Life in this winter capital is nothing but a bowl of soup.
Look at the Universitetskaya subway station on Vernadskovo Boulevard: It is round like the lid of a giant soup cauldron -- and steams just like one.
There is a particular sidewalk grate near the dom isrushki children's toy shop on Kutuzovsky Prospect that has the same effect on the eye and mind: It is flat and round, and steam billows forth -- a soup kettle buried in the pavement.
Enter a quiet apartment a block off of Red Army Street. The stairwell smells like Campbell's kitchen -- each floor a slightly different, tangy aroma. The mind thinks of ladling out a sample from every pot.
It is not by accident that Moscow is a real and imaginary universe of soup and soup images. Careful research shows that along with the airplane, radio and motorcar, Russians invented soup.
This is as it should be, for there is no other single concotion devised by humans -- including vodka -- that can so quickly, completely and nourishingly drive off the gloom and depression that intense cold batter into the human psyche. And as much as anything else, Russia is an icebox of a place, a vast continental landmass chilled by sub-zero winds blowing across it unchecked from the Arctic for up to nine months a year in some regions.
This was the perfect environment for prehistoric families to experiment with simmering bones from wooly mamouths and snow to bring us the world's first bouillon. Once they had hit upon soup, they had to invent other civilizing things like clay pots and metal cauldrons. These secondary discoveries ultimately brought Spode, Wedgewood and Tupperware to America, so we have that to thank the Russians for, despite what the White House has been saying lately.
Over the centuries, soup has established an unassilable position in Russian cuisine. The traditional midday meal invariably is built around a soup of some sort, eaten with thick slices of white or brown bread, and served with a generous dollop of sour cream. Soviet physicians say it is dangerous to the health to go without soup for more than a few days at a time. A dread syndrome known as sukhomyatka or dry eating -- dinner without soup -- can lead to indigestion and even ulcers if not corrected, it is said.
In a general sense, the Russian diet has improved under 63 years of Soviet power, but is still remarkably limited when compared with other industrialized nations. Soviet soup reflects this limitation, as well as certain straightforward approach to its preparation that would be uncomfortable around the fancier cuisine of a French kitchen. For example, the pureed soup, that staple of Gallic gastronomy, is all but unknown in Russia. Cream soups also are rare, on the grounds that the broth alone, drawn from invariably fatty meat, is already rich enough.
Virtually everyone in America connects borscht with Russians, even though in Russia, the beet soup is in fact called borshch without the letter t. Borscht recipes vary enormously from region to region, and there is even a sub-variant made without meat stock called svekolnik, which is frequently served cold in the summer just in case anyone is suffering from sukhomyatka.
Borscht, like all other Russian soups, makes a virtue of necessity. It depends for its savory goodness on those ineffably Russian dietary staples -- the beet, the potato and the cabbage. For true authenticity, it also requires a generous portion of gristly, fatty soup beef and bones.
The version we have come to prize was shown us by Varya, a cheerful, samovar-shaped peasant woman whose easy skill in the kitchen is forever an inspiration. She rarely measures anything and rarely is wrong. VARYA'S BORSCHT (6-8 servings) 1 to 1 1/2 pounds soup beef with bones 2 big beets (fist-sized), peeled, grated and gently sauteed in butter until soft 2 to 3 cups chopped cabbage 2 large potatoes peeded and chopped 2 to 3 slices bacon, fried with one chopped large onion and broken up in bits 1 small can tomato paste 2 bay leaves 2 to 3 garlic cloves Sour cream Whole pepper corns and salt to taste
Cover meat with water, bring to boil, skim foam, then simmer together with several peppercorns until meat is soft. Add cabbage and potatoes. Continue cooking at low heat for 10 minutes. Tgen add bacon, onion, tomato paste. Add beets last with 2 bay leaves plus garlic cloves. Cook several more minutes. Add salt to taste and a bit of lemon juice or sugar if soup either bland or bitter. Serve with sour cream.
Less well-known in America, but truly the national dish of great Russia, is a soup called Shchee -- the basic ingredient, no surprise, cabbage. This soup can be made with either fresh or salted kapusta. The salted variety is prepared in large quantities by Russian housewives every fall, preserving sunshine vitamins all winter if refrigerated. Sauerkraut is a permissible substitute in the following recipe though note that it must be cooked longer than fresh cabbage. Shchee with sauerkraut is tastier if prepared a day ahead. BASIC RUSSIAN SHCHEE 2 or 3 pounds beef soup bones, preferably ribs Water to cover, 6 to 8 cups Cleaned, whole onion, carrot and parsley root (if available) Small head chopped cabbage or 1 large package or can of sauerkraut 2 potatoes, peeled and chopped 2 carrots and 1 onion sliced and sauteed in butter Salt and pepper to taste Sour cream
Bring soup bones to boil, skim off foam, turn down heat and add whole stock vegetables, sauerkraut and 1/2 teaspoon salt, simmer 30 to 35 minutes. If cooking with fresh cabbage, add it after 15 minutes. Add sliced potatoes and cook until they're ready. Add salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle with chopped greens -- dill, parsley, scallions, whatever's on hand -- and serve with sour cream.
Every nation has its chicken soup. The U.S.S.R. is no exception. Our choice is our housekeeper Klavdia's chicken soup with klyotsiki or dumplings. It's a favorite with Soviet children from yasli cad nursery school on up and even won over our two confirmed antisoupnik sons.
Make a basic chicken broth from boiled bird or boiled bones and giblets. Add vegetables to suit -- sauteed carrots or onions, diced potatoes, peas, rice if desired, etc. Just before serving add dumplings. To make dumpling batter, beat together one egg and 1/4 cup of milk with a pinch each of soda and salt. Slowly mix in approximately 1 cup flour until well blended. Make into balls or drop by tablespoon into soup and boil until cooked throughout.
Georgian cuisine tends to strong spices and tangy sauces and the national soup kharcho is no exception. Regina, a longtime secretary-translator, loves tbilisi and Georgians, and offers this recipe for kharcho which we have tried, to our great satisfaction. REGINA'S GEORGIAN KHARCHO 2 pounds lamb with bone, preferably breast Peppercorns to taste 2 to 3 sliced carrots 1 onion sliced and sauteed in butter 2 peeled tomatoes or 2 tablespoons tomato paste 1 to 2 cups rice 2 bay leaves 4 to 5 cloves diced garlic Assorted chopped greens, dill, parsley, mint
Brown meat in oil. Place in casserole and cover with water. Bring to a boil and skim. Lower heat and add peppercorns, carrots and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Allow meat to simmer until soft. Add sauteed onions, tomatoes or tomato paste, bay leaves and rice. When rice is ready, soup is ready. Serve garnished with greens and chopped garlic.
Georgians drink as much as any two other nationalities, so it is not surprising they should have devised a morning-after, or hangover soup, variously called klash or khashi. It is made by simmering pig's feet or alternately calves' tails, hooves and stomach until they dissolve. It is served for breakfast with plenty of crushed or chopped garlic and greens, plus a shot or two of vodka.
Georgians sometimes claim their noted longevity is traceable to the benefits of khashi. We'll stick to bloody marys.