When I was growing up, my parents sometimes read aloud letters from my grandmothers about the endless food lines that marked their days in Leningrad and Lvov. Some 30 years later, their great-grandchildren navigate the packed aisles of the Russian grocery store Yummy Market in wonder and awe: For them, Russian food means abundance and excitement. This isn’t the world my parents envisioned when they fled the USSR in 1979.
Yummy Market opened in 2002 and now has two Toronto locations — yet the Russian market bills itself as a “European food experience” — a rebranding that’s common across “Russian” stores. If it seems natural that a Russian store would carry foods from across the USSR — which disintegrated into 15 countries in 1991 — it’s actually the product of 74 years of state control and propaganda that’s hard to fathom today. The results are served in Russian homes across the country and fill the aisles of countless Russian grocery stores. That Uzbek lamb plov is sold alongside caviar and blini gives pause to no one. But these details actually tell a unique piece of Soviet-Russian history.
For the early Bolsheviks, food was fuel. Utopia-minded futurists of the era envisioned homes without kitchens, replaced by obedient workers collectively chewing on nutritionally perfected meals in state stolovayas (cafeterias). Widely reviled for their poor quality, stolovayas never fully replaced kitchens and nutritional ideals never overcame corrupt mismanagement of the food system.
Enter Anastas Mikoyan, who was considerably more taken with gastronomic pleasures than his co-revolutionaries. An Armenian Bolshevik, he became head of the Soviet food industry in 1934, and, in the words of cookbook author Anya von Bremzen, “was the engineer of the Soviet palate and gullet.” In 1936, when the USSR was still openly internationalist, he spent two months in the U.S., bringing back everything from machinery for hamburgers to corn flakes. The ice cream in the freezer called plombir is his doing — a marriage of his longstanding love for ice cream, a passion for its potential as a year-round treat for all ages, and American mass distribution techniques. But after WWII, as the Cold War settled in, the American-inspired roots of industrial food production were hidden from public knowledge.
The first time I took my parents to Yummy Market, they stared in wonder at the breads on display and the familiar names: Derevensky. Orlovsky. Borodinsky. That last one, a slightly sweet black rye topped with coriander seeds, has become particularly symbolic of Russian bread, though it wasn’t widely available, or particularly popular, in Soviet times.
Russian food historian Pavel Syutkin says that despite the online legends, Borodinsky didn’t exist before the revolution. “There are many references to ‘monastery’ bread. However, there was hardly one single recipe,” he wrote in an email (translated from Russian). In the 1930s, numerous older recipes were adapted to industrial production and renamed to hide their bourgeois roots. “So, ‘monastery’ bread turned into the ideologically acceptable Borodinsky.” The recipe was set by GOST, shorthand for “state standard,” the strict regulations for recipes and methods applied across the food industry. So only one recipe could be used for Borodinsky and it was only available to commercial bakeries. Home bread-baking was nonexistent through the Soviet period.
Though few places still use GOST recipes, the definition of each bread has stuck. In other words, what we think of as Russian bread is most often Soviet bread.
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Attention soon turned toward the creation of a Sovietized cuisine: a cosmopolitan, fusion repertoire stretching to the edges of the empire. According to Diane P. Koenker, Georgian cuisine led the way in expanding the Soviet palate into the more “exotic” republics, with Moscow’s first Georgian restaurant, Aragvi, opening not long before the USSR entered WWII.
So, on the shelves from Georgia, one finds everything from frozen kharcho — a classic beef and rice soup sufficiently forgivable of mistakes to have become a stolovaya classic — to pickled jonjoli (a caper-like plant), khmeli-suneli spice mixes, and pre-made khinkali (dumplings). There are jars of preserved green walnuts and apricots from Armenia, housemade Azerbaijani pakhlava (similar to baklava), and eggplant caviars from Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Moldova. I often buy yeast packets from Ukraine and an Estonian smoked cheese.
The shelves point to more disturbing stories, too. In 1937, Stalin deported the Korean community from the Russian far east to regions of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Korean carrot salad sitting in the deli — a spicy, semi-pickled salad of grated carrots — developed out of its resulting isolation.
In addition, Crimean Tatars were deported primarily to Uzbekistan in May 1944, and the savory fried turnover chebureki remains popular. Shoppers can find the half-moon patty in the freezer and at the deli counter — though the only cheburek worth eating is piping hot and freshly fried.
The packed prepared food counter includes quintessential Soviet stalwarts like herring in fur coat (herring under layered shredded vegetables and mayonnaise) and Olivier salad — born out of a combination of shortages and poor quality of ingredients, alongside attempts to hide their Tsarist or French influences.
The confection aisles (yes, plural) are plentiful, a hallmark of any Russian store. Standout examples include the mysteriously named bird’s milk cake, ptichye moloko, an ancient Greek idiom for an elusive delicacy, which today is a sponge base topped with a mousse souffle and covered in a chocolate glaze.
Another confection, the Kiev cake, a factory-produced layer cake with nut-based sponge and custard, used cashews, which, Pavel and Olga Syutkin write in “CCCP Cook Book,” was a result of ties between the USSR and India, which supplied the cashews. They call it a “symbol of abundance in an era of austerity,” but in true Soviet fashion, the cashews were eventually replaced with cheaper hazelnuts, then peanuts. Yummy Market makes theirs with walnuts. Near Canada Day it’s topped with a Canadian flag, opposing ideologies that meet at the bakery counter.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the Soviet collapse. Post-Soviet realities are some of the more visible elements of the store. As Passover and Easter near, the aisles fill with shoppers stocking up on everything from tzimmes to kulich. Their holiday menus include Rosh Hashanah, Old New Year, and Maslenitsa (Russian Pancake Week). It’s a religious plurality that was impossible under the Soviets — and their predecessors.
There are numerous Israeli products, such as Bamba, the “peanut Cheetos.” On a recent Thursday evening, there was fresh-baked challah; a kosher meat section was added in 2014. The predominantly Jewish nature of Soviet immigration is clear — and these trends hold in Russian stores in places from Montreal to Brighton Beach.
Even details like the Ontario-made frozen pelmeni (Siberian meat dumplings) are a reminder of a community with increasingly permanent roots across North America — making immigration itself a Soviet legacy.
Soviet cuisine has morphed into the definition of Russian food, more so than for any of the former Soviet republics. Yummy Market’s busy aisles and a clientele base that stretches generations, many of whom likely spent little or none of their lives in the USSR, speaks to the lasting grip of that Soviet palate and an evolving Russian cuisine.