I thought I’d start Six Tasting the World with an Ayurvedically aligned meal from France, or Italy, or Switzerland even, given that we begin in winter. I dreamt of “visiting” (in my kitchen, of course) places that call to us with their beauty, joie de vivre, and extraordinary cuisine. But Ayurvedic client Sofia Koutsenko’s recent consult reminded me that Russia is a surprisingly wonderful source for winter wellness cooking.
Winter is long in Russia. Fortitude and intuitive wisdom are necessary for survival. An innate, one could say Ayurvedic, knowing of what foods, in what combination, has kept Russians strong for centuries despite those dark, bitter winters. How could anyone, for example, have survived that savage siege of Leningrad during a WWII that was, for them, particularly brutal, but for a deep endurance?
How do they do it? With help from warm, rich soups, and recipes that focus on Cabbage, Beets, Carrots, Onions and soured creams or vegetables.
In winter anywhere we need to keep our inner fires blazing, our immune system strong, our tissues supple and our spirits alive. So I went to Russia for winter inspiration and found the classic Shchi, served at every table from peasant to Prince since time immemorial. This soup is so popular that even at royal banquets serving up to 100 courses, a meal was not considered complete without Shchi.
Food historian Darra Goldstein calls shchi “the most Russian of soups.” Traditionally, winter versions of this soup are made only with fermented cabbage, Goldstein writes, “harkening back to the days before mass production, when the soup could not be prepared until the sauerkraut, put up in the early fall, had fermented.” Summer versions forgo the fermented in favor of fresh. But Goldstein’s recipe combines fresh and fermented cabbage to produce a light soup with rich flavors, which I adapted to make Vegetarian. It is utterly divine!
Of course, in Russia where a warm pot of Shchi has been on the hearth since the time before Abraham*, there are many ways to flavor your pot. Goldstein, and many of the recipes I found, call for sauerkraut to be added to the soup and cooked with the cabbage. I chose, instead, to add the sauerkraut after ladling the soup into bowls in order not to cook away the benefits of all that good fermentation.
So here is a soup from Russia with love, a soup I made with Sofia in mind and in honor of all the great Russian authors I’ve loved over time ~ Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Dostoevsky, and the brave, delightfully inventive Mikhail Bulgakov, whose novel Master and Margarita inspired me to make a soup worthy of such a masterpiece.
Please let me know what you think of it ~ And share with us, please, the nurturing ways you feed your soul in winter.
With a side of Kasha, Russians declare Shchi their “soul food.” Imagine serving yourself a bowl of Shchi and a cup of steaming tea poured from your Samovar, then nestling up with a good book beside an Art Nouveau window overlooking snow-covered onion domes, orthodox cathedrals, linden trees and cobbled streets, allowing winter’s gifts to feed your soul.
I imagine Sofia might take her soup and curl up with her beloved Pushkin ~ a book of that great Russian’s poetry, yes ~ and her eponymous Jack Russell terrier.
Darra Goldstein has looked at Russian history from the point of view of food, kitchens and the women who, in her words, “were the acknowledged saviors of Leningrad.” In addition to her historical nonfiction, Goldstein has written four cookbooks ~ The Taste of Russia, The Georgian Feast, TheWinter Vegetarian and Baking Boot Camp ~ and a cornucopia of incredibly savory articles. You might enjoy her article, “Theatre of the Gastronomic Absurd”, which tells of a particularly beguiling, and blood-thirsty, hostess.
*Raskolnikov came out of the shed on to the river bank, sat down on a heap of logs by the shed and began gazing at the wide deserted river. From the high bank a broad landscape opened before him, the sound of singing floated faintly audible from the other bank. In the vast steppe, bathed in sunshine, he could just see, like black specks, the nomads’ tents. There there was freedom, there other men were living, utterly unlike those here; there time itself seemed to stand still, as though the age of Abraham and his flocks had not passed. Raskolnikov sat gazing, his thoughts passed into day-dreams, into contemplation; he thought of nothing, but a vague restlessness excited and troubled him. All at once… a light of infinite happiness came… he had risen again and he knew it and felt it in all his being… But that is the beginning of a new story—the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.
~ Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment