Today, we’re interviewing Anna Kharzeeva — an educator and Moscow based food writer. The author of “The Soviet Diet Cookbook” gets candid about Russian cuisine and culture and spills a few cooking secrets.
1. How did it all begin?
I was always interested in history and knew I wanted to study it, and I’ve always loved foreign languages, too, so I chose a faculty where I could study both. After I graduated I got another degree in teaching English as a foreign language and after a few years of teaching, I started a cooking school that would allow people to practice a foreign language and get to know a culture while cooking. These cooking classes led me to food writing, which led me to explore my family history, which renewed my interest in history, and now I appreciate it on a whole new level.
2. What is it like being an author, educator, cook and historian?
It’s a perfect combo for a scanner, or a person who has many different interests and needs to do a few different things. All the things I do are deeply connected with one another, so it all feeds into one another. When I interview my grandmother or someone else for my column, I research both history and food and then cook the food. When I cook, I have time to reflect on the interview: understand the person better, what’s most important to them, which leads me to figure out the way to structure the piece and what the accents will be. As for educating, I love combining cooking with learning social history, as food is such a crucial part of anyone’s life.
3. What intrigued you about the Russian culture that you decided to become a Historian and a cook?
Born just 5 years before the collapse of the USSR, I grew up as the first post-Soviet generation. Fascinated by what my ancestors have been through, and by the changes in society, I just have to study history, sociology and delve into psychology to try and make sense of it all.
4. Tell us a little about your cookbook “The Soviet Diet Cookbook”.
The book is a collection of blog entries I was writing for 2 years, dedicated to cooking from an iconic Soviet cookbook, ‘The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food’. I cooked over 100 meals from the book, wrote about the experience and most importantly talked to my grandmother about her memories of cooking and living in the Soviet times. I ended up with a big collection of stories from her and her friends, which I’m so happy about. You can grab your copy by clicking here.
5. What inspires you to work every day and how do you work?
I am one of those people who are way too anxious and curious not to work, so always did even when my son was tiny (although not very much and from home, but it was important to occupy my brain somehow). I love writing about people, studying social and psychological aspects of their lives, and food plays such a big part in anyone’s life, it’s an important part of most stories. So I’m inspired either by people or by food. As for my workday, I won’t lie, since lockdown began it’s been a mess. Writing some, researching some, cooking some. Hosting some online classes and interviews, often after dinner when my son is in bed. I am yet to create a proper routine for myself.
6. Tell us 5 things everyone should know about Russian culture and cuisine.
- Russians love having people over and are generally great hosts.
- We love to have lots of food on the table: zakuski are a must.
- Lunch means soup. We love soups, especially if it comes with rye bread and sour cream.
- Russians are generally big on books. We may not try everything in real life, but we love to read about stuff
- Ferments are very popular and important to us.
7. Three myths you’d like to bust about Russian food and beverage…
My main thing is about giving people the chance to understand Russia and Russians better, but food myths are important, too, as it’s a big part of our culture.
- One myth is that while Russians do drink vodka, young people in big cities hardly have any. When we go out, we drink wine, beer, gin, and some vodka cocktails, but no more than people our age in western countries do (probably even less based on what I’ve seen in Sydney.
- Another myth is that Russian food is all stodgy – it’s just not the case. We have a variety of foods, some fresh and vibrant, others comforting. Stodgy is bad cooking, not a trait of cuisine as far as I’m concerned.
- People also often think that Russian food is bland. We don’t use many spices in traditional cooking, but we eat lots of ferments which are anything but bland.
8. Are you planning to write more cookbooks? If yes, what are they about?
Yes, I’m working on a pitch right now. My second book will be about the 5 generations of amazing women in my family, their food and stories, and the depth of connections between us.
9. What’s the secret to cooking exceptional food?
I don’t know about exceptional food, but to me, food always has a deeper meaning than just the meal itself. I cook things that bring back memories or help me move in a certain direction.
10. Three Russian cooking secrets you want to share with our readers…
- Dill is great. Top boiled potatoes with some butter or sour cream, salt and dill and you’re in heaven.
- Fermentation is delicious and very good for you. But the world knows it already. Kvass, fermented apples, cucumbers, cabbage – it’s all wonderful.
- Beetroot is queen. Salads, dip with prunes, marinated, in hot or cold soups – it’s delicious, nutritious and cheap.
11. What’s your cooking classes like? Are they for beginner/intermediate or professional chefs?
My classes aren’t all about food. I talk about social history and culture, my insights into Russia and Russian people…and create a menu around what I want to talk about. So it’s not for chefs, it’s for those curious about Russia.
12. How many classes would you recommend for beginners?
I’d say the term “beginner” is probably not quite applicable here, but honestly as many as one feels like: I do classes on Russian women, Russian Jews, communal living and more, so at least 3 would be great I guess.
13. What do you think made you a good writer?
For a long time, I thought my observational skills and good memory weren’t much use, and it felt like a real revelation when I realised they’re perfect for a writer. I remember things, process them on a deeper level, notice every tiny detail when it comes to human interaction, and am able to connect the dots between different events well – I think it’s all a great help for me as a writer! I was 33 when I realised that.
14. You can always be seen eating and drinking…
Soup, of course! All sorts of food with lots of veggies, cheese and nuts at home and anything fresh and fun when I’m out (unless I have a craving for something greasy and comforting).
15. Three cookbooks you swear by…
Naturally, I love Anya von Bremzen’s books. I love Ottolenghi’s Simple and Mina Holland’s “The edible atlas”, and Alice Zaslavsky’s “In praise of veg” is just brilliant.
16. A ‘food sin’ you commit that no one knows about…
Eating a big sandwich because I got very hungry at 4 pm and then regretting it because I’m not hungry for dinner.
17. What are the main ingredients that can be found in most Russian food items?
Rye, dairy, cabbage, beetroot.
18. Your ‘food mantra’ is…
Cook food that’s meaningful to you, and learn what it represents and where it comes from.
19. Would you recommend beginners to enrol into a culinary school or do you think they can learn via cooking classes or content available online?
I’m not a chef so don’t know what to suggest. I’d love to go for real-life cooking classes to improve my skills but looks like it’ll have to wait.
20. Name three food items everyone should taste once in their life.
My babushka’s pirozhki, vinaigrette salad, rye bread.
21. What are the three skills every historian must possess?
- Ability to think critically and challenge every bit of information that comes in and what their motivation is. People try to rewrite history all the time, so it’s important to remain vigilant.
- As one of my university professors said, ‘we can’t know everything, but we need to be able to find the right information.’ Just knowing where and how to look for information is crucial.
- Endless curiosity!
22. What according to you differentiates Russian food from all the other cuisines?
I haven’t tasted all other cuisines so can’t say, but I do love that there are similarities like fermentation becoming popular now and Eastern European cuisines in general growing in popularity. It’s a trend I like a lot.
23. Tell us about your cooking principles you strictly follow…
I try to enjoy the process as much as possible.
24. Name 5 destinations you’d travel to explore their food and culture.
- France, of course, since I, shamefully, have never been.
- Iran would be amazing, although travelling there would mean I couldn’t go to some countries, so that might have to wait.
- I’ve never been to India, and love Indian cuisine so would love to do that.
- Mexico would be just amazing.
- I’ve been to Spain but would love to go back and eat the food from different regions.
25. What’s your favourite cooking memory?
Cooking for my 31st Birthday party in Tbilisi. My grandmother was visiting me, my son was 3 months old, and we cooked a bunch of stuff, with friends helping. It was pretty special.
26. Your story is a lot similar to the movie ‘Julie and Julia’. Was it the inspiration behind your work?
The idea came from my editor Lara McCoy Roslof who wanted to see how an iconic Soviet cookbook has stood the test of time! My contribution was to add my grandmother’s stories and memories.
27. If there were only one piece of advice you’d like to share with our readers about cooking it’d be…
Ask questions about your family meals while you still have older relatives. Write down recipes and stories because one day it’ll be too late.
28. How do you come up with recipes and food ideas?
I love to reimagine old family recipes, and to add other flavours to them…a Russian-Middle Eastern mix is meaningful to me because part of my great grandmother’s family moved to Palestine in the 1920s, and I still keep in touch with my Israeli relatives. Ideas come, I guess, like any creative process ideas come often when you least expect them.
29. A piece of advice for someone who wishes to write and publish a cookbook…
If your story is interesting and worthwhile, don’t hide from the world. And study up on the rest, there are lots of professionals sharing good advice on publishing.
30. One recipe you’d like to share with our readers…
Fried eggs with croutons and tomatoes from the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food
To make these delicious fried eggs, begin by frying pieces of zucchini, dark bread, salami, lard, sausages, ham, etc.
Put eggs on top, sprinkle salt and keep on the stove for 1-2 minutes. Continue to bake for 3-4 minutes. As soon as the egg white is the colour of milk, serve it on a warm plate or a frying pan as soon as the colour of the eggwhite turns like that the colour of the milk.
If you don’t have an oven, use a plate or a lid to cover the frying pan with the eggs.
For more information, follow Anna Kharzeeva on Instagram or visit her website.
Shristi is an avid reader, recipe developer and wellness enthusiast. She’s probably making a mess in her kitchen right now.