogg’s), and for some Russians, it has become the everyday breakfast. There is still some prestige associated with it, however, since it remains a lot cheaper to have buckwheat or kolbasa with bread in the morning.
And as for Khrushchev’s ‘cornazation,’ it failed miserably – I think as miserably as the cornflake cookie recipe I tried. Maybe I went wrong at some point, but the cookies were chewy, hard to bite and crunchy – not in a good way – and way too sweet. I don’t even have any ideas on how to improve it. The only miracle about that corn is that we actually finished it!
2 cups cornflakes
2 egg whites
¾ cup sugar
½ cup raisins
½ tsp vanilla powder
1 tbsp butter (for greasing the baking sheet)
Beat the egg whites until foamy. Gradually beat in the sugar and vanilla powder. Fold in the cornflakes and raisins into the beaten egg whites.
Drop with a spoon onto a well-greased and warm baking sheet.
Put in a warm, but not too hot, oven for 30 to 40 minutes until they are dry and toasted (the colour of an almond cake).
Remove from the baking sheet with a sharp knife or spatula and serve on a plate.
This piece belongs to THE KITCHEN. A series of works inspired by Liza’s Kitchen: Eastern European Recipes by a Melbourne Artist. If this piece sates you, devour Liza’s Kitchen here.