When a Russian chef sets off to an international gastronomy festival, they take along beets. If they have enough money to pay the overweight luggage fees, they also take kvass. These two foods really are the best way to characterize Russian cuisine: the culinary antithesis to fools and bad roads - Russia’s greatest misfortunes, as seen by author Nikolay Gogol. These two foods represent the excessively minimalistic nature of our cooking in the eyes of the rest of the world. Not vodka, (now outstripped by Polish or French varieties), not caviar (often shipped from Iran or Kazakhstan) and not even cucumber or cabbage pickles (there’s plenty of food like that from Germany). The true Russian foods are beets and kvass.
Of course, everyone is familiar with beets. In France, Italy and Great Britain, beets are a seasonal vegetable like many others. In Germany, Scandinavian countries, and Poland, beets are important, but they do not play a key role in the meal. They do not create a significant meaning. No country except Russia makes beets the centre of its world. And, of course, there is no other culinary tradition where beets form an alliance with kvass - kvass is found nowhere else.
In the eyes of a typical foreigner, kvass is a mysterious chthonian drink on a par with Indian soma or Brazilian pulque - a beverage made by the women of the Amazon by chewing leaves and spitting them into a bowl to ferment. Alexander Filin, a chef in the Soviet embassy in Washington, said that he tried serving the cold kvass-based soup okroshka at embassy receptions, but that it made American taste buds cringe as if they had been offered hydraulic fuel as aperitif. Okroshka is a great soup, but to understand it and to accept its powerful sweet, hot and sour notes, you probably have to be Chinese. Chinese culinary tradition however, holds little respect for cold soups.
Botvinia is soup made from kvass and beetroot juice. The boldness of the kvass is masked by the sweet notes of the beetroot. Its clear primary colours and combination of flavors is in many ways similar to a salad, and it’s easy to imagine the beet greens, dill, arugula, chopped beetroots, fish, and the rest of the botvinia ingredients sprinkled with a mixture of beet stock and kvass as a rather unusual vinaigrette dressing.
When I cook botvinia, I use anchovies or roaches. You can substitute them with herrings, mackerels, smoked sturgeon, or lightly salted salmon. Any boiled fish is good as it creates an interesting flavor when mixed with smoked or salted fish. It also makes a more interesting flavor or if you simply want to avoid using salt. The cured fish works as a spice, a little like nam pla fish sauce: an infusion of a complex spicy and salty flavour.
Boil the beets in a large amount of water: you will need 3-4 liters of liquid per 1 kilo of beets. Squeeze the juice from two lemons into the beet stock and let it cool.
Boil the eggs.
Peel and grate the beets, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, and radishes.
Finely chop the dill and onion greens. Cut the beet greens, wild leeks, onion greens, dill and other herbs into thin strips.
Mix the vegetables, herbs and eggs and cover with a mixture half beet stock and half kvass. Mix well. Add crushed roach fillets, salt and pepper. In the Vologda Region, they also add birch sap: it makes the soup milder, performing the same function as egg whites in Chinese soups.
Pour the cold soup into bowls and add some sour cream. If you really like eggs or just want to add a finishing flourish, add a half a boiled egg into each bowl. In that case, you will need to boil ten instead of the six listed in the recipe. It all depends upon your personal tastes.
Botvinia is a hybrid between cold beetroot soup and okroshka, a cold kvass-based soup, with a variety of greens: beet greens, onion greens, lettuce, wild leeks, and so on. In this recipe anchovies serve as a spice similar to a nom pla fish sauce: an infusion of a spicy and salty flavor. Anchovies also act as a reminder that traditional botvinia is supposed to contain large amounts of various boiled and smoked fish.
Originally published in Kommersant-Weekend Magazine.
Author: Alexei Zimin
Photographer: Sergey Leontiev