A Touch of Kvass

A pleasant Ukrainian adventure begins with kvass, a beverage produced by fermenting leftover bread, and proceeds with a variety of unusual dishes with the taste of yesteryear.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Yuri Semyanov, a husky man with long hair and a beard, slices a loaf of rye bread into thick pieces. He toasts the slices of thick, dense bread in the oven until they become brownish-black, and then soaks them in a large pot with three liters of hot water. Two hours later he strains the liquid into a large jar and adds another two liters of hot water to the pot with the toasted bread in it. He waits two hours more and the liquid is strained yet again. The wet bread is tossed into the garbage and the huge jar now contains five liters of yellowish liquid. Yuri adds sugar and yeast to the bread-juice, and lets it stand overnight. The next morning he uses a thin piece of fabric to strain out any remnants of yeast and bread.

You taste the yellow bread-juice with utmost seriousness, to figure out how to achieve the best balance between acidity and sweetness that will satisfy the palate, and add a little sugar. Then you toss a few black raisins in the jar no fewer than 5 and no more than 10 you close it, watch the black foam bubble and the color of the liquid darken, and wait for a full five hours. Afterward, you bottle it, leave it for another hour at room temperature, and then refrigerate. A small barrel of kvass has been born.

“Kvass, Jews, kvass,” wrote Sholem Aleichem, who apparently added, “It costs little and is consumed a lot.” When you say kvass you immediately think of Eliyahu, in the renowned writer’s work “Motl Peysi, the Cantor’s Son.” Eliyahu thought he could make a fortune from this poor man’s nectar, but in the end failed dismally because of the simple craving for it (the drink was so delicious that one after another, people would sneak in and take some, then water it down, making it tasteless. Some would even add laundry water to it).

When you say kvass, you think of 19th-century Russia, the last days of the czarist era, when simple folk drank large quantities of the cheap beverage every day.

When you say kvass you may also think of present-day Russia, Ukraine and Poland, where there are still many carts that sell the cold drink to passersby on the street.

The custom of drinking kvass was so prevalent in the 19th century, according to one book on Russian cuisine, that drinking kvass like picking berries or mushrooms, or preparing pirogi dumplings became part of the definition of Russian identity. Even today, those who sell industrial brands of kvass market their wares with an emphasis on national identity: Kvass, as opposed to Coca-Cola, for example, is the antithesis of global drinks that have conquered the world and made certain regional and local characteristics slip into oblivion.

Kvass is a light drink (with a low alcohol content) that is usually produced by fermenting leftover bread and yeast. Like every product that undergoes fermentation, this one tastes and smells slightly rotten, but there are many, varied kvass recipes. Some people prepare the drink, which is somewhat reminiscent of black beer, by fermenting beets or berries, and using honey and glucose (as Sholem Aleichem’s protagonists did). But stale bread is the most popular ingredient in this simple Eastern European drink. Some people add sourish lemon peels, others prefer to augment the sweetness with honey or sugar. And summer kvass differs from the kvass prepared during cold winter days.

The Cossack from Yad Harutzim

“I’m a Cossack,” Yuri told us the first time we visited Kabachok, the restaurant he opened together with his partner, Larissa Turi, in Tel Aviv. The television in front of the bar was broadcasting a bizarre game show on one of the Russian cable channels: Topless women and pink sex dolls appeared on the screen, or maybe it was the home-made vodka, distilled from guavas, that was playing havoc with my imagination?

The restaurant, with tables covered in gloomy-looking, brownish-orange tablecloths, is modest inside, but full of charm and character provided by that evasive quality usually called the “Russian soul.”

“I’m a Cossack, a genuine non-Jewish Cossack,” said Yuri again, going on to tell us his life story: He was born in 1958 in the town of Novoshakhtinsk, near the big city of Rostov, the scion of a family of Cossacks from the Don region who served in the czar’s army.

“I’ve been cooking since the age of 12,” explained Yuri. “Father told me and my brothers that the world could be divided according to women’s work and men’s work: cleaning, sewing and cooking belong to the women’s realm ? that’s why we weren’t allowed to enter the kitchen. What is forbidden is tempting, and Mother was ill, and at every opportunity when Father went to work we snuck into the kitchen.”

When Yuri was young, one of his aunts allowed him to work with her in the kitchen of a luxury restaurant for the secretaries of the Communist Party in Rostov. When he grew up he worked for five years as a cook in the restaurant car of a train that traveled between Leningrad and Kislovodsk, the last stop on the way to the Caucasus. In between he worked as an electrician, an aircraft technician and a road engineer, and in 1991 he immigrated to Israel with his second wife, who is of Jewish descent, and his young daughter (“There was a lot of chaos back there and the child’s welfare was the most important thing”).

In Israel Yuri worked at a number of jobs, divorced his wife, met Larissa, who was born Khabarovsk in Eastern Russia, and six months ago the two opened a restaurant in the Yad Harutzim complex. His daughter Lena is the bartender and waitress.

We ate the wonderful kvass prepared by Yuri, the kind we hoped to find at every street corner in Tel Aviv since we returned from a culinary journey in Poland, and talked about zakuski (a selection of appetizers and first courses accompanied by moderate amounts of alcohol). Oh, small bites of great joy. Beet salad with nuts. Carrot shreds seasoned with garlic. A squash and eggplant spread. Olivier salad, made of potatoes and Mortadella sausage. Sleyodka pod shouboy (literally, “herring under a fur coat”), a layered salad made with root vegetables and herring, or shouboy in which salmon and crabs replace the traditional salted fish. Calf’s tongue. Pickled wild mushrooms. Beef stragonina, thin strips of raw beef served on ice cubes, a tribute to old times in the kitchens of the north, when people had to dig out large frozen chunks of meat to eat.

Then we proposed another toast and asked to taste Yuri’s home-made sausages. Rola a chunk of pork belly, which like Italian pancetta is cut in half, filled with spices and herbs, and then baked in the oven and also salo, salt-cured pork fat that is served with black rye bread and hot Russian mustard.

“Salo,” says Yuri, when we are all in a good mood after the food, alcohol and sitting together, “is an integral part of the Russian anza [reserve supplies]. Today you can find dozens of restaurants in any given square meter in Russia, but there was a time when one could find only one eatery every 50 kilometers, at most, and they closed at 8 P.M. Many drivers were forced to spend long cold nights in their cars, and there was no driver who didn’t have anza in his trunk rye bread, vodka and salo in order to get through the difficult hours.”

Larissa is an attractive woman who looks like she has just emerged from the pages of a Russian novel. She is in charge of the delicious dough creations blintzes with meat and sour cream, or pelmeni dumplings smothered in butter. For the main course Yuri and Larissa also offer tziplona tabaka, a flattened, roasted pullet, or excellent pork filet on a bed of coriander, dishes that are more attractive to the palate of someone born in Mother Russia. For locals, the large selection of courses on the zakuski table is more interesting, and can be accompanied by large amounts of vodka and kvass. A recipe for preparing kvass and okroshka, a kvass-based soup, can be found on the Haaretz website.

Kabachok, 10 Hatzfira, Tel Aviv, 03-7266337

Larissa and Yuri Semyanov in their Tel Aviv restaurant.Credit: Dan Peretz