How Fried Cheese Pancakes Built the USSR
Sirniki were the ultimate Soviet state-approved kindergarten snack
Almost every country has its pancake. The French have crêpes, Ethiopians eat injera, the Dutch have poffertje, and Indians eat dosa. In Eastern Europe a particular favorite is sirniki, sometimes spelled syrniki. They are a kind of fritter-hotcake hybrid, made with crumbly farmers’ cheese and served with jam or sour cream. There are savory versions, made with mashed potato and chives, and sweet ones, with lemon zest and raisins.
But sirniki aren’t just popular because they’re delicious: In the USSR, they were one of a few hundred recipes officially approved by the state, making them ubiquitous across the country and securing their place in the hearts and stomachs of millions of Russians past and present.
In 1939, scientists at the Soviet Institute of Nutrition of the Academy of Medical Scientists wrote and released a 400-page tome on cooking and eating. The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was as much a treatise on how good citizens of the USSR should eat as it was a cookbook. Eating, the book explains, should be as much about “appetite and pleasure” as it is about keeping one’s “ability to labor” intact. “This is the main priority of the Communist Party and Soviet government,” it warns.
But the recipes weren’t only there to tell people how to eat nutritionally. They encompassed foods from every corner of the Republic—Eastern caviar, Georgian wine, Ukrainian dumplings, Armenian cognac—in an attempt to unify the nation over the table and produce, as British Library curator Polly Russell writes, a “shared culinary communist fantasy.” Some of the recipes were completely aspirational at a time when food rationing was still in place. Images show a cornucopia of lush Crimean fruit, great heaping piles of cheese and meat, and cakes filled with cream. People likely bought the book as much to gawp at the pictures as they did for the recipes it contained—and it sold millions and millions of copies, often going out of print. “It was the book my mum used all the time,” Moscow-born Karina Baldry, the author of Russia on a Plate, told Calvert Journal. “It was our culinary bible and the only cookbook on our shelves.”
While most people weren’t tucking into sturgeon or suckling pig, the recipes that weren’t quite so out-of-reach became mainstays of the Soviet diet, including sirniki. The book includes three different variations on the dish: the classic savory version; a sweeter kind, made with raisins; and a slightly more luxurious iteration with dried apricots and braised carrots, to be baked in the oven. State-approved dishes like these would be served in homes, canteens, cafeterias and restaurants, leaving generations of Soviet people with a very clear idea of what was, and wasn’t, a part of their national cuisine.
It’s not surprising that sirniki became a particular favorite, especially with children. They’re filling, easy enough to make, and taste as delicious as you’d expect from potato and cheese fried in oil and served with sour cream. But kids didn’t just eat them at home. While women worked, their kids would usually be put into these state-sponsored kindergartens which could accommodate them for nine hours at a time, and sometimes even overnight. There, they’d receive breakfast, lunch, and a hearty afternoon snack. The recipes for all of these were pulled from the official book, resulting in sirniki becoming a standard snack across the country.
Often, kindergarten chefs would make a few changes to the dish. Rather than frying up dozens of silver dollar-sized cakes, they’d make one large one, which would be baked rather than fried, and then sliced into pieces. “To make the dish more nutritious and boost its calorie content,” writes Alexandra Kravchenko in Russia Beyond, “it was supposed to be topped with condensed milk or sour cream. The cooks did not spare the topping and used to generously pour lashings of condensed milk over the bake.” Served with kissel, a kind of sweetened berry juice, it was hearty fare, perhaps designed to knock children out for their compulsory two-hour afternoon nap and give the teachers a moment’s pause from their 40 or 50 charges.
Even at the peak of rationing in the Soviet Union, in fact, children were reasonably well-fed at school. In one teacher’s diary from 1942, when Leningrad was under siege, she describes how she had to prevent her students from taking home food for their starving parents. “My job is to stop [them] taking soup home,” she wrote. “There is no alternative. The bodies of children and adolescents are weaker than those of adults.” And so despite containing such expensive ingredients as eggs and cheese, dishes like sirniki continued to be served to Soviet children. Though outside of schools, you could still find them in public cafeterias and restaurants, they were a poor imitation of its golden original or the kind that children enjoyed. Diary entries from the time describe how they were often be made with cheaper soy products instead of dairy cheese—even then, with starvation howling at the door, they disappeared like hotcakes.
These days, you’ll find sirniki on breakfast tables throughout Ukraine and Russia. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s eating sirniki so regularly seems to have inspired an entire generation of Russian grandmothers to make them for their grandchildren, helping solidify their position in the Soviet diet for generations to come. As Bonnie Frumkin Morales writes in her cookbook Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking, “Babuschkas are hardwired to administer syrniki to grandchildren. They can’t help themselves.” But if you don’t have a Soviet grandmother on hand, they’re easy enough to make yourself. But beware: A dish designed to fatten up the workforce isn’t an ideal option if you’re watching your waistline.