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Defining Soviet Jewish Cuisine

Under communism, Soviet Jews ate plov, pork-laden sosiski, and ‘herring under fur coat.’ But does that make those dishes ‘Jewish food’?

Lea Zeltserman
April 12, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Some years ago, on a visit back to Edmonton, where I grew up, I hosted a “Soviet dinner” for a group of 1970s-era Soviet-Jewish émigrés. When the invites went out, I got a lot of jokes asking about sosiski and kartochka (wieners and potatoes). Even though my guests had been Canadian citizens for nearly three decades, their mouths watered at the memory of these simple childhood meals.

This is not how Jewish food nostalgia is supposed to work. For most Jews, the first bite of pork is a transgressive, often formative, moment. But for Soviet Jews, pork-laden sosiski were an everyday food. Such memories precisely mark the difference between Soviet Jews and other Jewish communities: When immigration to North America began en masse in the 1990s, the pork-eating Soviet-Jew became one of the defining disappointments around the integration (or lack thereof) between the two communities.

If you’re a North American Jew of a certain vintage whose relatives came from Russia a century ago, Russian staples like borscht, herring, cabbage rolls, and rye bread are “Jewish food.” As a Soviet-born, Russian-speaking Jew of a more recent vintage, I grew up eating the same food, but calling it Jewish sounds wrong to me; it’s firmly part of my Soviet-Russian heritage. When I want to make iconic dishes like borscht or half-sour pickles, I turn to my Russian and Soviet cookbooks; it would never occur to me to look in a Jewish cookbook, though I own many. That kind of Russian food, to me, isn’t specifically Jewish.

At the same time, Soviet Jews who came to North America in recent decades grew up eating staples of the Soviet table that earlier generations of immigrants never knew, even though our great-grandparents came from the same shtetls.

How did this happen? After 70 years of Communism, Soviet food emerged as a separate branch of Russian (and Ukrainian) food, which developed after the earlier generations of immigrants had already left. What showed up on Soviet Jews’ tables was a uniquely historic product of Soviet food policies, broadly applied to all citizens, plus anti-Jewish policies, which successfully erased all religious knowledge from the community. (There were exceptions, but the average Soviet Jew was divorced from any sense of Jewish culinary rules.)

In the early decades of the Soviet experiment, Yiddish culture flourished, encouraged by the authorities. In her book Soviet & Kosher, Jewish Studies professor Anna Shternshis describes the first postrevolution generation as a transitionary one, where cultural elements such as Yiddish theater and songs were explicitly used to advance Soviet ideals and reject the outdated religious elements of Judaism. Many Jews optimistically embraced the new worldview, happily shedding their parents’ religiosity. The war further weakened those ties: Those Jews who were not evacuated or drafted were killed by the Nazis, especially in the Ukrainian parts of the country. Add in Stalin’s growing anti-Semitism, and within a few short years, both Yiddish culture and shtetl life had disappeared, leaving behind assimilated, urban Jews whose chief sense of Jewish identity was defined by anti-Semitism. These Jews ate the same food as their neighbors—often cooked in shared komunalka kitchens—and stood in the same tedious grocery lines. Later, these same Jews immigrated to North America, kolbasa and all. Unique among Jewish communities, we did not separate ourselves from our non-Jewish neighbors by our diet.

On the food front, the Soviets were keen to foster a national identity and sweep away lingering traces of bourgeois decadence, so it’s no surprise that the contents of the worker’s stomach came under scrutiny. It’s difficult to summarize the extent to which the government regulated all aspects of Soviet food and agriculture or the impact of chronic shortages on how dishes changed and developed. Highlights include the government-produced Book of Tasty and Healthy Food (dubbed the “totalitarian Joy of Cooking” by cookbook author Anya von Bremzen), the ubiquitous, state-run stolovayas (cafeterias), with things like mandated fish Thursdays, and GOST (“government standard”), the strict technical standards that were applied to stolovayas and food factories alike. Over the course of the Soviet era, some traditionally Russian dishes were renamed to hide their czarist roots (so “meatballs à la Cossack” became “meatballs with rice”), while others were adapted because the ingredients simply didn’t exist (Salat Olivier replacing its orange crawfish decorations with carrots being among the most famous examples).

As an added twist, the Soviet vision of world domination meant that even while food became highly standardized, it was also surprisingly cosmopolitan, as the definition of a proper Soviet meal expanded into the corners of the empire. Hence the sweet-sour flavors typical of Georgia sat comfortably beside heavy, sour cream-covered Siberian pilmeni (aka Russian pierogis) in Soviet cafeterias. That legacy remains today: Many Russian restaurants serve what is actually a blend of classically Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Caucasian, and Central Asian cuisines. Call it the original fusion cuisine.

Given all this, one imagines a Jewish mother, faced with the endless hustling involved in feeding her family, would not have the luxury of considering kashrut, even if she still remembered the laws. If, when you finally got to the front of the line, you were handed doktorskaya kolbasa (bologna), which goes so very well on buttered black bread, then so be it. Another image comes to mind, of the communal, outdoor drinking stations where everyone shared a single cup (don’t worry, it was rinsed between uses). It’s a perfect symbol of collective idealism that leaves no room for differentiating oneself by dietary preference.

As ever with the USSR, there is the matter of taxonomy—people and food alike defy simple labels. Soviet-Jewish émigrés hail from what are now 15 countries, and we are not all Ashkenazi. Most accurately, we’re a clumsy mouthful of “Russian-speaking Jews of Soviet extraction.” The same applies to our food, which covers the span of the empire, with a few unique, Soviet creations thrown in. For simplicity, let’s call us Soviet Jews, eating Soviet-Jewish food.

So what do you find on a Soviet-Jewish table? The list includes countless zakuski (appetizers), salads, soups, entrees, and desserts. The familiar herring, smoked fish, pickles, buckwheat, our version of ptcha (aka kholodetz) and such of previous generations all crowd onto our tables, too. Though by no means exhaustive, here are some of my favorite dishes commonly found in Soviet-Jewish kitchens across North America.

Selyodka pod shuba
Shuba means fur coat, so it’s literally “herring under fur coat.” Picture a platter of herring, layered with onions, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, shredded carrots, and shredded beets, slathered with mayonnaise. A uniquely Soviet invention. Best served with vodka.

Salat Olivier
A kind of Russian potato salad, Olivier easily takes itself from everyday Tupperware to a crystal holiday bowl. It was created in the 1860s with considerably finer ingredients, but after its encounter with Soviet food shortages, Olivier emerged as a much-loved mayonnaise-based concoction of boiled meat, peas, potatoes, eggs, and pickles (hold the non-crawfish carrots).

Another czarist legacy shoved through the Soviet wringer, vinegret is a bright purple salad of boiled vegetables (beets, potatoes, carrots), pickles, and sauerkraut. It’s a transliteration of the French term for salad dressing and a reminder of the French influence on the Russian court.

A traditional Georgian beef soup, with tomatoes, walnuts, kmehli-suneli (Georgian spice blend), tamarind, and rice. In the best Russian soup tradition, it’s a meal unto itself with plenty of leftovers and was a stolovaya staple.

An enduringly popular sour soup (and a personal favorite), it can be made with either fish or meat, along with cabbage, tomatoes, pickles, capers, and olives.

No weekly meal rotation is complete without these oval ground-meat patties, gloriously fried, and typically served with buckwheat. A favorite of children everywhere.

The national pride of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, a rice pilaf with lamb, carrots, onions, cumin, and paprika that still evokes sighs of pleasure from many Soviet-Jewish émigrés. Worth noting that Bukharian Jews have their own beloved and slightly different version.

But are these foods really Jewish, just because Soviet-Jewish émigrés eat them? In the absence of Soviet-Jewish holiday traditions, they’re all fair game. We eat matzo ball soup and gefilte fish, but those are traditions adopted here in North America, alongside learning to light Shabbat candles or make latkes. Other families serve shuba to give Shabbat a festive feel or create a vegetarian Passover Olivier. Many dishes are adaptable to newly embraced kashrut traditions. (Luckily, mayonnaise, that beloved Soviet workhorse, is pareve, resolving many potential salad-related crises.)

It’s liberating not to worry about honoring my grandmothers’ nonexistent Shabbat tables. So yes, pizza Shabbat is a thing at my house. But it also leaves me hanging around the fringes of Jewish-food discussions, wondering where my culinary heritage fits in—where the Soviet stops and the Jewish begins.

If the history of earlier immigration waves is any indication, then the answer to “What is Soviet-Jewish food?” lies ahead. Like a lot of dishes we think of as Jewish, what makes it Jewish is that Jews ate it, or adapted it for Jewish ritual law and that it will take on a tinge of nostalgia for our children and grandchildren.

The Soviet table doesn’t yet definitively signal “Jewish.” It’s a product of a distinct time and place from which we’ve fled, but whose flavors are impossible to reject. It’s natural to turn to familiar Soviet stalwarts when cooking for celebrations and holidays. It’s especially so for the first generation now raising our North American-born children. The tastes of childhood are comforting and safe in a way that our history and family stories often aren’t. Our children gobble up piroshki (Russian hand pies) long before they hear about repressions and gulags. The dishes also tell an important part of our story—not just about the way Soviet policies still shape our grocery lists, but of survival and the efforts of our mothers and grandmothers to keep their families alive and fed, whether that was finding tushenka (tinned meat) or waiting for hours at the bakery to get a coveted Kiev cake. For better or worse, Soviet food is our Jewish heritage.

Lea Zeltserman is a Toronto-based writer who focuses on Soviet Jewish immigration. She is the publisher of the Soviet Samovar, a monthly roundup of Russian Jewish news, culture and events. Her Twitter feed is @zeltserman.