The Return of Soviet Cuisine
If you step into a restaurant today claiming to serve “nouveau” or “modern” Russian cuisine in a large Russian city, you are likely to find a menu peppered with dishes that could have been enjoyed by Brezhnev and Gorbachev. Mushroom consommé—a favorite of Soviet theater goers; salad Mimoza—a canned fish dish that has been a staple of Soviet New Year's Eve feasts for generations; and zavtrak turista—in translation a tourist’s breakfast—a dish made of meat or fish mixed with grains, usually served from a can, and familiar to anyone who’s ever gone camping in the USSR. Though prepared in modern kitchens with updated cooking techniques and, sometimes, unusual ingredients, these dishes are, nevertheless, part of a trend that’s been sweeping today’s Russia—Soviet nostalgia.
“The constantly-present yearning for the Soviet era and Soviet rules in the official propaganda fosters the resurgence of the old brands,” says Pavel Syutkin, a food historian and one of the authors ofCCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine. “For many food producers and restaurants this represents a ready-made marketing strategy.” Some exploit the trend through a setting—there are serving dishes that remind patrons of their youth and eateries styled to look like communal flats or old, Soviet ministries—and others use music or smells of old, Soviet experiences to create feelings of childhood long-gone.
When Igor Grishechkin, the chef of restaurant Kokoko in St Petersburg, Russia shows how he prepares zavtrak turista, he reminisces about his own camping trips. To recreate the setting of camping by the fire he adds smoke made by burning oak bark to the meat tartar used for the dish. He also pre-warms an otherwise regular bottomless metal can—the kind that’s well known to those who lived in the USSR—to use as a serving dish.
Zavtrak Turista appeared in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. Contrary to what the name may suggest zavtrak turista wasn’t created for tourists, but rather aimed at pokhodchiki, people who went on overnight camping trips. The mixture of meat or fish with either barley or buckwheat or sometimes rice it was supposed to be a nutritious, calorie-and-energy rich meal that was easy to prepare. Open the can, dump its contents into a pot suspended over the campfire, heat it up, and your breakfast is ready. Even one-day trips na prirodu, "into the nature", with family, friends, or co-workers often featured zavtrak turista right alongside such staples as hot-coal-baked potatoes, copious amounts of vodka, and nighttime singing to a guitar.
Though the Soviet industry made different kinds of zavtrak turista people preferred the meat-only kind. It reminded them of tushenka, another popular Soviet can filled with either braised pork, beef, or mutton. A good substitute for dinner at home when fresh meat was on deficit lists year after year, tushenka usually disappeared from stores as soon as it was stocked. Meat-only zavtrak turista followed the same fate. That’s how in the shortage-plagued USSR of the‘70s and ‘80s, it graduated from its original purpose of being a camper’s breakfast to becoming the main dish at family meals. The fish-based zavtrak turista wasn’t as popular among meat-loving Soviet people and its cans lingered in stores, while those with meat flew off the shelves.
Today zavtrak turista continues to be made, often by the same factories that manufactured it before although now only with meat. “The last few years have seen a decline in the standard of living of the country’s population,” says Syutkin. “Instead of fresh products people are turning to canned and, in this particular case, zavtrak turista—especially the kind that’s being produced now—isn’t a bad alternative.”
While pensioners save their meager retirement income and forgo fresh meat in favor of 100 ruble canned zavtrak turista—probably much the same way they did during the Soviet era—people with more cash to spend order the modern equivalent in restaurants. In addition to oak bark smoke, Grishechkin’s dish sports raw meat, al-dente barley sautéed with parsley-spinach sauce, and smoked garlic puree. It takes about two hours to make and costs 850 rubles, the equivalent of almost $15 by today’s exchange rates. The bottomless metal can that comes with it serves as pure decoration and your waiter is always on hand to remove it for you before serving the dish. Having come a long way from its past, zavtrak turista may be a nod to Russia’s history, a Soviet incarnation, and a part of the USSR nostalgia trend, but not without a capitalist twist.