Not by Borscht Alone: Soviet-born Israelis Lead a Russian Food Revival

Israelis who emigrated from the Soviet Union as kids are working on a Hebrew cookbook that gives locals a taste of the Old Country.

Syrniki, or cheese pancakes, from the upcoming Soviet cookbook.
Kira Kletzky

Yan Gitcelter mixes the ingredients for an Olivier salad (also known as Russian salad) and sprinkles minced onion on top. Seemingly mundane and simple kitchen tasks, but when it comes to this famous dish, every aspect is imbued with much forethought and major cultural weight. “There’s the original Olivier salad, which was invented in Czarist Russia, and then there’s the Olivier salad of the Soviet period,” says the cheerful chef, who was born in Baku and came to Israel in the early 1990s. “Czarist Russian cuisine was heavily influenced by French culinary culture. Every Russian noble kept at least three French servants – a cook, a teacher for the children, and a nanny/mistress.”

The original Olivier salad that graced the tables of the Russian elite was named for its creator, French chef Lucien Olivier, who worked in Moscow in the 1860s. “In the original recipe, this salad contained potatoes, crayfish tails, quail eggs, grouse, delicate homemade mayonnaise, and black caviar for garnish. In the years that followed, except for potatoes and pickled cucumbers, none of these ingredients could be found anywhere in Soviet Russia. So regular eggs were substituted for the quail eggs, the meat and seafood was replaced with doktorskaya – a cheap, common sausage – and it was dressed with the infamous, industrially-produced Soviet mayonnaise. Olivier salad, though there are thousands of different versions, still remains the ultimate Soviet salad, identified with special events and Novy God (the Russian New Year) celebrations. There’s a popular saying that says “You know it’s been a good night of drinking when you end up with your face in an Olivier salad.”

Olivier salad is just one component of the zakuski, the array of hot and cold appetizers that precede the main meal, which Gitcelter places on the dining table at his home in Holon. First of all, there is that inseparable companion of the vodka shot – black rye bread, with a tantalizingly tart aroma; there’s also yellow butter; pickled tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage; a fresh radish salad; hard-boiled eggs, some filled with red caviar and others with the yolks mixed with butter and dill; and blini crepes with salmon eggs and sour cream. We raise a toast to the main occasion for this gathering – the publication of the first Hebrew-language book on Russian cuisine – and continue to the ukha soup: a marvelous lemony fish broth that dates back to an old male tradition of going out to fish together. “No Russian meal is complete without soup, and there is no ukha without at least three kinds of fish,” says Gitcelter. “You start by cooking the fish heads and bones, reduce it by half, add water, root vegetables and more fish – This time I used mullet, salmon and grouper – strain it again, and then only in the final cooking do you add the flesh of the fish that’s going to be served.”

Hard-boiled eggs stuffed with caviar.
Kira Kletzky

Nostalgic food

The people seated around the table are the future creators of the new cookbook, which is currently seeking funding through the Headstart crowd-funding site. Gitcelter is writing the recipes (“Like a good Jewish boy, I studied medicine for five years in Baku. When I made aliyah, I became the owner of a textile business, until I decided to do what I really love. I closed the business, I started working as an assistant cook in a restaurant and I learned professional cooking”); Kira Kletsky, whose final project in the photography department of Hadassah College in Jerusalem dealt with her family’s Russian cooking, is going to photograph the dishes; and two others are in charge of writing the texts: Vadim Blumin, a founder of Generation 1.5 – Russian-speaking Young Adults – and a Jewish education instructor for the Jewish Agency; and Rinat Goldberg, an educational consultant whose parents came here from Tashkent in 1978.

“We’ve wanted to put out a cookbook on Russian cuisine for a long time,” says Ofer Vardi, owner and publisher of Lunchbox Books. This local press specializes in cookbooks that include research on the social and cultural background of the featured food. Blumin says he remembers the trip to Israel from Ukraine with his family when he was 11 “as a magical experience full of wonders. But then when we got here the whole experience of feeling like a foreign immigrant hit us, along with the realization that there was no turning back. Now, nearly a generation later, with our Israeliness clear and undeniable, we can at least look back nostalgically and reminisce about the past. It began with three Israeli poets of Russian extraction who published books that dealt with the immigrant experience; continued with our group, which also organizes poetry and cultural evenings in Russian, and reached a peak with the Novy God celebrations, and hosting native Israelis at the New Year’s festivities that were once considered practically a pagan ritual.”

Ukha fish soup.
Kira Kletzky

“This year marks the 25th anniversary of the big Russian aliyah,” adds Shalom Bugoslavsky, writer of a Hebrew blog called “Forget the numbers and let’s talk about it” and an active member of Generation 1.5. “The first-generation immigrants weren’t concerned with exporting their culture. They were focused on survival, and in hiding and preserving at home the signs of their foreign culture. The people of Generation 1.5 – who weren’t born in Israel but immigrated here at a relatively young age – show different behavior patterns. As children and teenagers they did their best to be Israelis, but by the time they’re in their twenties and thirties, they don’t feel like they have to prove anything to anyone. And at the same time they also come to the realization that they’re not just a unique individual snowflake. They have a family and a heritage and, as they can see their grandparents aging, they feel a need to preserve that heritage.”

Napoleon in Russia

After the ukha comes the zraze – meat patties filled with hard-boiled eggs and served with spelt; this is followed by a Russian-style Napoleon cake – a five-tiered masterpiece of beautiful flaky dough with rich buttery cream between the layers. All the dishes that were served at this meal, and which will be featured in the book alongside many more recipes, are ones that stir nostalgic longing for anyone who grew up in the former Soviet Union. Though it’s being referred to as “the Russian cookbook,” it could more accurately be called “the Soviet cookbook.”

Crepes with sour cream and lox.
Kira Kletzky

“As part of their attempt to create a single nation, Soviet leaders tried to create dishes that would be a common denominator for all the people of the Soviet Union,” says Blumin. “Kind of like what happened with the Zionist movement in Israel, which viewed food mainly as a source of nutrition and a tool for re-education. The list of common Soviet foods includes things like plov, which is really a Central Asian dish, and Georgian foods, even if the ethnic origins weren’t always noted or known, and these are the foods that stir childhood longings in all of us.”

In addition to recipes that have become part of the Soviet Russian canon, the new cookbook will include stories written by Goldberg and Blumin about Soviet culinary culture and Soviet-Jewish-Israeli culinary culture as seen through the eyes of the second generation of Soviet immigrants.

Napoleon cake.
Kira Kletzky