Grains of History. The Russian kasha culture

Kasha, or boiled cereals, is more than just a dish in Russia. It is part of the national history and culture. There is a reason why the authorities of Saint Petersburg, included in the UNESCO list of creative cities in “Gastronomy” category, now actively promote the concept of “Petersburg breakfast” where kasha is an essential element.

Ancestral heritage

Oddly enough, the true symbol of Russian cuisine is not pancakes with red caviar or starred sturgeon with horseradish, but a steamy bowl of kasha. The popularity of kasha was reflected in “Domostroy”, a collection of everyday advice published in the 16th century. This is how a good lord should feed his workers: “… on normal days, coarse bread, cabbage soup daily and thin kasha with ham, sometimes replaced by thick kasha with lard…, and for dinner, cabbage soup and milk or kasha; and on fast days, cabbage soup and brown kasha, sometimes with jam.” Kasha was the food of all people; it was prepared daily and on special occasions. In the Middle Ages, the word “kasha” was generally used as a synonym for a feast. For example, the 13th century chronicle reports that Alexander Nevsky “had one kasha in Toropets, and another in Novgorod.” Cereals were served during weddings, at christenings, and kutya, the funeral dish, is essentially kasha as well. In a word, cereals have always been an important element of the Russian cuisine. However, preferences and recipes have changed, oftentimes quite radically.

Universal recipe

One of the reasons why cereals became so popular is that they are very easy to cook. Milk kasha seasoned with butter can easily pass for a serious lunch. This is how a variety of cereals were cooked in Russia, including oats, rye, wheat, buckwheat, and barley. Before the introduction of tiled stoves in the 18th century, kasha was not boiled but rather stewed in a Russian oven in a special pot. Such ovens had great heat capacity, preserving heat for several hours, so kasha was slowly cooked until ready. Butter was added before cooking, and as it melted, it covered each grain and brought out flavor and taste. The idea of slow-cooking has survived to this day, and many people still wrap a saucepan with ready kasha in a towel.

In addition to milk and butter, kasha was seasoned with curdled milk, sour cream, cottage cheese and cream. We know that pearl barley kasha on milk was one of the favorite meals of Peter the Great. The emperor ate it even during lent, replacing cow milk with almond milk. Milk could be served separately. For example, a famous popularizer of Old Russian cuisine, landowner from Tula Vasily Levshin (1746–1826) quoted an interesting recipe for buckwheat kasha: “Cook thick kasha on water, and when it cools down, mash it with a spoon and pass through a sieve; put it on a dish and serve with milk.” Later, the scheme became more complex: buckwheat was ground together with a raw egg, dried and only then boiled and passed through a sieve. This recipe was published in cookbooks under the name “Fluffy Kasha”.

More than a side dish

Kasha should be nutritious as well as tasty. Therefore, over the centuries Russian cuisine has accumulated recipes for kasha with mushrooms, eggs and meat. Moreover, boiled cereal has neutral taste and perfectly absorbs the flavors of the “dressing”, making it even richer. Buckwheat with mushrooms is still a common combination for Russian cuisine. In the 19th century, a popular meal was simenukha — buckwheat seasoned with a mixture of sauteed onions, fried mushrooms and boiled eggs. Dragomirov kasha, served to Emperor Nicholas II, also contains buckwheat with mushrooms, but in a slightly more “royal” version. Boiled cereals and mushrooms fried with onions were put in layers, and warm mushroom sauce was poured before serving. In Smolensk, the recipe for Dnepr kasha from pearl barley with hazelnuts, cream and boiled crayfish is being revived. This particular dish was awarded the highest medal at the national festival “Russian Field” in 2021. The local historian and author of the book “Tasty Smolensk” Irina Flimankova notes that the combination of pearl barley with crayfish may seem exotic, but back in the 19th century, crayfish could be found in almost all lakes and rivers of the region.

Kulesh is the ultimate combination of nourishing value and taste. This dish has multiple variations: Cossack, hunting, military. All of them are prepared using the same principle: minimum effort and inventory, maximum benefits and calories. Any soft cereal could be used, most often wheat or buckwheat. Onions, carrots, garlic, smoked meat, lard or stew could be added since these products are best suited for taking along in travel and cooking in a field kitchen or even on a campfire. The proper kulesh resembles a thick soup, so it is often eaten with bread.

Plov has been one of the most popular cereal meals in Russia. The Russians learnt the recipe long time ago, because Russian merchants actively traded with Asia in the Middle Ages. Rice under the name of “Saracen millet” was often mentioned in the 15-16th centuries documents. However, plov won the battle for a place on the dining tables of Russians during Soviet times: Soviet cuisine combined the best cooking traditions of national republics. Russian plov is quite different from its Asian counterpart: few people use cottonseed oil, sheep tail fat or special varieties of rice, and mutton is not the most common product in Russia. Therefore, Russian families cook plov using almost any variety of meat at hand and non-starchy rice. The key thing is to properly parch pieces of meat in oil with onions, carrots and garlic, pour sufficient amount of water, and then slowly stew the rice in this broth under the lid. Spices make the soul of plov. For a spicy taste, cumin and barberry are used, while saffron or turmeric add aroma and color.

Aristocratic kasha

William Pokhlebkin (1923–2000), renowned Russian cuisine expert, noted that kashas are great for creating a sweet palette of flavors, so cereals are often seasoned with sugar, jam, honey, and dried fruits. The tradition of cooking sweet ceremonial kutya for funerals goes back to pre-Christian times. The everyday Russian cuisine also included sweet kashas: millet cereal with pumpkin, rice kasha with sugar and cinnamon, Belevskaya kasha made of oat flakes with cream, lemon zest, sugar and spices. The recipe of Guryev kasha is especially interesting. It was made of semolina that only rich people could afford in the 19th century. The cereal was cooked in milk with vanilla and sugar. Separately, cream was stewed in the Russian oven until golden foam appeared. Then the chef would “… put a layer of kasha on the bottom, a layer of foams above it, then a layer of caramelized walnuts or other crushed nuts, and Macedonia fruits cut into nice slices, then again a layer of kasha and so on — to the top of the bowl.” The top layer was sprinkled with sugar and tinted with the red-hot poker or iron to get a crispy sugar crust. When Count Dmitry Guryev (1751–1825) tried it at a party, he immediately bought freedom for the chef, serf Zakhar Kuzmin, and his whole family. Guryev kasha made the count famous and itself became a popular dessert which was served hot, cold and even frozen like parfait. This recipe, together with Dragomirov kasha, was included in the menu of the “Petersburg Breakfast”, designed to promote gastronomic tourism in the northern capital.

Taste of the future

Respect for kasha is thoroughly integrated into the Russian culture. Yes, in the USSR semolina transformed from an exquisite dessert into a primitive dish for kindergartens and spa retreats, but Soviet housewives widely used recipes of simple and hearty meals like buckwheat with canned meat. The reputation of cereals as a tasty and healthy product was upheld by Soviet cooks who developed new kasha recipes: Druzhba, Artek, Yuzhnaya, Pionerskaya. In the 21st century, kashas are making a real comeback: they are served in famous restaurants, included in on-board meals on international airlines, while chefs and historians are working together to revive old recipes.

Tatiana Borisova