THE KASHA OF RUSSIA
One of the few Russian words borrowed by the English language is "kasha". It has lost a chunk of its original meaning, denoting buckwheat grains only, whereas in Russia, kasha refers to porridge in general and may be made from any cereal by boiling it in salted water or milk. At least a millennium old, kasha is one of the oldest and thus most authentic Russian dishes.
Simplicity was the main principle of life for the ancient Russians, who demanded that food be quick to make and nutritious. Kasha is the first food a child is given after weaning from their mother's milk; it also completes the circle by being a man's symbolic last meal – a sweet rice kasha with raisins (kutya) is served during Russian funeral feasts. The ritual significance of kasha is tremendous. For instance, in ancient Rus, a wedding feast was called "kasha" because the dish had to be prepared in the household of either of the newlyweds' parents and later offered not only to the invited guests but to the paupers in the streets, too. Such kasha was made rich with milk, butter and mushrooms.
While the Indian pipe of peace is known to everyone, few people, even Russians, know that there used to be a similar way to put an end to discord among two belligerent tribes, and a much healthier one, at that. The chiefs had to cook kasha together and eat it from the same pot. An echo of this ceremony can be traced in the Russian idiom "S nim kashi ne svarish!", which literally means: "It is impossible to cook a kasha with him!". This is said about a person who is good-for-nothing or not easy to deal with. Surprisingly, the word "kasha" can be found in many other idiomatic expressions, which, like the kasha itself, have not become obsolete with time. "Malo kashi yel!" ("He's not been eating enough kasha!") is said about a young or skinny person. A classmate or university buddy is sometimes called "odnokashnik", a person with whom one shared a pot of kasha or, in other words, lived together for a long period of time due to a shared vocation or cause. This expression is rooted in the ancient Russian tradition of a team of craftsmen living together and sharing food when commissioned for a job, like building a house, away from their own homes.
The secret to Russians' love for kasha most likely lies in the unique system of the Russian stove. Not only did it efficiently heat the peasant's cottage, but it also allowed food preparation in a way that is unsurpassed by the most advanced industrial kitchens of our day. Kasha cooked in an earthen pot was left inside the stove, thoroughly heated by burning wood then slowly cooled down at night-time, so that the grains became crumbly and fragrant of the woody smoke.
Ancient Rus was familiar with four cereals only: wheat, barley, rye and oats. Later, they were joined by rice and buckwheat, with the latter being the most popular in kashas in modern Russia.
Russia's Number One Kasha
The Russian word for buckwheat is "grecha", which is consonant to Greece, manifesting a Byzantine influence. The seeds were brought over to ancient Rus by Greek monks who were spreading Christianity. It is worth mentioning that buckwheat is not a cereal at all, but the seeds of a bee plant of the same family as sorrel. It is native to Nepal's plateaus and was first cultivated by the Chinese. Buckwheat flour is known in many global cuisines – in Japan, it is used to make soba noodles; in Italy, they prepare buckwheat pasta called "pizzoccheri"; in northwestern France, a buckwheat galette bretonne (Breton flat cake) is baked. As for buckwheat grains, they are known to many Europeans as an ingredient of the food mix for pet birds. It is only in Russia and a handful other Slavic countries that buckwheat grains are used to cook the most delicious kasha, eaten either as a side dish with meat and fish, or a dish in its own right when cooked with pan-fried mushrooms or in sweetened milk.
The Millet od the Saracens
In a 16th-century manuscript, which is a compilation of interesting data from ancient annals combined by a Russian monk, there is a passage devoted to food and, most importantly, various kashas. The cleric gourmet considered "Saracen millet, as well as barley, buckwheat and oats" as cereals with the best nutritious properties. The mysterious Saracen millet is none other than rice, which was brought to Russia from the Middle East in the 14th to 15th centuries. Later, rice was cultivated in Russia, too.
In Russian cuisine, rice is used for making a sweet kasha, boiled in milk and flavoured with butter, as well as for a subsequent culinary borrowing from the Orient – pilau rice.
Barley is a wonderful cereal. Its germinating seeds are used for brewing the classic scotch in Scotland and, in various other countries, it is the base for making beer. In Russia, it is cooked to make a very nutritious kasha, which is believed to have been the favourite of the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great. The Russian word for barley kasha is "perlovka", which is derived from the word "perl" (a pearl), with barley grains carrying a vivid resemblance to rough river pearls.
Up to this day, barley kasha is a main staple in soldiers' rations. The Russian music band, Mango-Mango, sang, half-jokingly, in their song called Bullets:
The cook has whipped us dinner:
A handful of pearl barley,
A handful of oak bark,
A handful of road dust,
A handful of marsh slime –
The soldier is saved from hunger.
"Pearly" kasha has become synonymous with the army and acquired military monikers, like "shrapnel", "bolts" or "small shots". This is because army cooks do not boil barley long, with grains remaining whole, while an ancient recipe prescribes soaking barley for about 12 hours in water and then steam-bathing it for six hours in milk, which gives barley kasha the smoothest texture.
The examples of Russian kashas highlighted above are a mere introduction to the art of kasha-making, which uses various other cereals. Besides, the Russian word "kasha" applies not only to boiled cereal, but to any other dish made from crushed or diced ingredients, including fish, peas, pumpkin or bread. "Butter does not spoil a kasha!", asserts a Russian saying. It implies that any kasha will become even tastier with added butter.
In the Russian magazine Econom (Housekeeper) of 1841, a recipe for true gourmets was featured, which reads as follows: "Tear petals off several roses and crush them in a mortar as finely as possible. Add an egg yolk and as much potato starch as needed to achieve a stiff paste. Run it through a sieve onto a clean wooden board and dry it in the sun. You will end up with cereal-like grains, which can be cooked in milk to make kasha. If it is not sweet enough for your tastes, you may want to add some sugar."
Text Julia Sherstyuk
Illustrations Vesta Ulanova
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Gary Derek Beckett, 2018-08-16