“I should like shchi and kasha better than anything, but of course there’s nothing like that here,” says Konstantin Lyovin, one of the protagonists of the novel Anna Karenina, with a comment that defines his character. He, who feels so out of place among the elegant salons and restaurants of 19th-century Moscow and St Petersburg, is only happy on his estate, where he manages the farm work, hunts and reflects on the goodness of life in the countryside. In these rural surroundings cabbage soup, or shchi, and buckwheat porridge, or kasha, are essential parts of life.
It was not only Tolstoy who exalted these popular Russian dishes. General Suvorov –one of the country’s great military heroes– identified the two as the true foods of Mother Russia.
Shchi is just a humble cabbage soup, although its ingredient list has grown as Russian society has evolved. Scholars of food history link its origins in Russia to the arrival of cabbage from the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century. This may be so.
There was a time when the broth was simply cabbage, boiled to give a vegetable stock, to which mushrooms, in season, were added. Later, depending on the possibilities and resources of the kitchen, meat or fish stock was used. From then on, the ingredients multiplied: onion, barley flour (to thicken it), potatoes, carrot, green apples, celery, garlic, parsley and, more recently, sour cream.
Shchi features regularly not only on Russian tables, but also in Russian books. Aleksandr Petrovich, the figure used by Dostoyevsky in The House of the Dead to narrate his own experiences of prison in Siberia, finally became accustomed to this soup, commonly served at the prison’s mess hall. Despite this, Petrovich, who was a wealthy man, hired another prisoner, Osip, to cook for him.
In 1861, in the recipe book A Gift for Young Housewives, Elena Molokhovets included a method for obtaining the stock for shchi. This famous book was published (and republished) before the 1917 revolution, and returned to bookshops after the fall of the Soviet regime.
To conclude, an example of how not to eat your soup: Akaky Bashmachkin, the protagonist of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, dined quickly, eating his shchi as fast as possible upon arriving home so that he could continue copying documents, the essence of his gratifying work as a clerk.