Mention Soviet food and many Americans will conjure up images of long lines, empty store shelves and those hapless meals of thin borscht and stringy stroganoff served up in the state-run restaurants and hotels.
But if you manage to venture beyond newspaper reports and Intourist service, a meal in the Soviet Union can prove a real revelation, a culinary voyage of discovery in the largest nation on earth.
For this is a country within whose borders more than a hundred languages are spoken; a place where the diversity of produce and preparations from the Baltic nations to the shores of Lake Baikal, from Kiev to Kazakhstan, is simply astonishing.
For many, the real revelations of Soviet cuisine come from the exotic, healthful foods of the Caucasus and Central Asia, whose cooking styles--and lush climate--are related to the great traditions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
The three picturesque Caucasian republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, share much with the cuisines of neighboring Turkey and Iran--arrays of stuffed vegetables, bulgur and rice pilafs, meat grilled on skewers, eggplant in a thousand disguises, egg and lemon or garlicky yogurt sauces, and honey- and nut-based sweets perfumed with rose water.
Yet, as everywhere else, local cooks have their own preferences. While Georgians work wonders with walnuts, the Armenians prefer pine nuts and almonds. Cilantro is the herb of choice in Georgia, but the Azerbaijanis adore mint and tarragon, which they wrap in flat breads along with a slice of feta cheese for a casual snack. All of the Caucasian republics are devoted to spices, but in Armenia the favorites are cumin, allspice, cinnamon and mild chiles; Georgians prefer coriander, hot chiles and fenugreek; and turmeric and saffron predominate in Azerbaijan.
In the tiny western republic of Moldova (previously known as Moldavia) there is a delightfully diverse Balkan-style cuisine. Corn is the main staple here, and mamaligha , a cornmeal mush, much like Italian polenta, accompanies almost every meal. If mamaligha doesn't make the daily menu, then a savory, feta-flavored corn bread is sure to appear. This bread is at its best accompanied by a beautifully textured vegetable caviar called givech , or by roasted red peppers. Other regional temptations include bountiful moussakas, feta-stuffed peppers and a profusion of sweet and savory strudels.
In certain regions, the Soviet Union is a land of plenty. On a recent trip to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Alma-Ata in Soviet Central Asia, we saw no sign of the lines and distribution problems that afflict the colder northern areas of the U.S.S.R., even in winter.
The modern Olai bazaar in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, was ablaze with piles of bright orange and yellow carrots, carefully julienned and mounded into spectacular heaps on white-slabbed counters. Nearby were baseball-sized green radishes, purple-tinted garlics and piles of ripe pomegranates sliced through to expose their sparkling crimson seeds. The yellow carrots of the region lend the Uzbeks' favorite lamb pilaf a delicious mild sweetness, which is punctuated by a skillful blend of spices--cumin, hot and sweet ground chiles and barbaris (a tart purple berry).
Here and there amid the melon stands and the trays of white, marble-sized yogurt cultures were fast-food joints selling perfect lamb-filled steamed dumplings--borrowed from neighboring China, steaming is one of the preferred cooking methods in Central Asia--and delicious filled pastries called samsa --not dissimilar to Indian samosas from which they take their name. Among other culinary debts to India were stacks of warm non-- flatbreads known as naan in India and baked in outdoor clay ovens--and the many mung bean dishes that are so popular in both regions.
Soviet cuisine is probably the most diverse in the world, and as the U.S.S.R. emerges from its momentous social and economic changes, food lovers everywhere will be fascinated to encounter a brave new world of cuisine.
ROAST PORK PAPRIKASH (Porc Prajita Cu Paprika)
3 pounds boneless pork butt, rolled and tied
4 cloves garlic, sliced
Freshly ground pepper
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 small onions, coarsely chopped
1 green pepper, quartered
4 tomatoes, peeled and quartered
1 stalk celery with leaves, cut in 4 pieces
1 1/2 cups beef stock or canned beef broth, about
2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika
10 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1 scant tablespoon flour
1/3 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Make deep slits all over meat with sharp knife and insert garlic slivers as deep as possible into slits. Rub meat with salt and pepper to taste. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large casserole over medium heat. Add meat and brown on all sides. Remove from heat and spread mustard over meat with spatula.
Add onions, green pepper, tomatoes, celery and beef stock to casserole. Sprinkle meat and vegetables with 1/2 teaspoon paprika and roast 1 3/4 hours at 35o degrees. Turn meat and baste with pan juices from time to time. Pierce meat with skewer. If juices run clear, meat is done.
While meat is roasting, melt 2 tablespoons butter in small skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and saute until mushrooms throw off and reabsorb their liquid, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.
Remove roast from casserole. Place on cutting board and cover with foil. Strain pan juices and skim off fat. Return 1/3 of roasted vegetables to pan juices. Puree another 1/3 in food mill or push through fine sieve. Discard remaining vegetables. Add puree to pan juices.
Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in small heavy saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour and stir 2 minutes. Whisk in pan juices. Add red wine, lemon juice, minced garlic, thyme, parsley and season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if desired. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, another 10 minutes.
Stir in mushrooms and remaining paprika and simmer 5 minutes longer. Carve pork into thin slices and arrange on serving platter. Pass sauce separately in gravy boat. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
COLD-STEAMED VEGETABLES WITH WALNUT SAUCE (Postneuli Nigvzis Sotsibelit)
1 1/2 pounds mixed vegetables such as small new potatoes, baby carrots, asparagus, green beans, cauliflower florets, wax beans
Fill large pan with 2 inches salted water and fit with steamer basket. Bring water to boil and steam each vegetable separately to desired doneness. Refresh under ice water. Drain well and pat dry with paper towels. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use, but no more than 1 day.
To serve, place bowl of Walnut Sauce in center of serving platter. Arrange vegetables attractively around bowl. Makes 8 servings.
3/4 cup walnut pieces
2 large cloves garlic
1/2 small dried chile, seeded
6 small sprigs cilantro
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, about
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
Small dash saffron threads, crushed in mortar and diluted in 1 tablespoon warm water
1/4 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Process walnuts, garlic, chile, cilantro and kosher salt in food processor until pulverized. Transfer to medium saucepan and add stock. Slowly bring to simmer, stirring.
Add saffron, paprika, coriander, fenugreek and more salt if needed. Cook, stirring, without allowing mixture to boil, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in wine vinegar. Cool, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
LATVIAN POTATO AND WILD MUSHROOM SOUP (Kartofelny Sup s Gribami)
1 ounce imported, well-rinsed dried wild mushrooms such as Polish, porcini or cepes
5 1/2 cups water
6 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 slices bacon, finely diced
1 small onion, finely chopped
2/3 cup whipping cream
Sweet Hungarian paprika
Freshly ground pepper
Chopped fresh dill
Soak mushrooms in 1 cup water 2 hours. Drain and strain liquid through coffee filter. Bring mushrooms, their soaking liquid and remaining 4 1/2 cups water to boil in large soup pot over high heat. Add salt. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, 30 minutes.
Add potatoes. Increase heat to medium-low and cook 15 to 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Remove from heat. Remove mushrooms with slotted spoon. When cool enough to handle, finely chop mushrooms.
Using slotted spoon, transfer potatoes to food processor. Add 1 cup cooking liquid and process until pureed. Whisk potatoes back into cooking liquid in pan. Stir thoroughly with fork or wire whisk until there are no lumps. Set aside.
Saute bacon in small skillet until it renders fat. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon fat, then add onion and mushrooms. Saute, stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat until mixture is well-browned, about 15 minutes.
Return soup to low heat. Add whipping cream and simmer gently 2 minutes, until soup is about to boil. Stir in sauteed onion-mushroom-and-bacon mixture. Season to taste with few dashes paprika, salt and pepper. Simmer additional 3 to 4 minutes. Serve garnished with fresh dill. Makes 6 servings.
MOLDAVIAN CORN AND FETA CHEESE BREAD (Kukuruzniy Khlebs Brinzoy)
3 cups crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups yellow cornmeal, preferably stone ground
3/4 cup unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Stir together feta cheese, sour cream, eggs, milk and melted butter in large bowl. Sift together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and baking soda and stir into feta mixture. Blend thoroughly. Cover and let stand 15 minutes.
Transfer batter to buttered 13x9-inch baking dish. Bake on middle rack at 375 degrees until light golden brown and firm to touch, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve warm. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
CENTRAL ASIAN LAMB PILAF WITH GARBANZO BEANS AND RAISINS
1/2 cup light oil
2 pounds lamb shoulder, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 pound carrots, peeled and julienned
2 cups chopped onions
2 teaspoons imported sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon imported hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 (16-ounce) can garbanzo beans, well-drained
3/4 cup dark raisins
2 medium heads garlic, outer layer of peel removed, but not divided into cloves
2 1/2 cups long-grain rice
5 cups boiling chicken stock
Heat oil in large, cast-iron, oval-shaped pan over medium-high heat. Add lamb and cook, few pieces at time, until well-browned. With slotted spoon, transfer lamb to bowl.
To lamb drippings in pan, add carrots and onions and cook, stirring, until colored, about 8 minutes. Return lamb to pan. Season to taste with salt. Add sweet and hot paprika, turmeric and cumin. Stir well. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until lamb is almost tender, about 45 minutes.
Stir in garbanzo beans, raisins and garlic. Add rice but do not stir into lamb mixture. Add boiling stock in slow stream. Increase heat to high. Bring to boil and boil 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 10 minutes.
Transfer rice to large platter, fluffing with fork. Arrange lamb mixture in mound on top of rice, topping with whole garlic heads. Makes 6 servings.